Let’s talk about Al Gore, PR and Ed Bernays — Whatdaya say?

Al Gore hasn’t much use for PR people, and that’s real clear in his latest book, “The Assault On Reason.” But today I’m wondering why the book, released last spring, hasn’t triggered significant discussion in the PR blogosphere. Maybe I can spark some here.

“The Assault on Reason” is about lying — deliberate, deceitful, organized lyinggore.jpg by the Bush administration. Yeah, it’s also a political book with an anti-W slant, but Gore presents a ton of evidence to support his claims. He explains to us just how adept government is a fooling the electorate, often using the tools of PR.

As Gore inspects the history of political lying, he sets his sights on Edward L. Bernays, the man he says turned the art of propaganda into a science of manipulation.

bernays.jpgIf you studied PR history in college, or later in preparation for the APR exam, you know Bernays as the acknowledged “father” of modern public relations. He is revered in the eyes of many who work in our business — a hero in a profession adept at manufacturing such heroes.

Bernays is credited as being the first to use the term “public relations counselor,” and the first to apply the ideas of social science to PR practice. Historians never fail to link Bernays’ knowledge of human nature to his DNA. Ed was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Ed’s most famous campaign, launched in 1929, made it socially acceptable for women to smoke cigarettes in public. “Torches of Freedom,” he called them, and his client, the ivory.jpgAmerican Tobacco Company, was eternally grateful for Ed’s genius. On a more wholesome note, Ed is the guy who prompted generations of school kids to create Ivory soap carvings. Bernays drove public behavior and that drove the bottom line. Little wonder his clients loved him.

But to his critics, among them Ewen, Tye, and now Gore, Bernays was an elitist who applied the power of mass psychology to further the interest of his rich and powerful clients. He was a master of manipulation whose books were found on the shelves of Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for Hitler’s Third Reich.

Some key passages from Gore’s discussion of Bernays…

Psychology-based communication was first developed by another Austrian of Hitler’s generation (the first mentioned is Goebbels), Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Bernays adopted the revolutionary insights of his uncle to create the modern science of mass persuasion — based not on reason, but on the manipulation of subconscious feelings and impulses.

The combination of psychologically driven public relations and electronic mass media broadcasting led to modern propaganda. Reason was displaced not only by the substitution of broadcasting for print but also by the science of PR as the principal language by which communication occurs in the public forum — for both commercial and political purposes.

He includes this quote from Bernays’ book, “Propaganda”:

“If we understand the mechanism and the motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

So I’ll ask again: Why do we spend so little time examining these criticisms and the failings of our profession? Why haven’t we addressed Al Gore’s criticisms?

columbus.jpgWhen I was a kid, Christopher Columbus was a hero in my American history class. It took long time for historians to reveal the other side of the Columbus story, didn’t it? But we all survived the bad news, and we haven’t canceled Columbus Day — yet. Likewise, it won’t hurt to examine the dark side of our PR heroes.

Compared to Columbus, Bernays was a decent sort. He spent tons of energy in his later years promoting ethical PR practice. And once Ed learned about the dangers of tobacco, he worked hard on anti-smoking campaigns. Late in his life, Bernays even embraced the idea of licensing PR professionals, convinced it was the only way our profession would earn legitimacy.

At its core, public relations isn’t about communication — Web 2.0 or otherwise. It’s about credibility and trust. Without trust there are no relationships. And without relationships, there are no brands to build or reputations to nurture.

Gore’s book reminds us the trust and credibility both hinge on truth telling. We need to spend more time as a profession trying to restore that core value.

11 Responses to Let’s talk about Al Gore, PR and Ed Bernays — Whatdaya say?

  1. Breeze says:

    Don’t get saucy with me, Bernays!

  2. Bill Huey says:

    My favorite quote about Bernays comes from Peter Gay’s biography of Freud:
    “he described his American nephew, Edward Bernays, the successful founder of the public-relations industry, as “an honest boy when I knew him. I do not know how far he has become americanized’.”
    Bernays was an old fraud, but a creative one, and he dreamed up some of the more memorable stunts in PR history, such as the women’s march carrying lighted cigarettes as “torches of freedom.”
    Cough, cough. Thanks, Ed.

  3. Tim Roberts says:

    Boy, making me think about big issues like truth and credibility on a rainy Thursday.
    But how many of us have been faced with the temptation of overhyping an event to get more coverage than it deserves, using shaky numbers to back up a case or ignoring another compelling side of an issue so our message comes out louder and more clear?

    Have we as communicators gotten to the point that truth and credibility and trust are all relative – a means to be used when conveneint to reach a short-term goal? We all need to check our motives. I think a lot of PR pros choke back ethical concerns so as not to upset their bosses or their clients. I also think some reporters don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, or are too busy or lazy to unearth the truth.

    All principles of PR students remember that Bernays’ involvement in helping Wilson persuade Americans to enter WWI was a pr milestone. Obviously, that blueprint is still in use today, to the extent that the book’s conclusion that our political decision-making is more often driven by polls and spin and less by sound, reasoned debate is sadly true. Even sadder, there are too many of us who can’t see through the smoke or, worse yet, don’t care enough to try.

  4. Colin Morris says:

    Pretty cheesy at the end, but true all the same. I’ve been meaning to pick up Reason for months – worth the hardcover price, I take it?

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Tim: It’s easy for me, sitting in my tenured perch in academe, to play the critic’s role. I know that. I also know from my years in the practice that I was constantly tempted to fudge a few numbers and overhype all sorts of things. It was especially a problem when I worked for our evil twins in ad/marketing. Yeah, I fudged and overhyped here and there. myself. It wasn’t until I opened my own shop that I was able to remove myself from temptation. It cost me a few clients, but I slept well after that.

    As for Colin…cheesy, eh? I think the words you were seeking were “deep and intellectual.” But I do admire a commenter who doesn’t fear payback. See you in class young man!

  6. abster says:

    Bernays may have created “stunts” in his early pr days, but they are what we learn from today. As far as Gore’s bashing of the pr industry, I’m pretty sure he has a nice amount of pr professionals working for him… I mean, he was nominated for an Emmy and his latest accomplishment seems to be a Nobel Prize! I would venture a guess that he had some help along the way with publicity and the media.

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    True enough, Abby. And as I was reading your comment this morning, I learned that Gore has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, so he’ll need even more PR help in the weeks ahead. As a devoted tree-hugger (yes, you CAN be a tree-hugger and a deer hunter, really), I’m pleased to see environmentalism get this kind of exposure in Oslo. As for Bernays, what many of his critics see is an elitist who believed the great unwashed (that’s us) needed to be led by the wiser ruling class. I’m not sure I agree, so I need to go back and re-read Bernays’ works more critically (in my spare time). Bernays did work for rich potentates, but he also stood tall for civil rights and did plenty of work to improve society. As I said in the post, he was no evil genius, but a very clever guy who knew how to move public opinion. And we SURE DID learn from him, didn’t we?

    I sense, in your tone, a little skepticism about Gore. I felt the same way for a long time until I began to read what he has to say and the evidence he presents to back the arguments. You don’t have to like his politics to appreciate him as a champion for the planet. We need more like him to expand the discourse.

  8. Breeze says:

    Not one Mel Brooks fan in the bunch, huh? 😦

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    I guess not, me included, Breeze. Love Mel Brooks, but never saw “History of the World, Part I,” from which that quote comes. But as I researched that quote (to learn where it came from), I found this passage on Wikipedia, lifted from Bernays’ “Propaganda.” I guess it erases my doubts about his elitism:

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

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