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 lying 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.
If 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 American 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?
When 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.