THE PERSUASION EXPLOSION by Art Stevens (Acropolis: $12.95; 224 pp, illustrated)
One of the main purposes of this book, written by a public relations professional, is to convince the reader of the essential goodness of the public relations' profession. Not surprisingly, the author's favorite definition of his speciality is this: "Public relations is the shaping of perception through communication for the achievement of positive goals."
What is a "positive goal," however, would seem to depend on what the practitioner is advocating, for as Art Stevens points out, the goal of public relations is to sell something.
How to succeed at this task is revealed within the context of the author's enthusiastic recall of notable historical public relations campaigns. Such stories, often unabashedly self-congratulatory, provide an entertaining and enlightening primer for aspiring public relations' careerists.
For the rest of us, however, tales about the engineering of PR to affect our choices and beliefs can inspire the feeling that we are not altogether in control of our own opinions; the power of persuasion as practiced by others on us has profoundly affected our sense of self-determination regarding even the most minor of matters. The choices we make about everything from who we choose to be our President to what we buy to feed our pets, we realize, are not made on the basis of our individual ingenuity but rather on criteria carefully selected and designed by others to elicit precisely the "choices" we ultimately make.
Flip Side of These Facts
Orwellian as this may sound, the flip side of these facts is that never before have we had such an array of products and services designed to deal with every possible trifling life need or whimsical annoyance from which to choose. As a result, our sophisticated consumer palates are cyclically addicted to the excitement of the product-induced high resulting from the shopping-spree rush, followed by the jadedness of overconsumption that leaves us with one (perhaps unconscious) question: Do we exist to consume?
An affirmative answer to that question seems to be the reason the public relations industry exists. The field feeds on the benefits to be gained by manipulating (Stevens prefers the term maneuvering ) the mass of us to accept what others want us to have or believe.
Although the average person "naturally and instinctively" practices PR all the time in an individual attempt to gain some personal power in the world, Stevens emphasizes that even the amateur practitioner needs to become more aware of how public relations works in order to understand the forces for both good and evil that constantly are at work to gain and maintain our limited attention spans. In the process, by practicing the principles of PR in our personal lives, we too can acquire power and prosperity, relatively speaking.
How Often We've Been Had
While the author writes persuasively of the positive ways in which the public relations' profession has improved the world including, for instance, helping to educate women about new types of mastectomies and the way PR has led corporations to support cultural and sporting events, he also indirectly reveals in the telling of historical insider anecdotes how often we, the public, have been had by our acceptance of staged media events as spontaneous occurrences. Many readers may not know, for instance, that the supposedly spontaneous 1959 Moscow "kitchen debate" between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that so enhanced Nixon's political image was actually an event staged by William Safire, then a PR officer for an American kitchenware manufacturer.
Such events, which are expected to increase, help form the lasting images upon which we form our opinions and when later discovered to be stunts may foster an element of distrust among the public. Yet Stevens notes that public relations at its most effective is imperceptible, such as when articles "planted" by PR types to benefit their clients appear to be the result of objective reporting. Not that in our post-Watergate wisdom we are necessarily surprised to learn that all is not as it seems.
But now that we all know, for instance, that presidential candidates use public relations' agencies to gain popularity, and, after elected, utilize speech writers and others to maintain their popularity, we ask what is it that the candidate/President actually believe? Or perhaps, since presidential utterances are increasingly limited to what it has been perceived that we want to hear, does it matter? And since what we say we want to hear is based on what we have been influenced by others to believe, does authenticity still exist?
Although being reminded of our status as market pawns rankles the souls of American independence, it does inspire one to work a little harder on the charisma quotient. It can't hurt and, besides, everybody else is doing it.