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The Engineering of Consent : PR! A Social History of Spin. By Stuart Ewen (BasicBooks: 480 pp., $30)

December 01, 1996|ANNE BERNAYS | Anne Bernays is the author of eight novels. Her latest book is "The Language of Names," co-authored with her husband, Justin Kaplan, to be published by Simon & Schuster in February

Public Relations (my rendering) has got to be the longest four-letter word of the 20th century. Known to some as "the dark side of advertising," its practitioners are, according to a new, hefty, undeniably important history of this un-American profession, the tireless, not to say somewhat paranoid, guardians of our economic, financial and social status quo. Stuart Ewen, author of "PR! A Social History of Spin," is a professor of media studies and chair of the department of communications at Hunter College in New York. A conscientious historian, he has done his homework, tracing the origin of PR as a response to the rise of a restless working class in the late 1800s.

Before I proceed, I ought to identify myself as the daughter of Edward L. Bernays, the so-called father of public relations (which should make PR my sibling, though I feel mighty few sisterly impulses). I should also acknowledge my ambivalence about public relations: I see it as a powerful and often useful device but one far more like a gun than a hammer. My father maintained that perception is as significant as reality. (We parted company on this issue, though it didn't cause a familial break.) He died two years ago at the age of 103.

Ewen seems to feel two ways about Bernays, for he devotes an entire chapter to a visit he paid my father in 1990. "Despite years of pondering him as a shrewd and cynical manipulator of public consciousness," he writes, "I was immediately entranced." Ewen also recognized right off the bat that Bernays had "an unabashedly hierarchical view of society." Good for Ewen--it took me more than 40 years to come to the same conclusion.

Ewen cites progressive journalism around the turn of the century as giving currency to the word "publicity," at that time viewed not as murk but as "crystalline light." It was thought that if you threw enough light on corruption, corporate greed and municipal skulduggery, they would shrivel up and die.

It didn't happen that way. With the proliferation of newspapers and magazines, journalism by those with agendas gradually gave way to persuasion via emotional appeal. PR emerged from its egg.

In Ewen's view, Walter Lippmann was one of the principal villains of this doleful history. Lippmann--having ingested the polemical, anti-labor writings of two late 19th century French social scientists, Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde--feared "the public," a more or less unreasoning working class, an entity physically separated but emotionally cohesive. This public could be easily swayed by what was written in the daily newspaper.

Big business paid little or no attention to the public. Along came Ivy Lee (probably the true father of public relations), motivated by "the divinity of private wealth and the danger of the crowd." A self-styled "physician for corporate bodies," Lee "clad his activities in a camouflage of facticity" and was contemptuous of the truth when it failed to serve his purposes.

At this point, the profession of PR began to evolve as an indispensable arm of business and the government (especially during World War I). e This is where Ewen's vehicle starts spinning its wheels, for he makes this same point over and over again, supplying more anecdotal material--harrowing though it is--than the reader needs or wants.

Ewen writes at length about Bernays, who invented the term "Counsel on Public Relations," eliciting, according to Ewen, "a deliberate association with the legal profession" and urging practitioners to become "the creator of circumstance." Bernays believed that you could control the masses' behavior without their knowledge. He called this maneuver "the engineering of consent," a bone-chilling phrase if there ever was one.

From the 1930s on, PR turned to techniques created by social scientists to understand and gauge group-think, including market research and surveys. Public opinion polls, Ewen argues, "were transforming the idea of public opinion into a valuable resource for . . . commercial and political exploitation." Photographs, radio, movies and television became PR's tools, delivering images that could alter perception.

The remainder of Ewen's book, roughly half, is devoted to an examination of how big business has systematically applied the principles articulated by Le Bon, Tarde, Lippman, Lee, Bernays and a few other pioneers.

This has meant a rigorous campaign, a lot of it subliminal, against anything with even a whiff of "socialism." In the early 1930s, business leaders "scolded the government for spending too much money on relief and called for cuts in already . . . glaringly insufficient social spending."

Franklin Roosevelt's radical New Deal programs caused a shift in the public's view of what and how much the federal government should do to fight the Great Depression. As one PR man put it, " . . . the whole capitalist system lives in the shadow of a volcano. That volcano is public opinion. It is in eruption."

Big business stirred uncomfortably; the National Assn. of Manufacturers, founded in 1895, geared up to oppose the threat of the "ugly consumer." It blitzed the media, schools and the heads of ordinary Americans, and in general battled New Deal "propaganda."

After World War II, several PR practitioners, realizing how unproductive it was to persist in opposing labor and consumers' groups, urged Big Business to "reconnect to their liberal roots."

Ewen maintains that "the relationship between publicity and democracy is not essentially corrupt"] while doing his darndest to prove that it is. We come away from this book feeling we've been had, and for a very long time.

Yet, doesn't it seem plausible that as the people engaged in practicing public relations are ever more wily, we citizens keep right up with them, growing ever more skeptical and resistant (up to a point) to being "engineered"? All need not be lost.

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