“A presidential candidate may be ‘drafted’ in response to ‘overwhelming popular demand’, but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.” – Edward Bernays
This week Guy Evans examines Chapter 3 of Edward Bernays’ seminal text ‘Propaganda’. In this chapter, ‘The New Propagandists’, Bernays characteristically boasts that the public are not aware of the ‘invisible rulers’ that control elected figureheads behind the scenes. He suggests that public opinion must be molded by the ‘intelligent few’, and argues that in many aspects of our daily lives, we are influenced by deceptive trend-setters that manipulate our desires and cause us to make uninformed, irrational choices. Enjoy the podcast and share with a friend!
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WHO are the men who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put into them, what menus we should serve on our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in, what plays we should see, what charities we should support, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?
If we set out to make a list of the men and women who, because of their position in public life, might fairly be called the molders of public opinion, we could quickly arrive at an extended list of persons mentioned in “Who’s Who.” It would obviously include, the President of the United States and the members of his Cabinet; the Senators and Representatives in Congress; the Governors of our fortyeight states; the presidents of the chambers of commerce in our hundred largest cities, the chairmen of the boards of directors of our hundred or more largest industrial corporations, the president of many of the labor unions affiliated in the American Federation of Labor, the national president of each of the national professional and fraternal organizations, the president of each of the racial or language societies in the country, the hundred leading newspaper and magazine editors, the fifty most popular authors, the presidents of the fifty leading charitable organizations, the twenty leading theatrical or cinema producers, the hundred recognized leaders of fashion, the most popular and influential clergymen in the hundred leading cities, the presidents of our colleges and universities and the foremost members of their faculties, the most powerful financiers in Wall Street, the most noted amateurs of sport, and so on. Such a list would comprise several thousand persons. But it is well known that many of these leaders are themselves led, sometimes by persons whose names are known to few. Many a congressman, in framing his platform, follows the suggestions of a district boss whom few persons outside the political machine have ever heard of. Eloquent divines may have great influence in their communities, but often take their doctrines from a higher ecclesiastical authority. The presidents of chambers of commerce mold the thought of local business men concerning public issues, but the opinions which they promulgate are usually derived from some national authority. A presidential candidate may be “drafted” in response to “overwhelming popular demand,” but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.
In some instances the power of invisible wirepullers is flagrant. The power of the invisible cabinet which deliberated at the poker table in a certain little green house in Washington has become a national legend. There was a period in which the major policies of the national government were dictated by a single man, Mark Hanna. A Simmons may, for a few years, succeed in marshaling millions of men on a platform of intolerance and violence.
Such persons typify in the public mind the type of ruler associated with the phrase invisible government. But we do not often stop to think that there are dictators in other fields whose influence is just as decisive as that of the politicians I have mentioned. An Irene Castle can establish the fashion of short hair which dominates nine-tenths of the women who make any pretense to being fashionable. Paris fashion leaders set the mode of the short skirt, for wearing which, twenty years ago, any woman would simply have been arrested and thrown into jail by the New York police, and the entire women’s clothing industry, capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars, must be reorganized to conform to their dictum.
There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes.
Nor, what is still more important, the extent to which our thoughts and habits are modified by authorities.
In some departments of our daily life, in which we imagine ourselves free agents, we are ruled by dictators exercising great power. A man buying a suit of clothes imagines that he is choosing, according to his taste and his personality, the kind of garment which he prefers. In reality, he may be obeying the orders of an anonymous gentleman tailor in London. This personage is the silent partner in a modest tailoring establishment, which is patronized by gentlemen of fashion and princes of the blood. He suggests to British noblemen and others a blue cloth instead of gray, two buttons instead of three, or sleeves a quarter of an inch narrower than last season. The distinguished customer approves of the idea.
But how does this fact affect John Smith of Topeka?
The gentleman tailor is under contract with a certain large American firm, which manufactures men’s suits, to send them instantly the designs of the suits chosen by the leaders of London fashion. Upon receiving the designs, with specifications as to color, weight and texture, the firm immediately places an order with the cloth makers for several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of cloth. The suits made up according to the specifications are then advertised as the latest fashion. The fashionable men in New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia wear them. And the Topeka man, recognizing this leadership, does the same.
Women are just as subject to the commands of invisible government as are men. A silk manufacturer, seeking a new market for its product, suggested to a large manufacturer of shoes that women’s shoes should be covered with silk to match their dresses. The idea was adopted and systematically propagandized. A popular actress was persuaded to wear the shoes. The fashion spread. The shoe firm was ready with the supply to meet the created demand. And the silk company was ready with the silk for more shoes.
The man who injected this idea into the shoe industry was ruling women in one department of their social lives. Different men rule us in the various departments of our lives. There may be one power behind the throne in politics, another in the manipulation of the Federal discount rate, and still another in the dictation of next season’s dances. If there were a national invisible cabinet ruling our destinies (a thing which is not impossible to conceive of) it would work through certain group leaders on Tuesday for one purpose, and through an entirely different set on Wednesday for another. The idea of invisible government is relative. There may be a handful of men who control the educational methods of the great majority of our schools. Yet from another standpoint, every parent is a group leader with authority over his or her children.
The invisible government tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses. To advertise on a scale which will reach fifty million persons is expensive. To reach and persuade the group leaders who dictate the public’s thoughts and actions is likewise expensive.
For this reason there is an increasing tendency to concentrate the functions of propaganda in the hands of the propaganda specialist. This specialist is more and more assuming a distinct place and function in our national life.
New activities call for new nomenclature. The propagandist who specializes in interpreting enterprises and ideas to the public, and in interpreting the public to promulgators of new enterprises and ideas, has come to be known by the name of “public relations counsel.”
The new profession of public relations has grown up because of the increasing complexity of modern life and the consequent necessity for making the actions of one part of the public understandable to other sectors of the public. It is due, too, to the increasing dependence of organized power of all sorts upon public opinion. Governments, whether they are monarchical, constitutional, democratic or communist, depend upon acquiescent public opinion for the success of their efforts and, in fact, government is only government by virtue of public acquiescence. Industries, public utilities, educational movements, indeed all groups representing any concept or product, whether they are majority or minority ideas, succeed only because of approving public opinion. Public opinion is the unacknowledged partner in all broad efforts.
The public relations counsel, then, is the agent who, working with modern media of communication and the group formations of society, brings an idea to the consciousness of the public. But he is a great deal more than that. He is concerned with courses of action, doctrines, systems and opinions, and the securing of public support for them. He is also concerned with tangible things such as manufactured and raw products. He is concerned with public utilities, with large trade groups and associations representing entire industries.
He functions primarily as an adviser to his client, very much as a lawyer does. A lawyer concentrates on the legal aspects of his client’s business. A counsel on public relations concentrates on the public contacts of his client’s business. Every phase of his client’s ideas, products or activities which may affect the public or in which the public may have an interest is part of his function.
For instance, in the specific problems of the manufacturer he examines the product, the markets, the way in which the public reacts to the product, the attitude of the employees to the public and towards the product, and the cooperation of the distribution agencies.
The counsel on public relations, after he has examined all these and other factors, endeavors to shape the actions of his client so that they will gain the interest, the approval and the acceptance of the public.
The means by which the public is apprised of the actions of his client are as varied as the means of communication themselves, such as conversation, letters, the stage, the motion picture, the radio, the lecture platform, the magazine, the daily newspaper. The counsel on public relations is not an advertising man but he advocates advertising where that is indicated. Very often he is called in by an advertising agency to supplement its work on behalf of a client. His work and that of the advertising agency do not conflict with or duplicate each other.
His first efforts are, naturally, devoted to analyzing his client’s problems and making sure that what he has to offer the public is something which the public accepts or can be brought to accept. It is futile to attempt to sell an idea or to prepare the ground for a product that is basically unsound.
For example, an orphan asylum is worried by a falling off in contributions and a puzzling attitude of indifference or hostility on the part of the public. The counsel on public relations may discover upon analysis that the public, alive to modern sociological trends, subconsciously criticizes the institution because it is not organized on the new “cottage plan.” He will advise modification of the client in this respect. Or a railroad may be urged to put on a fast train for the sake of the prestige which it will lend to the road’s name, and hence to its stocks and bonds.
If the corset makers, for instance, wished to bring their product into fashion again, he would unquestionably advise that the plan was impossible, since women have definitely emancipated themselves from the old-style corset. Yet his fashion advisers might report that women might be persuaded to adopt a certain type of girdle which eliminated the unhealthful features of the corset.
His next effort is to analyze his public. He studies the groups which must be reached, and the leaders through whom he may approach these groups. Social groups, economic groups, geographical groups, age groups, doctrinal groups, language groups, cultural groups, all these represent the divisions through which, on behalf of his client, he may talk to the public.
Only after this double analysis has been made and the results collated, has the time come for the next step, the formulation of policies governing the general practice, procedure and habits of the client in all those aspects in which he comes in contact with the public. And only when these policies have been agreed upon is it time for the fourth step.
The first recognition of the distinct functions of the public relations counsel arose, perhaps, in the early years of the present century as a result of the insurance scandals coincident with the muck-raking of corporate finance in the popular magazines. The interests thus attacked suddenly realized that they were completely out of touch with the public they were professing to serve, and required expert advice to show them how they could understand the public and interpret themselves to it.
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, prompted by the most fundamental self-interest, initiated a conscious, directed effort to change the attitude of the public toward insurance companies in general, and toward itself in particular, to its profit and the public’s benefit.
It tried to make a majority movement of itself by getting the public to buy its policies. It reached the public at every point of its corporate and separate existences. To communities it gave health surveys and expert counsel. To individuals it gave health creeds and advice. Even the building in which the corporation was located was made a picturesque landmark to see and remember, in other words to carry on the associative process. And so this company came to have a broad general acceptance. The number and amount of its policies grew constantly, as its broad contacts with society increased.
Within a decade, many large corporations were employing public relations counsel under one title or another, for they had come to recognize that they depended upon public good will for their continued prosperity. It was no longer true that it was “none of the public’s business” how the affairs of a corporation were managed. They were obliged to convince the public that they were conforming to its demands as to honesty and fairness. Thus a corporation might discover that its labor policy was causing public resentment, and might introduce a more enlightened policy solely for the sake of general good will. Or a department store, hunting for the cause of diminishing sales, might discover that its clerks had a reputation for bad manners, and initiate formal instruction in courtesy and tact.
The public relations expert may be known as public relations director or counsel. Often he is called secretary or vice-president or director. Sometimes he is known as cabinet officer or commissioner. By whatever title he may be called, his function is well defined and his advice has definite bearing on the conduct of the group or individual with whom he is working.
Many persons still believe that the public relations counsel is a propagandist and nothing else. But, on the contrary, the stage at which many suppose he starts his activities may actually be the stage at which he ends them. After the public and the client are thoroughly analyzed and policies have been formulated, his work may be finished. In other cases the work of the public relations counsel must be continuous to be effective. For in many instances only by a careful system of constant, thorough and frank information will the public understand and appreciate the value of what a merchant, educator or statesman is doing. The counsel on public relations must maintain constant vigilance, because inadequate information, or false information from unknown sources, may have results of enormous importance. A single false rumor at a critical moment may drive down the price of a corporation’s stock, causing a loss of millions to stockholders. An air of secrecy or mystery about a corporation’s financial dealings may breed a general suspicion capable of acting as an invisible drag on the company’s whole dealings with the public. The counsel on public relations must be in a position to deal effectively with rumors and suspicions, attempting to stop them at their source, counteracting them promptly with correct or more complete information through channels which will be most effective, or best of all establishing such relations of confidence in the concern’s integrity that rumors and suspicions will have no opportunity to take root.
His function may include the discovery of new markets, the existence of which had been unsuspected.
If we accept public relations as a profession, we must also expect it to have both ideals and ethics. The ideal of the profession is a pragmatic one. It is to make the producer, whether that producer be a legislature making laws or a manufacturer making a commercial product, understand what the public wants and to make the public understand the objectives of the producer. In relation to industry, the ideal of the profession is to eliminate the waste and the friction that result when industry does things or makes things which its public does not want, or when the public does not understand what is being offered it. For example, the telephone companies maintain extensive public relations departments to explain what they are doing, so that energy may not be burned up in the friction of misunderstanding. A detailed description, for example, of the immense and scientific care which the company takes to choose clearly understandable and distinguishable exchange names, helps the public to appreciate the effort that is being made to give good service, and stimulates it to cooperate by enunciating clearly. It aims to bring about an understanding between educators and educated, between government and people, between charitable institutions and contributors, between nation and nation.
The profession of public relations counsel is developing for itself an ethical code which compares favorably with that governing the legal and medical professions. In part, this code is forced upon the public relations counsel by the very conditions of his work. While recognizing, just as the lawyer does, that every one has the right to present his case in its best light, he nevertheless refuses a client whom he believes to be dishonest, a product which he believes to be fraudulent, or a cause which he believes to be antisocial. One reason for this is that, even though a special pleader, he is not dissociated from the client in the public’s mind. Another reason is that while he is pleading before the court—the court of public opinion—he is at the same time trying to affect that court’s judgments and actions. In law, the judge and jury hold the deciding balance of power. In public opinion, the public relations counsel is judge and jury, because through his pleading of a case the public may accede to his opinion and judgment.
He does not accept a client whose interests conflict with those of another client. He does not accept a client whose case he believes to be hopeless or whose product he believes to be unmarketable.
He should be candid in his dealings. It must be repeated that his business is not to fool or hoodwink the public. If he were to get such a reputation, his usefulness in his profession would be at an end. When he is sending out propaganda material, it is clearly labeled as to source. The editor knows from whom it comes and what its purpose is, and accepts or rejects it on its merits as news.
Cull, N.J. (2003). Propaganda and Mass Persuasion. ABC-CLIO.
Sloat, W. (1979). 1929: America Before the Crash. Taylor Trade Publications.
Bernays, E.L. (1935). Molding Public Opinion. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (May), 179, p. 82-87.
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