Until a decade ago, the old vacuum-tube TVs were in every home in America. And the PR industry’s influence flickered out of every one of them. But both have surrendered their pole positions to technological innovations that have literally changed the way we communicate.
By John Doyle
Back in the 1920's, Edward Bernays -- the man who would be crowned “the father of public relations” -- rhetorically asked in his essay "Propaganda," "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”
And he wasn’t just supposin’. Bernays -- who was related to Sigmund Freud by both his mother (Freud’s sister) and father (whose sister married Freud) -- knew a few things about crowd psychology and other psychoanalytic approaches to public relations, which he described as “the engineering of consent.”
He was also keenly aware that the burgeoning mass media infrastructure of 20th century America -- “this web of communications” he presciently called it -- was ideal for the “manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” This was critical, he wrote, because “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
PR has been operating in this vein fairly consistently ever since. Need proof? Here is Bernays’ definition of public relations, circa early 1900s:
“Public relations is the management function that tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures, and interests of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
Here is one of PRSA’s three “finalists” in their definition campaign, circa 2012:
“Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.”
Like father, like son.
PRSA’s ambitious "modernization" campaign was preordained to fail when they chose to redefine 20th century PR instead of conceptualizing our industry's potentially amazing future now that technology has so profoundly altered the way we humans communicate.
America’s mass media infrastructure was critical to Bernays’ success in developing “technique[s] for the mass distribution of ideas." These techniques, which he collectively dubbed “public relations,” were amazingly effective because “the United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”
But the Internet razed that small room a few years back and millions of online communities have popped up in its place. And the people in those communities aren’t buying any of the linear monologues
spouted by corporations, media conglomerates, and industry “experts.” They are putting their faith in their friends and in their communities, with astounding results. Just ask Netflix. And Verizon. And Target. And the next corporation that bows to genuine public rage.
Social media has brought us full circle to what Bernays once described as “an earlier age … [where] a leader was usually known to his followers personally [and] communication was accomplished principally by personal announcement to an audience.”
Nothing could be better for the PR industry, if only we were bold enough to collectively embrace this DNA-altering adjustment. Rather than “engineer consent,” we must now earn trust. Orchestrated endorsements must now yield to honest, creative stories that resonate within the communities that our clients need to connect with. A nod from the editorial board of the New York Times will always be a nice hit. But today, the real measure of achievement is the degree to which our clients’ stories get retold and forwarded to friends.
Nick Naylor, the tobacco-flack protagonist in "Thank You for Smoking," said, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk.” The ability to talk -- to enlighten people through thoughts, words, and deeds -- is a gift that few possess. That’s where we come in. The opportunity to help our clients enlighten people through thoughts, words and deeds is good PR.
And it is an honorable -- and important -- profession.
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John Doyle is the founding partner of Doyle McDonald in Washington, DC. Follow him @FlackOps.