The Troubling Roots of Public Relations

People forget that it used to be called Propaganda.

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The word propaganda is actually a Latin word that was originally introduced in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV in response to the global rise of Protestantism. He formed an “Office for the Propagation of the Faith” to oversee Catholic mission efforts in the New World. (“Congregatio de propaganda fide”) It is interesting that global forces and fears were the impetus behind these propaganda efforts, much like modern times.

During World War I propaganda became a secret weapon of our own government to turn public opinion against the Germans in order to prepare our nation for war. Before the war the word propaganda was so insignificant that it didn’t even have an entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. During the war it was little understood how much the media served as mouthpiece for the propaganda machinery that demonized “the Huns” and portrayed the Germans as Prussian barbarians.

In 1928 Edward Bernays, in a book titled Propaganda, argued that propaganda was a good thing, a useful tool for the ruling elite because the masses needed to be moved. They were sheep too dumb to know what was best for them without guidance. The government and the media should work together to create an appetite for the right goods, services, leaders. It was a positive, not a perjorative.

Within months of publication of this landmark manual the word was already getting a bad reputation. George Creel, in another book, revealed that our own U.S. Office of War Information had heavy-handedly practiced the art of public manipulation to seed the war effort. When the public learned they had been hoodwinked, manipulated by falsehood and innuendo, lies, exaggeration and half-truths, … well, the word had to be replaced by more positive terminology.

The new term is Public Relations. And what PR professionals practice is called “spin.”

The problem is, no one knows anymore what is true and what is spin. Hence we live in an era of disillusionment and distrust.

During World War I it was said that Germans always lie, Americans always tell the truth. When Americans later learned their country told them half-truths and outright lies, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Bernays used his book as a stepping stone to advance his own career as a publicist. He ultimately achieved the stature he desired, becoming a mouthpiece for Big Tobacco for a spell as well as for General Electric in what amounted to helping it achieve a “stranglehold on America’s electric power” in “the largest peacetime propaganda drive in peacetime history.” (M.C.Miller)

His crowning achievement was the work he did in Latin America during the 1950s on behalf of the United Fruit Company wherein he paved the way for the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. To our shame as a nation, we did not dig into the motivations of UFC or the underlying truths behind what was really going on there in Guatemala, or Costa Rica. The resulting damage to U.S. credibility in the region lingered for decades.

In the Viet Nam era, we saw similar tactics. And post 9/11… well, who knows where the truth goes when you have all these think tanks and spin doctors ever so busy weaving words into mesmerizing pinwheel spells and snapdragon daisywheels of distraction.

Words can serve as a conveyor of truth, but in a world where they so often veil and betray truth how does one know? How can one be sure? The imperative is learning how to hear, how to listen, how to weigh the value of what is spoken and written… how to separate the darkness from the light and give order to the chaos. In short, how to discern.

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Ed Newman is a retired adman/PR professional who continues to blog at Ennyman’s Territory, make art and play harmonica, among other things.

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