With Wildean inspiration, Stephen Bayley tells us that ‘only shallow people do not judge by appearances’ in the second section of Life’s a Pitch… (this follows the first part of my review.) So we’re advised to act the part (rehearse even), and we’re led through a short history of charlatanism.
With PT Barnum, the promoter of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, this book is describing the early history of public relations – with its humbug and its hucksterism. But what about IK Brunel? Bayley argues that the engineer’s image was deliberately manufactured and presented to the public. The stovepipe hat and the cigar (like Churchill’s) remain memorable and recognisable long beyond their lifetimes.
The description of how this image was created and selected is a useful addition to the early history of our subject, but Bayley’s delight at finding an example of PR ‘seventy years before a nephew of Freud’s invented public relations in New York’ only shows how he’s been taken in by the self-conscious spin of Edward Bernays, whose life was certainly some act.
Bayley makes the short hop from charlatanism to seduction, by way of Freud. The purpose is to restate this book’s case that ’emotions are more persuasive than facts’ and that ‘the most important things can neither be measured nor managed.’
The use of a powerful emotion – self-interest – is well illustrated by a letter-writing story about ‘robber baron steel magnate’ Andrew Carnegie, who is commemorated at our university. His sister had complained that her sons, away at university, never wrote to her (this was before telephones were universal). So Carnegie wrote to them, adding a PS that he was including a five-dollar bill (which he neglected to do). By return of post he received two replies beginning ‘Dear Uncle Andrew…’.
Handwritten letters communicate like nothing else because they’re special and take time. And our handwriting speaks volumes about us. (Bayley notes how the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in scholarly miniscule. It’s true; I still keep some examples of this – my mother had been the
graphologist secretary who struggled to transcribe his writing in the years before she married and had children.)
Bayley’s more lateral and literary section of the book includes a hilarious section on the social minefield that is dining out – whether for dating or for duty. But a book dedicated to Machiavelli cannot resist returning in its major subject, public relations – ‘organized lying’ as it’s described here.
‘The business of public relations concerns the design and control of messages and its lessons apply to private relations as well.’ True. He’s also right that it’s increasingly hard ‘to find the frontier between fact and fiction, between news and opinion, between truth and lies’ but I suspect this ambiguity, rather than being caused by public relations, explains the growth of the PR industry in recent decades.
Bayley surely agrees. ‘In the conduct of human affairs’ he notes in conclusion ‘feelings count for more than facts. Ideas are superior to statistics; appearances matter.’ Public relations is the industry that deals with ideas, works with emotions and is concerned with appearances. With this book, Bayley and Mavity show themselves to be worthy followers of Bernays in their understanding of PR.