The embarrassing history of PR

8 Jul

Two letters sum it up: B and P. While BP has only gained one brief mention so far at the International History of Public Relations Conference (#ihprc), my B stands for Bernays and P for propaganda.

Edward Bernays, the self-appointed father of public relations was everywhere (and something of an embarrassment because of his association with tobacco and with banana republics).

Propaganda was also inescapable, though opinions on this topic varied. We learnt from Robert Heath of John Hill's attempt to distance public relations from propaganda. 'PR exists to inform people and keep their minds open. Propaganda exists to misinform and keep minds closed.'

Gunter Bentele told how in communist East Germany the conceptual relationship between public relations and propaganda (or 'agitation' versus propaganda) was almost the reverse of that in the west.

We're hearing about 'terrorism' as propaganda. Perspectives are global, but the small scale of the conference is a strength: most people have read the same texts and so discussion can move on to interpretation of events and underlying issues.

3 Responses to “The embarrassing history of PR”

  1. Bob LeDrew 08/07/2010 at 2:35 pm #

    I think you’re being more than a little selective in your treatment of Bernays (or perhaps the speaker in question was.)
    #1: Bernays’s involvement with tobacco predated the first anti-smoking campaigns and the first science that linked it to cancer and other health effects.
    #2: Bernays was undoubtedly involved with some nefarious work in Guatemala on the United Fruit Company’s brief. But Bernays was also involved in many laudatory initiatives, including the first conference of the NAACP, the inclusion of basic rights in the constitution of post-colonial India, mental health issues, multiple sclerosis, etc.

  2. David Phillips 08/07/2010 at 4:06 pm #

    Only if you have a very short and narrow view of the nature of relationship building in the practice of Public Relations, is it embarrassing. In a paper published today in Comunicacao Publica (Escola Superior De Comunicacao Social) I explicate a different view to the Excellence Model, Bernays, Heath and Hill. It is inter-person/organisation relationships that releases value and that is a form of public relations as old as hunter gathering.

  3. Paul Seaman 09/07/2010 at 6:50 am #

    Contemporary advocates of propaganda-type PR take the form of the Stockholm Accords dogmatists whom position PRs as “ideological governors of value networks”, as I expose here:

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