Spinning Our Ethics: Reframing PR History

torches bernaysHigh school history books aren’t what they used to be.  As newer information has come to light and as new authors with different ways of framing the issues have tackled them, the stories that we once believed to be true, indeed even had to study, have been found to be faulty.  And so it may be with the history of public relations – as told by the best framers in the world: public relations writers themselves.

Public relations students learn about the history of their industry so that they can understand its evolution.  Public relations practitioners who are preparing for their accreditation examinations set by various professional membership associations are urged to revisit these histories.  But what history are they reading?

A Different View

“Spin” is one of those words that we love to hate in PR.  We all know that at its heart we do, in fact, frame stories in ways that meet our own objectives and those of our employers and clients.  However, we balk at the use of the term spin since it implies a certain lip service to the truth.  The truth, you say, is different for different people.  And so it is with the retelling of the contributions of PR’s forefathers.  Let’s consider Carl Byoir and his work.  As the Museum of Public Relations recounts it, his work had controversy, but little in the way of ethical impacts is considered in the retelling.

Carl Byoir did, indeed, leave the PR field a legacy.  He contributed a variety of creative ideas, tools and tactics to our arsenal of persuasive capabilities.  But he will forever in my mind be remembered for one specific and high profile approach: the use of front groups to lobby governments (now used for persuading others as well to do such things as support wars for example).

The term “Astroturf” groups has been pejoratively applied – and with good reason in my view – to the use of such groups where their backers are not transparently clear and there is the potential for misunderstanding the motivations of the group.

Carl Byoir was a master of the front group.  In 1937 he was hired by the grocery store chain Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A & P) to assist them in stopping the New YorkState legislature from passing what they viewed as an anti-chain store law that would further tax chain stores.  Like any good PR practitioner, Byoir first did his research using the newly developed art of the public opinion poll.  According to the PR Museum,[1]  the polls indicated that whereas the public was actually in favor of this tax on chain stores, they did not understand that it would result in higher food costs.  Of course, it would be the decision of the chain store in question to determine whether or not to pass on such a tax to their consumers.

Byoir was a creative individual.  He was inspired by this turn of events to create lobby groups such as the National Consumers’ Tax Commission and Business Property Owners Inc. to oppose this legislation.  By all appearances these groups were grassroots movements that had arisen on their own rather than cleverly packaged public relations tools.  Such a breathtaking lack of transparency is what has inspired more recent organizations such as the American Council on Science and Health, which appears to be a group of concerned scientists and consumers yet whose financial supporters have over the years included such organizations as Dow Corning, Exxon, the National Agricultural Chemical Association, Procter and Gamble and Union Carbide, to name but a very small number.[2]

To finish the story about Byoir’s efforts:  the strategy achieved its objectives and one by one states began to repeal their chain store taxes and the proposed national tax was scrapped in 1940.  However, two years later, Byoir and A & P were indicted on charges of violating two sections of the US Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 which outlawed monopolies.

Even a “Father” Has Issues

Carl Byoir, however, was not the only PR luminary whose history can be viewed in more than one way.  Edward Bernays, the so-called father of modern public relations also did his bit to contribute to the ethical issues that we continue to face in developing strategies and tactics to achieve public relations goals and objectives.

torches pr museumAs we so often learn the story, Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company in 1929 to develop an approach to expand the cigarette market.  At the time, whereas women actually did smoke at home, it was widely considered inappropriate for well-bred women to smoke in public.  He concocted a spectacle of an Easter Parade that showcased well-heeled debutantes strolling New York’s Fifth Avenue on the arms of equally well-heeled men while puffing on cigarettes.

The Torches of Freedom as it was known, was strategically and highly publicized and was a rousing success.  Cigarette sales did, indeed, climb.  This is how we are told the story.  But there is another spin, and it has nothing to do with the deleterious effects of smoking, a fact that was little known about until several decades later.

Rather, consider what the public believed to be true when viewing this event.  They saw what they believed was a spontaneous eruption of support for smoking by women who longed to smoke in public.  They had no idea that these were hired guns, so to speak – that these people didn’t necessarily believe in what they were representing only that someone had paid them to do it.  This is a bit like the use of third party endorsers today who truly don’t believe in what they’re endorsing.  One could easily conclude that expounding about the positive attributes of something while at the same time not believing in it is nothing short of lying. It’s not like television advertising, however, where the audience clearly understands that they are viewing actors.

Bernays’ approach is a very common kind of public relations strategy even today.  That is, it is the creation of something that seems to be something that it is not.  Even if you’re not prepared to stop using such tactics, perhaps at least you’ll consider the degree of deceit that you might be propagating.  And you’ll have a better understanding of why our field continues to be vilified in the media.

Image sources:  http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1929.html