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Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

By John Stauber
and Sheldon Rampton


To Order from P.R. Watch

Introduction: Torches of Liberty
By Mark Dowie

On the surface it seemed like an ordinary publicity stunt for "female emancipation," the pre-Depression equivalent of women's liberation. A contingent of New York debutantes marched down Fifth Avenue in the 1929 Easter Parade, each openly lighting and smoking cigarettes. It was the first time in the memory of most Americans that any woman who wasn't a prostitute had been seen smoking in public. It was dubbed the "torches of liberty contingent" by Edward Bernays, its brilliant behind-the-scenes organizer. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, later admitted that he had been paid a tidy sum to orchestrate the march by George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company.

But long before the public learned who had engineered the parade, it had achieved its goal of breaking the taboo against female smoking. Within months, in fact, the politest of American ladies were puffing in public and sales of Hill's Lucky Strikes were soaring.

The event is still hailed in public relations lore as a "triumph." Some people consider it the coup that launched a whole new, distinctively American industry.

Most of us are aware of public relations. "That's just a lot of PR," we say, with smug confidence that we have pierced the veil of hype around us rather than be taken in by some anonymous huckster. But few outside the public relations industry know how well PR really works, and fewer still realize how often we are persuaded by it. Nor do many of us know how much of our "news" and other information originates from the desks of public relations practitioners. "The best PR is never noticed," says the proud unwritten slogan of the trade.

The sad truth, which this book amply documents, is that PR executives are today mediating public communications as never before. "Flacks" are no longer mere authors of press memos, "video news releases" and pre-packaged articles used by lazy reporters and editors. Nor are they simply "builders of bridges into prosperity . . . in a fly-by-night, flim-flam business," as theatrical publicist Ben Sonnenberg once described his chosen profession. That too we now accept about PR. But the intricate practice of relating to the public has evolved even further and requires the kind of close examination that John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton provide.

PR has become a communications medium in its own right, an industry designed to alter perception, reshape reality and manufacture consent. It is run by a fraternity carefully organized so that only insiders can observe their peers at work. Veteran PR professionals can read the front page of almost any newspaper in the country, or watch a segment of broadcast news and identify which of their peers "placed," "handled" or "massaged" a specific story-even which executives arranged the "placement," managed the "spin" or wrote the CEO's quotes. But can you or I? Or do we assume, as we are supposed to, that some dogged reporter, trained and determined to be the objective "eyes and ears of the public," set out to research, investigate and report his or her findings as accurately as possible?

This book is of particular interest to me as a journalist, not only because I spend so much of my time on the phone with "communications directors," "public information officers" and "community relations liaisons," but also because about a third of America's currently practicing PR men and women began their careers as journalists, where they learned how to investigate people and institutions, how newsrooms work and how to write a compelling and informative story. In a strange way many of them still are journalists. Academicians who study media now estimate that about 40% of all "news" flows virtually unedited from the public relations offices, prompting a prominent PR exec to boast that "the best PR ends up looking like news."

Also disconcerting is the fact that the 150,000 PR practitioners in the US outnumber the country's 130,000 reporters (and with the media downsizing its newsrooms, the gap is widening). Furthermore, some of the country's best journalism schools now send more than half their graduates directly into public relations (an almost traitorous career choice to traditionalists like myself who instruct students how to handle PR executives and circumvent the barriers they erect between the truth and the story they want told about their clients).

With media becoming dependent on PR for more and more of its content, public relations executives have become inordinately powerful. Even the most energetic reporters know that they have to be somewhat deferential in the presence of a powerful publicist. No one on a national beat can afford to get on the wrong side of a Frank Mankiewicz or a Harold Burson knowing that their firms (Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller) together represent a third of the most quotable sources in the country.

People often equate public relations with the advertising industry, and in fact almost every major Madison Avenue agency, from J. Walter Thompson to Young & Rubicam, owns or is paired with a large PR firm. But PR firms carry out activities that are often considerably more secretive and sinister than designing clever slogans and video imagery. The modern "account" managed by a

PR/advertising giant can now package a global campaign that includes a strategic blend of "paid media" (advertising) and "free media" (public relations). Add to that some of the other standard services offered by most PR firms-including "crisis management," industrial espionage, organized censorship and infiltration of civic and political groups-and you have a formidable combination of persuasive techniques available to large corporations and anyone else who can afford to hire the services of a PR firm. You know you're looking at propaganda when you open your newspaper and notice an ad for General Electric, but you're less likely to notice the rest of the mix-the story about GE that appears on page one, which may well have been placed by the same firm that placed the ad, and may in addition have deployed a private investigator to infiltrate and subvert the efforts of an activist organization attempting to combat GE's environmental practices. The independence of the press, already challenged by the influence of Madison Avenue, is now being further compromised by the interdependence of advertising and PR.

Corporations use the term "integrated communications" to describe this massive institutional meld, and its consequences are profound. The methods of modern advertising, steeped in subliminal psychology and imagery aimed at the subconscious, have proven themselves effective at selling cars, mouthwash and cigarettes. Today similar methods are used almost reflexively to promote and protect ideas, policies, candidates, ideologies, tyrants and hazardous products. As propaganda, once the honorable purview of speechwriters, editorialists and orators, bypasses the conscious mind and is targeted at the subconscious, the consequences for culture, democracy and public health are staggering to contemplate.

As Stauber and Rampton clearly demonstrate in chapter after chapter of this book, a single public relations professional with access to media, a basic understanding of mass psychology and a fistful of dollars can unleash in society forces that make permanent winners out of otherwise-evident losers-whether they be products, politicians, corporations or ideas. This is an awesome power we give to an industry that gravitates to wealth, offers surplus power and influence to those who need it least, and operates largely beyond public view.

It is critical that consumers of media in democratic societies understand the origin of information and the process by which it is mediated, particularly when they are being deceived. Thus it is essential that they understand public relations. By offering between-the-lines analysis of PR's role in some of the most important stories of our time, this book leaves its readers with a much better sense of what is genuine. By deconstructing the modern triumphs of PR, it also shows how objective inquiry becomes subsumed by manufactured information, which either changes the public's perception of an event or the outcome of the event itself. In such an environment, facts cannot survive, nor can truth prevail.

Mark Dowie, a former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine, is the recipient of 14 major journalism awards, including an unprecedented three National Magazine awards.