Is manipulation an essential part of business communication?

by Shannon Paul on June 23, 2008

Our behaviors as consumers and individuals are often based on lies – not lies told by marketers and PR professionals, but on lies that we tell ourselves.

Edward Bernays, considered the father of PR, understood this truth better than most, and unlike others, he was willing to explore the realities of how human behavior is shaped and to share his discoveries with his clients, and in his writing.

Bernays believed in the ethical manipulation of public opinion as something to be shaped and influenced, but not abused.

Bernays’ book, Propaganda, first published in 1928, is as startling a read today for its unflinching honesty as it was 80 years ago.

In Propaganda Bernays explains how a democratic society actually benefits from consenting to business and government-sponsored propaganda.

Bernays wrote:

We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.

Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized — the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses.

The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.

To Bernays, the basic theories that formed the foundation of PR transcended the elements of the day-to-day activities associated with media relations and publicity.

In other words, he regarded public relations as a means of socially integrating a business or organization into society rather than the tactics utilized to achieve social integration.

Somewhere along the course of recent history with the peak of the print media industry, a lot of the basic theory was forgotten in favor of adopting a more rudimentary approach to media relations tactics and practices.

In this case, going retro might be the best step forward. Focusing on the social integration of a business or brand into the lives of the public might serve the PR industry better than a list of rote responsibilities and job descriptions in an era when the modes of communication are changing rapidly.

Am I crazy, or is Bernays’ candor refreshing in a time when most would rather spin stories and create brighter and shinier euphemisms for the same old crap?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

June 24, 2008 Ari 1

The same old routines won’t cut it anymore, that’s true. But by “old routines,” I’m talking delivery, not content.

I don’t think the essence of PR and media relations is changing. It’s still about relationship building and being an honest and available resource for the media and the public.

What’s changing is the delivery method but that’s not surprising. The delivery methods have been continually evolving and I can’t imagine that will ever stop.

The bottom line is you have to have a compelling story to tell if you want media coverage and you have to break through the “what’s in it for me” barrier with the public. Otherwise, no matter what you do or how you deliver it will be irrelevant because you will be ignored while your competition reaps the rewards.


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