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If you watch the British documentary, The Century of the Self, you are given the impression, from relatives and colleagues, that public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, may not have had the highest opinion of people on the whole.
His daughter claims Bernays often called the general public “stupid,” that they needed, as another noted, the guidance of enlightened public relations practitioners to “guide them” in the “right direction” so they could be sure and vote for the right candidate and buy the right products and support the right causes.
Well, I don’t know about all that…of course, when you think about it, isn’t that what already happens in our society? Do not (beginning with our parents, then our teachers, government leaders, etc.) we have individuals who attempt to guide us in the “right direction”? Ultimately, what choices we make are up to us.
The ethical eyebrows get raised, however, when one believes this “guidance” occurs surreptitiously, secretly, in ways we cannot detect. In the anti-PR propaganda film, Toxic Sludge is Good For You, the narrator notes that “the best PR is invisible PR.”
Well, I don’t know about all that either. First, for those who might debate whether “Toxic Sludge” is propaganda, well, if we define propaganda as the attempt to persuade, to impact attitude and behavior by making an emotional appeal, by showing only “one side” of the coin as it were, the film is definitely propaganda as there as the only PR professionals quoted are “ex” PR pros, the imagery and music is designed to elicit a creep, eerie feeling, etc.
Does that mean it’s all lies? No, not at all. There are definitely ethical violations committed by individuals and organizations in the practice of PR…just as there are ethical violations committed by people in every industry on the face of the planet. For me, the problem with the video is that it equates propaganda with PR. Propaganda is a FORM of public relations, but not all PR is propaganda.
I was taught, in my early PR tutelage, that “invisible PR” meant that we, the PR pros, were not supposed to be in the spotlight, that it “wasn’t about us,” but our clients. We are the ones who work behind the scenes to orchestrate great events, to get brochures and annual reports and inhouse newsletters printed and distributed, we help write the CEO’s speech, we work with the media so our client is interviewed or his or her business is profiled, but we, ourselves, are not seen.
Because, in truth, its not about us. We in PR are in the SERVICE industry. And servants, as anyone knows from watching "Downton Abbey" (or its earlier 1970s PBS incarnation, “Upstairs, Downstairs”) are to perform their tasks quietly, without fanfare, and disappear into the background. THAT’s what’s meant by “the best PR is invisible PR.”
But I’m actually getting off topic. A few paragraphs back I had mentioned that ethics are called into question when we attempt to manipulate people without their knowledge. This came to mind when I saw this video on FACEBOOK, posted under the heading “1960s Government Subliminal National Anthem Video—It’s THEY LIVE!”
“They Live,” as the video explains, was a mediocre sci-fi film from 1988 that has actually became a “cult classic” (any film that stars pro wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper immediately qualifies as a cult classic). Roddy gets a hold of these tripped out RayBans and when he puts them on, sees that there are butt ugly aliens among us as well as a veritable tsunami of subliminal messages urging us all to obey, sleep, consume, reproduce, not to question authority and accept money as our God.
It’s a cute film, perhaps best known for the line (apparently ad libbed by Mr. Piper of course), “I’m here to chew bubble gum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubble gum.” But anyway…in this aforementioned real 1960s government film, unnamed “scientists” take a page out of Mr. Piper’s future script and encourage us all to “obey the government,” to buy, not to question authority, etc. According to the clip, this is all legit and true and really happened and isn’t supposed to be happening any more, but since it’s all subliminal, how are we supposed to know that it’s stopped?
The video notes that television switches our brains from alpha to beta waves…or maybe it’s vice versa, I forget, I was an English major…anyway, whatever it switches us to makes us kind of daydreamy and “open to suggestion.”
Now, one thing I’ve always heard about hypnotism and “the power of suggestion” is that it can’t make you do anything you don’t really want to, i.e. you can’t hypnotize or “suggest” to someone to kill themselves or strip naked in the middle of a mall unless said person actually, of their own free will, wants to do these things.
So, if that’s true, does it really matter if some “Powers that Be,” i.e. scientists, “The Government,” ugly aliens, etc., are trying to manipulate our thoughts and minds because, in the end, we make up our own minds anyway?
What’s my point? My point is, the ethical PR practitioner is never trying to “pull the wool” over anyone’s eyes. We are, at our core, communicators, spreading information about our clients that we want people to know about. Those appeals may be made in a variety of ways, and do we sometimes appeal to people’s emotions, feelings, and desires? Heck, yes. Is that unethical? Heck, no. We do it every day. Every time a woman bats her eyes and uses the “little girl” voice (as a female friend of mine has been known to do) to manipulate a man into running an errand, buying her something, etc., that’s public relations. Everytime a kid whines and complains and throws a temper tantrum…that’s public relations. And when you make a strong argument with a clear voice, raised head, with transfixed eye contact in order to sell your point, that’s public relations.
By way of example, saw this article in the November 2013 issue of HEALTH Magazine, “The Power of Pride,” that notes how “German economic researchers have found that women are perceived as more willing and able to lead not when we smile cheerfully but when we appear proud of our personal performance.” To achieve this end, the author notes one should “stand tall…tilt your head back slightly…place hands on hips…look straight ahead,” all designed to make you look strong, resolved, assertive and “communicating superiority.”
Every DAY we seek to influence people around us. Heck, even our PETS have learned the power of PR. I believe that cats, from their time spent with humans, know that if they bush up their fur and make their eyes big, they can get their owners to give them more wet food and treats.
The key is to be aware that is happening…and be aware that if you decide to give that suddenly extra-adorable kitty an added spoonful of wet food, or give that underling the promotion they just pitched or to “obey the government,” that you take a moment to ask yourself WHY. If you can’t offer a logical answer to yourself, well, maybe it’s time to sit down and consider your life in greater detail. That’s the power of PR…it’s always got you thinking!

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