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World: What Is Public Relations? Part 1

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Public relations is a widely known but poorly understood business. Most P.R. work is done behind the scenes, and intersects with the related fields of lobbying and government propaganda. In part one of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky looks at the origins and techniques of the public relations industry.

Prague, 24 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Following World War I, the acknowledged father of U.S. public relations was out of a job. Edward Bernays had spent the war years working with the Foreign Press Bureau of the U.S. Committee on Public Information, trying to persuade U.S. citizens to support an unpopular war.

But Bernays wasn't out of work for long. Many groups and businesses were seeking the kind of skills he possessed. One was the Lithuanian National Council of the United States. The council was urging U.S. recognition for its newly independent homeland, which had broken in 1918 from Russia. It turned to Bernays for help.

Bernays set to his task, churning out reams of mini-articles about the tiny Baltic outpost. Whether on politics, sports or culture, each story highlighted how Lithuania could serve as a bulwark against Bolshevik aggression. Most important, every item Bernays wrote contained less than 100 words. Bernays called the mini-stories "fillers." He knew newspaper editors needed smaller items to fill gaps in their papers.

In 1919, the U.S. Senate recognized Lithuania as an independent state. The Lithuanian National Council of the United States was pleased. Most observers say Bernays' public relations work played more than a small role.

Today, from selling soap to selling a newly formed nation, public relations is huge business. And what was hatched by Bernays and other like-minded U.S. pioneers, has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. Take for example, the world's biggest public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller. It has 60 offices in 32 countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.

But precisely what is public relations? Public relations shapes and sculpts images in a bid to influence public opinion. It depends on understanding the inner workings of the human mind, playing on people's emotions and fears to influence their opinions. It might not seem surprising that Bernays' uncle was none other than Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

To its supporters, public relations is all about effective communications -- getting out a message. Others aren't so sure. To detractors, public relations borders on propaganda, distorting the truth to hoodwink the public.

Mysteriously, P.R. practitioners' ability to communicate clearly seems to disappear when they are asked to explain exactly what they do and for whom. Repeated attempts by RFE/RL to discuss the most rudimentary elements of P.R. were met by a wall of skepticism and evasion from people in the field. One official from the large P.R. firm Hill and Knowlton said he saw, what he called "no upside in cooperating with an article examining his field."

The information put out by the P.R. firms themselves is mostly vague and, not surprisingly, self-serving. On its website, Burton Marsteller describes its work as something sounding slightly Orwellian [that is, like mind control in George Orwell's novel, "1984"]: "Perception management." The website states: "Through a Perception Management approach to communications, it can motivate behaviors that create positive business results."

Sheldon Rampton is co-director of P.R. Watch, a U.S.-based group monitoring the public relations industry. He says the growth of public relations is inextricably linked to the rise in democracy and corporate power.

"We have seen the growth of democracy, we have seen the growth of corporate power, and those two things aren't always compatible. So propaganda as a means of shaping and controlling democracy -- and [a means of] preventing it from being too much of a challenge to corporate power -- has grown."

In the second part of our series, we'll look at some of the techniques used by public relations firms and some concrete cases where the firms have helped shape public opinion.