In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. – Edward Bernays, “Father of Public Relations”
Alright, so Bernays was an elitist and a narcissist, but he was also way ahead of his time, having whipped up a war to sell bananas long before Hill & Knowlton whipped up sympathy for Kuwait to sell a war.
This week, just-what-really-goes-on in the public relations industry is getting a good deal of attention, owing to an article in the July issue of Harper’s magazine in which Ken Silverstein reports on his dealings with DC-based PR agencies Cassidy & Associates and APCO Worldwide. Basically, Silverstein posed as a representative for a UK business with interests in Turkmenistan and sought proposals from the two firms on how they would enact a campaign to improve the country’s less-than-stellar world image now that the country had a newly-elected president.
A C&A rep commented in a statement:
“We are surprised that a reporter would go to such extraordinary lengths to gather information in such a deceptive way that really isn’t all that new or interesting.
Ouch. It’s kind of true — the revelation that PR/lobbing firms manipulate is far from earth-shattering. But it does make for a good story and, Silverstein goes about getting the story in a novel way. It’s an interesting read, full of historical anecdotes about American lobbyists/PR professionals representing foreign nations (“American lobbyists have worked for dictators since at least the 1930s, when the Nazi government used a proxy firm called the German Dye Trust to retain the public-relations specialist Ivy Lee.”); detailed accounts of Silverstein’s meetings with agency executives; and the agency’s suggested strategies for teaming up with think tanks, front groups, magazines, etc., to sponsor Turkmenistan-friendly events.
I think it’s fascinating. I have a perverse perspective about the public relations industry, I think. I can understand people’s shock/interest in PR industry manipulation and such. But I’m also intrigued by it. All that strategy and circuitousness! Maybe I’ve just read too much about this stuff this year in school or maybe I’m just cynical enough to not really think that it matters (advertising, political campaigning, public relations … when isn’t everything being manipulated by everyone else?), but I just can’t work up the moral outrage about this that seems requisite. I don’t really see that either firm acted very unexpectedly or horrendously in this case, and I think Silverstein’s style/tone makes a lot of the things seem more nefarious then they are.
Nonetheless, I also think Silverstein’s article idea for and execution of the article was really good. He tells a good story. I also can’t work up the consternation about his deceptive practices that seems to plague people like Howard Kurtz at WaPo, who notes that “no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.” Come on. Without lying to get some stories, there’d be no investigative journalism(and we may all still be eating dead meat-packing workers). There should be more of this.
In a response yesterday, Silverstein defended his methods:
Undercover journalism should be used sparingly, but it has often yielded rich benefits. One of my favorite cases came in the 1970s, when the Chicago Sun-Times bought its own tavern and exposed gross corruption on the part of city inspectors. Unfortunately, few news outlets are willing to use undercover journalism to get a story, or to practice investigative journalism in general. It’s just too expensive and risky; media organizations would rather spend their money on tables at the White House Correspondents dinner and watch Karl Rove rap.
(I like that PR Week says the two firms “got punk’d.” )
(David Henderson questions why the agencies didn’t catch on … )
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