Who’s Your Daddy?

Arthur Page or Edward Bernays?

My observation is that PR practitioners generally sort themselves into one of two camps – whether they realize it or not. Let’s call them Pagers and Bernaysians.

Pagers follow the way of Arthur Page, the long-time head of PR for AT&T in the 20s through 40s. Mr. Page, to judge by some of the comments attributed to him by the Arthur Page Society and the Musuem of Public Relations (who knew?), generally espoused a kind of sweet, “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to public relations:

The public relations job of this, as of other businesses, is to earn a good reputation with the public, to establish itself in the public mind as an institution of character and one which functions in the public interest…The theory is that the greater the public knowledge of a business the greater the public’s understanding of the business and the greater the use of its goods and services.”

Kinda makes you all warm and fuzzy doesn’t it? If Yoda had been a PR guy instead of a Jedi, he would have been a Pager.

Bernaysians, on the other hand, pay tribute to a somewhat different god. Edward Bernays self-promoted himself in the title of “father of public relations” based on a body of work for some of America’s largest corporations. According to the NY Times obit on him, he flogged cigarettes for American Tobacco and dictatorships for United Fruit, among others including Procter & Gamble; Continental Baking Company; General Electric; General Motors; Westinghouse; Time; CBS, and NBC. He also handled publicity for Clare Boothe Luce and Samuel Goldwyn.

Bernays emphatically did not believe in the warm and fuzzy. Bernays believed in manipulating public opinion to achieve specific results.

When hairnets began to lose fashion (go figure), he sent industrial experts around the country to argue that women with unnetted hair were at risk of being sucked into giant pulping, crushing machines at every turn. When soap sales flagged, he organized soap carving competitions. In order to jack up sales of cigarettes to women, he tied the act of smoking to female emancipation in the 1920s and organized “spontaneous’ demonstrations in which women would proudly light up their “torches of freedom” (you can’t make this shit up).

PR, according to Bernays, was an essential part of democracy:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. … We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Darth Vader, safe to say, would have been a Bernaysian.

These days, it’s politically correct to be a Pager, just as it was once politically correct to support the Jedi. But, if we look at ourselves hard in the mirror, I think most of us would see a little more Bernays than we might want to admit in polite company.

We’re far from polite in this crowd, so I put it to you to fess up: which path do you follow and why? Can you be a Bernaysian and be ethical? A Pager and effective? Why did Anakin’s eyes turn orange?

– Austin

8 thoughts on “Who’s Your Daddy?

  1. Curtis Smith says:

    I think I’m a little of both, depending on my mood. I guess at this point in my career you would call me a little bit storm trooper, a little bit youngling.

    Funny enough, I’ve heard several PR executives in this town refer to either Bernays or Page as the “Father of our Industry.” I think their individual actions/practices tend to sway towards the “father” they claim to be the PR architect. I wouldn’t go as far as calling any of them Vader – or Yoda, for that matter.

    Let’s start a group of Pagnaysians. Would that make us a bunch of Jangos and Bobbas?

  2. I like my PR Bernays’ sauce but probably not for the reasons you outline. If you re-examine the Page quote in your post, he says that PR is the job of establishing the corporation’s image in the public’s mind as an institution of charater. That phrase “in the public mind” to me means that you do this whether not not the organization actually has integrity. As long as the masses think it does, then all is well. My guess is Page-ists stick their necks out less often fix anything

    I don’t think Bernays fostered any illusions about the goodness of his clients. I don’t think he was out to fix anything either. He did what he had to do, no matter how bad the clients were, to get them the visibility he was being paid to get. In a way, this makes him a person of higher integrity.

  3. I like my PR with Bernays’ sauce but probably not for the reasons you outline. If you re-examine the Page quote in your post, he says that PR is the job of establishing the corporation’s image in the public’s mind as an institution of charater. That phrase “in the public mind” to me means that you do this whether not not the organization actually has integrity. As long as the masses think it does, then all is well. My guess is Page-ists stick their necks out less often fix anything

    I don’t think Bernays fostered any illusions about the goodness of his clients. I don’t think he was out to fix anything either. He did what he had to do, no matter how bad the clients were, to get them the visibility he was being paid to get. In a way, this makes him a person of higher integrity.

  4. I suppose I’m young and idealistic enough to consider myself a Pager without question, at least as outlined above. Still, as you said about the “torches of freedom,” “you can’t make this shit up.”

    But Bernay’s did. Brilliant. It doesn’t hold up to today’s standards of PR ethics or decency, but it’s damn brilliant nonetheless.

  5. jmaustin says:

    Sterling makes an excellent point in that most of what I know about Arthur Page comes from the hagiography contained on the Arthur Page Society and PR Museum web sites. Maybe he was much more cynical than I’m giving him credit for.

    That said, quotes like, “The theory is that the greater the public knowledge of a business the greater the public’s understanding of the business and the greater the use of its goods and services.” suggest to me that he believed in a kumbaya kind of PR based on the notion that if we can just find the right way to clearly explain who we are, what we’re doing and why, then – gosh darn it – people will understand we’re doing the right thing.

    Don’t get me wrong, that approach works in lots of circumstances and in fact the whole move towards “transparency” in business – which I think is generally good – seems very Page-like to me. Just as often, though, circumstances require a liberal dose of Bernaysian “spin.” The whole concept of being “on message” is very Bernaysian.

  6. I find it increasingly hard to believe with Page that corporations function in the public interest.

    If companies were truly transparent, we’d see that way too many mergers, layoffs, outsourcings, offshorings and cost-cuttings are done to hike short-term stock performance more than to improve service to customers, benefit the company’s community or help employees do their jobs better.

    “Them what’s got, get more,” and ain’t that America today. Too many business decisions just stoke the traders’ and option holders’ speculative frenzy to pile up more and more wealth.

    Marjorie Kelly, in an outstanding book called The Divine Right of Capital, says the laws creating corporations originally said part of their charter was to serve the public. But, she says, increasing shareholder value has come to outweigh all other purposes for corporations, including serving employees’ and the public’s interests. And, despite the fact that lots of Americans own some stock (“let them eat a few crumbs of cake”), increases in shareholder value mostly serve the rich white guys who already own huge platefuls and tablefuls of stock.

    What about measuring a CEO’s stewardship of a company not just by stock performance but by how the company has treated the environment, whether it’s retrained its employees and paid them fairly, whether it’s been a good citizen? Why is stock price the only measurement? Kelly, a business ethicist and damn smart human, says capital has been given way too much priority over all the other factors in the corporate equation. It’s gotten out of balance.

    So a PR person is told to explain to the public how providing less service by laying off people who help customers is a good thing for customers – because it helps the bottom line. Or how merging two local companies that are good corporate citizens into one bigger company that answers to Wall Street is good for the community. Or how keeping wages low so prices stay low – while the social costs piled up by the working poor go up – is good for consumers.

    Bernays could do it. I’m finding it harder.

    Kelly’s book:
    http://www.business-ethics.com/TDROC-PBACK.htm

  7. Kelly Groehler says:

    Oh, please. This nostalgic navel-gazing drives me nuts. The businesses, government, shareholders, etc. who are getting smarter about value of the intangibles in the profit stream – “Green to Gold,” anyone? – don’t give a rat’s ass who Arthur Page or Ed Bernays were.

    And re: those orange eyes – if you have to ask, you obviously don’t know the power of the dark side.

    Happy Friday.

  8. jmaustin says:

    Kelly, you’re right in that no one with a life should spend much of it on either Mr. Bernays or Mr. Page. Their philosophies, though, do merit lots of consideration as communications professionals. When is Page’s “more you know about us, the better you’ll like us” approach strategically or tactically smart? Same with Mr. Bernays’ hidden sculpture approach.

    Ed’s eyes, I bet, glowed orange in the dark.

Comments are closed.