Remarkable PR storm. Is it time to be optimistic and courageous?

You want Public Relations, but at what cost?

An industry that was built on the success of propaganda — the founding father himself Edward Bernays who coined the word admits to this (see 8.08 on video) seeing peace-building and the American public as his initial client.

Today , it’s a powerful institution. In the UK it’s worth £12.6bn in 2016 compared to £9.62 bn according to 2016 PR Census and more people work in the industry than do journalists in theirs. It’s also reeling from a very public affair with one of the world’s most renowned companies which is planning a PR offensive come back. More of that in a minute.

PR undoubtedly is a mighty tour de force in politics, media and business. It helps sway elections, creates employment, wealth and riches for its clients and insulates them from prying press.

It normalises; attempts and succeeds at distorting realties. Are sugared drinks good for you? Does smoking make you healthy? Does my bum look good in this as a size zero? Its emotional Hyde emerges as a darker personality to the bit-rational Dr Jekyll and then all sorts of things kick off.

In essence though PR is a position adopted to fuel and promote a message, so YES! there is an upside to the many downs that show its ugly side.

In the early 1920s Bernays brought smoking to women in a canny campaign linking women’s rights to liberty and torches of freedom — cigarettes — upping the profits of the tobacco industry.

America’s national breakfast became a buffet of pork, sausages and eggs, courtesy of a beguiling letter Bernays sent to a medical friend who would influence scores of others doctors to endorse its health message.

In the 1930s, business maturing off the back of political opinion-forming, wanted to know how they too could benefit. Public opinion was the fighting ground and the psychologists and depth manipulators uncovered realms of patterns exposing the irrational minds of people and what Gustav Le Bon had written in 1895 about how to control the minds of crowds.

Say something often enough and people will soon believe you. Pixar’s Inside Out shows a playful side of this. By the time you finish watching this small segment, the ear-worm affects of the gum commercial will have taken hold of you too.

Sadly too you can also win hearts and minds by sowing fear rather than hope. It’s not all doom and gloom, behaviour writes Tali Sharrot, author of The Influential Mind is social conditioning. As the former president of the US, Barrack Obama tweeted people learn how to hate. However, as child studies show we’re born to love.

At the core of it, when logos (logic) is pitted against pathos (emotions), decision making surprisingly takes a turn south — pathos (emotions) wins. It’s as if the fundamental breakthrough in rational discourse of the enlightenment stood for jot.

Though yes that’s an exaggeration, but it doesn’t mean we can’t use emotional call and responses in a positive way which I teach in Cinema Journalism. Traditional journalism likes to make us believe it’s not influence by emotion. It is! The question is to demonstrate its management.

A significant example of PR and marketeers unlocking and observing human irrational behaviour lay in the utility theory and availability bias, explained in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. You may live in a rural beltway, have immediate concerns about your health, and insurance, but that doesn’t matter when you’re told the immigrants are coming — even though there’s no evidence and last time you saw someone from a different culture was on the television.

PR’s leg over was a portable movie screen within our homes. Circa 1950s commercial companies and politics had finally found a way into the intimacy of the living room without the bibles salesman cold calling. Depth manipulators could now, through the power of visuals and advertising, influence behaviour.

Women buying huge fridges wasn’t about keeping up with the Joneses, but fearing another war, where rationing meant a sizeable fridge could help you in storage. A sports car for a middle age man mined the buyer’s emotions and his presumed vitality to keeping his youth, (and presumably finding a date), as documented in Vance’s Hidden Persuaders.

PR didn’t learn how to obfuscate and then create, that was the people who worked the industry. However it would legitimise practices which were, uhum, questionable in polite society.

Without PR a sizeable chunk of information conveyed as journalism offerings would not exist; newspapers would find it difficult to fill copy, television news would miss stories such as fishing policies or refugees needing a home — the ethical side of PR.

And then this. PR at its most illuminating and devastatingly upsetting. The story is about power and politics and for meta tags sakes I won’t list a host of other words but post this BBC news film about events in South Africa.

Followed by this interview, which is not a masterclass by a master in PR, so deserves to be studied. It’s any wonder he didn’t unleash the ubiquitous phrase “I disagree with that” taught to politicians to somehow conclusively defend them against justifiable made claims.

And to finally why both these two stories matter and this post was written. This from Wiki Tribune’ Jack Barton, a story about Lord Bell’s new company adopting the name Sans Frontières Associates’, which has caused concern, amongst the likes of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

When Bell left his long-term firm to launch Sans Frontières Associates last year, he brought partner Jonathan Lehrle with him. Lehrle became Sans Frontières Associates’ new company’s managing director in January. In total, six of the eight advisors profiled on the Sans Frontières Associates website previously worked at Bell Pottinger.

The PR industry in the UK took measures to protect its ethical and moral integrity by reprimanding Bell Pottinger, amongst other things. Rarely will you read or watch a public affair like this play out the way it has. In PR schools it should be lesson 101 providing applications towards a raft of similar play books being witnessed.

This morning from my @medium read I pondered over Paul Mason’s piece Social democracy: radicalise or its overin which he says: neoliberalism is broken. I wondered is PR broken? We have a strong taste in the mouth that journalism is under strain. Is its shape and practice tied to neoliberalism cultures a product of the fruit from the poisson tree. I’m just asking?


Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster which interrogates, produces and crafts storytelling from a spectrum of styles via cognitivism and emotion.