I am writing this on the way back from Brussels where I was at the Europcom conference, participating in a workshop on social media and also a member of an ‘expert panel’ at the conference’s plenary session. The keynote speaker at this plenary session was Simon Anholt, who gave an accomplished performance – both provocative and inspiring to the assembled audience of ‘European communicators’. At the end of his speech, Simon delivered a broadside against public relations, saying that he never understood what it did and why it deserved any attention.
As a self-confessed former PR consultant, I promised a member of the audience that I would take this up with Simon, but he disappeared before I could do so. So here is my response to Simon on behalf of that member of the audience and the discipline of public relations.
Simon, I would like to tell you a story. It is a story which is both horrible and compelling, because it shows the incredible power of PR and lead to the death of millions of people. It is about a man called Edward Bernays. Edward Bernays is credited with being the father of PR. Back in the 1930s Edward was approached by the tobacco industry in the USA. They told him that their problem was that half of the population, i.e. women, did not want to smoke. Now Edward was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the man largely responsible for introducing Freud to the USA. He therefore got some psychoanalysts to look at this problem. Their response, in a typical Freudian way, was to suggest that the real issue was that cigarettes were a penis – a representation of male power – and that they therefore stood for what women wanted, but couldn’t have. Bernays therefore said that the tobacco industry could use this (what we now call an insight) to suggest to women that the act of smoking represented a way (let’s call it a symbolic gesture) to signify their rejection of male dominance.
He organised for a group of debutantes to take part in New York’s Labour Day parade, and to have tucked into their stockings a packet of cigarettes. At a predetermined place, they were all to remove the packets and light-up a cigarette. And, of course, at this place, Bernays had arranged to have photographers from all the national newspapers positioned. And here is the really clever bit. He briefed the women to declare that cigarettes were “torches of freedom”.
The result: women in their millions took up smoking. And not only that, it meant that do this day, the smoking of a cigarette is seen as a gesture of defiance and therefore immensely appealing to teenagers. Bernays not only solved a problem the industry had, he solved the problem it did not yet realise it had. And he also caused the death of millions of people.
The incredible thing about what Bernays did, is that while this is almost the founding act of PR, it emerged fully formed and has never been improved upon in the 80 years since. It has everything – the insight (albeit a rather questionable one), the photocall, the soundbite, the story. It is at the same time horrible and brilliant. And there is not an ad man, nor ad campaign, that has ever existed that could hold a candle to the awful power of this act. This, Simon, is the power of PR.