Springing Into Spin: The History Of PR
David Barsamian interviews Stuart Ewen
Stuart Ewen is professor of media studies at Hunter College in New York. He is the author of a number of books on the media and public relations, most recently "PR: A Social History of Spin." This interview was conducted by David Barsamian and aired on Alternative Radio in April of 1999.
David Barsamian: One of the early public relations spin-meisters was Ivy Lee. He warned that "the crowd is now in the saddle. The people now rule. We have substituted for the divine right of kings the divine right of the multitude."
Stuart Ewen: Ivy Lee was not a businessman but a journalist who went over to the business side. He came from a conservative Southern background, was very religiously attached to private wealth, and from around 1904, '05 on, basically takes those journalistic skills and tries to use them in order to tell the story of business. Ivy Lee was the representative of the railroad industry and of Standard Oil. He spoke for some of the most powerful interests in the society. When he went to them, he said, 'Look, you've got a situation where ordinary people assume that this is a democracy and that their concerns matter. If we don't start behaving, or at least producing, a story that speaks effectively on our behalf, the people are going to grab our power from us.' So one of the things you see there, and it's really important when we're dealing with the history of corporate PR, is that it starts from the beginning as a response to the threat of democracy and as a need to create some kind of ideological link between the interests of big business and the interests of ordinary Americans. That's a lot of what corporate PR has been ever since, although its strategies and tactics have changed.
Around this period of the early 1900s, when the industry starts, what are the driving forces that inform its development?
One of the things that needs to be said about this early period, and I think it's pivotal to the story, is that on the one hand you have this huge consolidation of corporate wealth, monopolies in some of the basic industries of the society. On the other hand, you have basically two movements going on in the society, both of which are hostile to developments in big business. One is the development of a radical labor movement that is actively moving against the practices of wealth; this is a time of enormous union organizing and of strikes. And this disaffected middle class all of a sudden begins to feel government regulation is necessary. They become the core of what's usually known as the progressive movement. What the progressive movement really is in many ways is a movement that uses publicity as a way of shining a spotlight on the injuries and excesses of business and also on the ways in which business is influencing the political system in the society. So there is this flood of antibusiness publicity. If you were to talk to somebody in 1904 and 1905 and ask what American publicity was about, they would not be talking about corporate PR. They would in fact be talking about anticorporate PR, to a large extent. The business community really begins to embrace the idea of PR in response to on the one hand, a militant labor movement, and on the other hand, a middle class that instead of identifying with the position of wealth is beginning to identify with the positions of ordinary working folks.
In 1914 in southern Colorado occurs the Ludlow massacre, in which 14 miners, their wives and children were killed by the Colorado National Guard at the behest of the owner, John D. Rockefeller. How does Ivy Lee work into the story?
After the Ludlow massacre, there is a ground swell of outrage against first of all the massacre, against the way in which the National Guard had worked essentially as private Pinkertons for the Rockefeller family, and second, at the brutality of the killing of unarmed miners and their families. This was the moment when John D. Rockefeller and Ivy Lee entered into a partnership that would last for the rest of their lives. Lee basically started publishing information sheets about the Ludlow massacre, indicating that the fires had been set by the miners themselves, that Mother Jones, who was active in it, was the keeper of a house of ill repute. There was one fabrication after another.
The troops were provoked by the miners.
The spin was that the unfortunate troops had been suckered into killing the miners by the miners themselves. I should say that Ivy Lee's campaign was not a particularly effective one. Public relations is not some sort of automatic tool that brainwashes the recipients. Ivy Lee's reputation throughout much of his life was that of "Poison Ivy," a paid liar. He is not somebody you want to describe as a particularly successful public relations person.
Was Ludlow one of the first examples of what's called damage control?
No. The effective cases of damage control we don'tknow about. You want to talk about damage control, 10 years before Ludlow, AT&T was in the middle of developing a policy designed to assert a monopoly over all forms of wire communication in the U.S., during a period when there was strong antimonopoly feeling among large numbers of people. There were local phone companies all over the U.S., and for most folks a local phone company was fine. If you lived in Abilene, you weren't going to call somebody in San Francisco, except if you were in business. AT&T was a company that really understood that a national wire system, and ultimately an international wire system, was going to be the connective tissue of a global economy.
The problem was that AT&T was seen as an interloper that was trying to put local phone companies out of business. In areas where local phone companies were strong, like Kansas City and Milwaukee and, I believe, Denver, the local newspapers trashed AT&T as a company that was trying to wipe out our friends and neighbors. AT&T went into those towns one by one. The first thing they did was to start putting advertising in all those local newspapers. The first salvo of advertising began to soften a lot of local editors to AT&T. Within a short period of time, in exchange for large amounts of advertising revenue, AT&T is handing pre-written articles to local newspapers, who are now in an economic relationship that encourages them to publish stories not even written by their own reporters but by front people for AT&T. This was an extraordinarily successful campaign.
Another thing they did was to use women operators. This was the first time a woman's voice had ever been the interface between big business and ordinary people. By 1912, 1913, AT&T is familiarly known as "Ma Bell" around the country. That's effective damage control. What they did was to take a situation where they were viewed as a rapacious, monopolistic force and reinvent themselves.
Do you see a legitimacy for public relations?
I think the history of public relations is a primarily illegitimate one. Most of it is about packaging reality in a way that is designed to benefit powerful clients.
Talk about Edward Bernays.
Edward Bernays was considered by many to be the godfather of public relations in the United States, and although he wasn't the first, I would say he probably was the most important figure in the development of PR. One of the most famous of his promotions was for the American Tobacco Company. One of the problems at the time was that women were not smoking enough outside. They had started smoking inside, but they weren't smoking in public enough. Why? You have torealize that this is a period of time when the health problems surrounding tobacco are considered relatively minuscule and where even doctors are giving testimonials in cigarette advertising and women are being encouraged to reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet, that this is a good diet aid. But still, there is this idea that a cigarette, this kind of miniature phallic symbol, is a symbol of masculine rights within a society, precisely because men can smoke in public and women can't. So he goes to a group of feminists, and I should add that his wife, Doris Fleishman, was a feminist and very actively involved in these issues and pushed him in many of his campaigns. He goes to this group of former suffragettes and convinces them that they should have a march down Fifth Avenue carrying cigarettes in the air as torches of freedom. So he takes the symbol of masculine power, puts it in the hands of women, has them march, and all of a sudden the cigarette is not about tobacco, not about taste, not about smoke, it's about freedom. This is something that happens all the time now in propaganda and public relations and advertising, that is, the attaching of something which has absolutely nothing to do with human freedom, to all kinds of aspirations for freedom.
- David Barsamian is the director and producer of Alternative Radio. For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact: David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, P.O. Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306, (800) 444-1977