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
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
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
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