Why the surprise? PR consultancies and oppressive regimes

Posted on September 7, 2011


Al-Jazeera’s Listening Post this week and other media outlets have made much of the employment of PR Consultants like the Washington-based Qorvis Communications and the London-based Bell Pottinger by the governments in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain to address their bad image in the west. But why should this be surprising?

The surprise is as much a testament to the successful PR campaign by professionals and academics which have sought since the 1940s to project an image of PR as professional, ethical and with potential for good. This strand traces the roots of modern PR to people such as Ivy Lee who advised corporations such as the major rail companies on crisis management in the event of a crash.

But there is another strand to the development of modern PR, founded by Bernays and his concept of ‘engineered consent’.  With this he pioneered the use of psychological techniques to control what he saw as an irrational public prone to ‘herd’ like tendencies.  His innovations included the tactical use of ‘third party authorities’ to plead his client’s case; the strategy of invisibility which included deliberate efforts to operate behind the scenes; and the use of techniques from psycho-analysis (Freud) and behavioural psychology (Pavlov) to mask the motives of his clients and keep the public unaware of how he was trying to mould their minds.

What made Bernays controversial was his use of these in the employ of tobacco companies to persuade women that it was socially acceptable to smoke and the beer companies to persuade Americans it was the ‘beverage of moderation’. He was also involved in US propaganda operations during the two world wars in which he sought to manipulate the media. A line of activity that so incensed critics that it prompted the emergence of the first tranche of serious media studies – that of propaganda.  But Bernay’s most controversial activity was the use of a propaganda campaign for United Fruit which contributed to the CIA’s overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala in the 1950s.

Tye argues that ‘The techniques he developed fast became staples of political campaigns and of image-making in general … it is essential to understand … Bernays if we are to understand what Hill and Knowlton did in Iraq …and how most other modern-day miracles of public relations are conceived and carried out’ (1998).So why the surprise over Qorvis and Bell Pottinger? PR tactics, strategies and techniques are – as with the media – merely tools. What matters is how they used, for what purpose and with what consequence.