Charles Arment

Spin Sucks Lies: The History of Public Relations

By: Charles Arment | July 28, 2016 | 
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Spin Sucks Lies: The History of Public RelationsWhen asked to blog (I just can’t get comfortable with the word or concept of blog or blogging) about the history of public relations, I knew what this request truly meant.

It meant that I was to relate my personal history of public relations: A racy telling of the drinking and promiscuity prevalent in my father’s agency and the early years of my PR firm.

But, I am not here to satisfy Mad Men zombies.

Instead, I choose to talk about how Spin Sucks fits into the history of public relations.

My Abbreviated History of Public Relations

I don’t want to go back to 2,200 BC when Ptah-hotep advised an ancient Egyptian pharaoh to communicate truthfully, address audience interests, and act in a manner consistent with what is being said.

Nor do I want to bother with ancient Greece, Rome, or even 18th century London when Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, campaigned for the Whig party’s Charles James Fox.

Suffice it to say that the history of public relations is a long, pervasive, and rich evolutionary aspect of our species.

So, let’s start our mini-history by jumping state-side to Ivy Lee (1877-1934) and Edward Bernays (1891-1995).

Some Say Bernays, Others Say Lee

Some believe Edward Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s.

Others believe Ivy Lee invented it when he opened a “counseling office” in 1904.

Just a fun anecdote for each of these men.

Bernays worked on the women’s cigarette smoking campaign in the 1920s.

The challenge?

Women weren’t smoking in public.

If Bernays could get people to change the perception of smoking in public, his client Lucky Strike could expand its market.

If women smoking in public could be linked to the right to vote, which was just passed, Bernays might change perceptions.

Bernays convinced a group of former suffragettes to march down Fifth Avenue, smoking Lucky Strikes or “torches of freedom.”

This would symbolize equality to men (who could smoke in public).

It turned out to be a smashing success.

Lee invented the news release in 1906 when he distributed news about an accident for his client the Pennsylvania Railroad.

He did so to control the message before reporters received other versions of the story.

In 1915, Lee counseled John D. Rockefeller.

In order to develop an image of a philanthropic Rockefeller, Lee recommended Rockefeller hand out dimes to poor children.

Bernays—a Dark Side?

In 1928 Bernays published his magnum opus Propaganda.

One need only read the first paragraph of the first chapter to gain insight into his beliefs (on a related note, Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew):

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Yikes.

Lee’s Lasting Legacy

Once Ivy Lee and his friend George Parker opened a public relations office, they promised their work would possess the qualities of “accuracy, authenticity, and interest,” rare traits among publicity specialists of the time.

They even issued a formal Declaration of Principles to demonstrate their commitment to journalistic integrity.

The Declaration differed greatly from Bernay’s Propaganda.

A couple of excerpts from the Declaration include:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news.

This is not an advertising agency. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it.

In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

Suspicion Hangs Over Lee

Many people started to question Lee’s values at the end of his life.

The reason?

His two foreign clients: The Soviet Union in the 1920s and a Nazi Germany chemical in the early 1930s.

Many people believe he was just a public relations pioneer who had some bad timing or poor client choices.

Others aren’t so sure.

(Congress was investigating his work in Nazi Germany when he died.)

Fast Forward to Spin Sucks

Spin Sucks lies.

Or so the perception goes.

When asked what Gini Dietrich, the creator of Spin Sucks, does for a living, she often hears, “Oh. You’re a spin doctor.”

That implies lying for a living, something she nor any member of her organization would ever do.

As a matter of fact, Gini’s mission is to stop the cycle of the negative history of public relations.

Her aim is nothing less than to change the perception of public relations.

Talk about a big, hairy, audacious goal.

And the funny thing is she never knew that my name Arment had nothing to do with her long-term success.

She may have thought it helped her in the short run, but she always knew that measurable, successful, honest public relations in today’s day and age is a marathon—never a sprint.

And the only means to turning the history of public relations on its head.

image credit: shutterstock

About Charles Arment


Charles Arment is currently the youngest student to have received a PhD. in public relations at Georgetown University. He developed a controversial PR school of thought called "Piercing The Ignorance Chasm," which blacklisted the once promising student. He left PR in 2006. He is rarely seen in public, lives in upstate New York, and occasionally pens articles under the pseudonym "Prosecuted Prophet."