«SPEAKING OF FAITH: PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE AMONG RELIGION COMMUNICATORS IN THE UNITED STATES Committee: Dominic L. Lasorsa, Co-Supervisor Ronald ...»
He promoted modernism in Christianity and personally printed and paid for national distribution of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon series, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He used publicity to spread Fosdick’s beliefs. He persuaded business tycoon John D. Rockefeller to give $26 million for construction of a new church to house Fosdick’s ministry. Fosdick had resigned under fire from his previous church (Olasky, 1987).
Nevertheless, Lee, an 1898 Princeton University graduate who did later graduate studies at Columbia University, made no effort to outline a coherent philosophy for his work. He told a 1927 public transit commission hearing that he had never found a satisfactory term to describe what he did. He considered his activities an art, not a science. Lee reportedly told Bernays that the things Lee did in publicity work would die with him (Cutlip, 1994).
Bernays Takes Different Approach Bernays took a decidedly different and more systematic approach to his work. He described himself as a “counsel on public relations” (flack), not a publicist. For him the work involved much more than communication. He was an “applied social scientist” (Ewen, 1998, p. 10) who studied “the public mind” with “the aid of practical and psychological tests and surveys” (Bernays, 1923, pp. 52, 53). He maintained that public relations counselors contributed to business success by using knowledge of “sociology, psychology, social psychology and economics” (Ewen, 1998, p. 10) to understand human motivation, influence public opinion and manipulate mass human behavior. Counselors did that through planned actions as well as communications. Bernays said his job was not to create positive images for his clients. He tried to fashion and project a credible rendition of reality (Ewen, 1998).
Bernays systematically outlined the flack philosophy in his first book, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923). In it he introduced the two-way concept of communication in public relations (as opposed to the one-way publicity approach), called public relations a management function and described the public relations counsel as a mediator between clients and target publics. The public relations counsel, in Bernays’ view, moved beyond the hack to the flack by planning special events that made news on their own. Bernays’ approach did not rely on news releases to generate coverage. Sixtyseven years later, Bernays told scholar Stewart Ewen that the counsel’s job was to instruct clients to “interrupt … the continuity of life in some way to bring about the (media) response” (Ewen, 1998, p. 14).
Public discussion of Crystallizing Public Opinion brought both recognition and criticism to the public relations field (Cutlip, 1994).
In a 1924 editorial, the Chicago Tribune, a conservative newspaper, urged that the business executive, when he was trying to obtain the public’s cooperation, should as a priority extend complete cooperation to the public relations department of his organization. A year later, Abram Lipsky, in his book, Man, the Puppet, saw the public relations counsel only “as a new Pied Piper who was the old press agent in new guise.” Yet by 1926, the New York Herald editorialized, “The old time press agent has gone and with the emergence of public relations counsel there was change not only of title but of methods.” … Throughout most of this period, Editor & Publisher (a weekly newspaper trade magazine) remained a reconstructed foe of the new field. … E&P’s fear was expressed earlier that year on July 27, 1939, when it wrote, “Perhaps some can explain to us why it is that certain publishers who would instantly discharge a reporter for ‘making news’ will accept the synthetic news creation of press agents.” (Cutlip, 1994, pp. 179-180) In Propaganda (1928) Bernays further detailed the public relations counsel’s role and described individuals doing the work as “new propagandists.” He defined propaganda as “an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine” (p. 48), “the establishing of reciprocal understanding between individuals and groups” (p. 161) and “the transmission of opinions and ideas” (p. 162). He described propaganda positively as “the executive arm of the invisible government” managed by public relations practitioners (Bernays, 1928, p. 48). Their mission was to organize information for the public, narrow the field of choices to practical proportions and regiment the public mind.
He maintained that such mass persuasion was consistent with good, democratic government (Bernays, 1928).
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 molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. (Bernays, 1928, p. 9) The release of Propaganda set back, rather than advanced, the flack approach to public relations in both secular and faith communities. By openly discussing techniques of mass manipulation, the book embarrassed many in the public relations industry for
decades to come (Ewen, 1998). Cutlip noted:
His timing could not have been more unfortunate. In the 1920s, in the disillusionment that settled across America when the United States failed to achieve its lofty aims of World War I, propaganda became a whipping post for the critics and the cynics. The word propaganda was once a perfectly respectable word describing a church function. … America’s era of the 1920s made propaganda an ugly, connotative word as writers and political leaders asserted that the United States had been suckered into the war by false propaganda of the British…. And on top of this, that same year, 1928, brought the start of the exposure of the nation’s utilities, led by the notorious Samuel Insull, for their conduct of “an aggressive countrywide propaganda campaign….” (Cutlip, 1994, p. 183) In that social climate Propaganda set off alarm bells in religious, political and academic circles. For example, The Michigan Christian Advocate, a weekly Methodist Episcopal Church newspaper, warned of a danger “in the discovery of the mass mind” that Bernays described (Cutlip, 1994; Olasky, 1987). In a 1934 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described Bernays and Lee as “professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest.” Sociologist E.T. Hiller said Bernays’ efforts to manipulate opinion “constitute a financial burden, a perversion of intellectual candor, and a menace to political sanity” (Cutlip, 1994, p. 185; Olasky, 1987, p. 91).
Those remarks reflect opinions about Bernays’ flack approach to public relations when the Religious Publicity Council was born. The anti-Propaganda opinions may be one reason the council decided to use “publicity,” rather than “public relations,” in its original name.
Bernays’ “applied social scientist” and “new propagandist” approach to public relations introduced an underlying issue that has haunted the continuing flack-vs.-hack debate in the Religion Communicators Council: the role of psychology in public relations practice. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays referred to his uncle constantly and alluded to the importance of psychoanalytic concepts to his public relations thinking (Cutlip, 1994; Ewen, 1998; Olasky, 1987, 1988; Tye, 1998). Bernays held the 1920 copyright on the first volume of Freud’s work published in the United States (Freud, 1920). Bernays openly advocated using propaganda to direct public attention to specific topics in the marketplace of ideas and engineer consent (Bernays, 1928, 1955). As a result, Vance Packard (1957) blasted Bernays in The Hidden Persuaders as one of the “symbol manipulators” who were shaping public thought during the 1950s.
The Hidden Persuaders appeared the year the Soviet Union put Sputnik 1 into orbit and shook America’s national confidence. The book, which topped The New York Times bestseller list for six straight weeks, gave one insight into why some people were suspicious of advertising and public relations practices during the post-McCarthy Cold War period.
Packard painted a pessimistic picture of mid-20th century American society. He said professional “symbol manipulators”—advertisers, public relations practitioners, political campaign planners and professional fundraisers—were using “mass psychoanalysis” to discover how to control American commercial, social and political decisions. These persuaders preyed on the hidden subconscious desires of unwary consumer-citizens through “depth” motivation research. That research allowed manipulators to herd members of the passive mass audience like sheep into buying things they did not need, worrying about manufactured concerns and voting for prepackaged political candidates. “The most serious offense many of the depth manipulators commit, it seems to me,” Packard wrote, “is that they try to invade the privacy of our minds. It is this right to privacy in our minds—privacy to be either rational or irrational—that I believe we must strive to protect” (Packard, 1957, p. 266).
Dean of Church Public Relations Rejects Flack Approach The association of public relations with “hidden persuaders,” intentional audience manipulation and psychological research prompted some church communicators during the period to shy away from public relations as Bernays practiced it. For example, Ralph Stoody, “dean of church public relations” (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 38), wrote
in his 1959 Handbook of Church Public Relations:
Forget the pompous and complex approach to the subject. Among professionals in the general field may be those who aspire to be “propagandistic manipulators” or “engineers of consent,” but this type of practitioner is extremely rare. In general, PR people seem sincerely committed to standards of truth and good taste and to objectives that are in accordance with public welfare. (Stoody, 1959, p. 10) The references to propaganda and engineering consent were both explicit allusions to Bernays’ published work: Propaganda (1928) and The Engineering of Consent (1955).
Stoody tried to set himself apart from Bernays and other “hidden persuaders” by defining religious public relations as “doing whatever contributes toward making a church deserve and receive the confidence and cooperation of increasing numbers of people—in still simpler form: making friends for Christ and his Church” (Stoody, 1959, p. 10). This definition, with its emphasis on doing (action) like Bernays rather than telling (reporting) like Lee, seems to put Stoody on the flack side of the RCC debate. But his daily work as head of Methodist Information, a denominational news bureau—“doing strictly publicity and promotional work” (Peterson, 1946, p. 8)—as well as the chapters in his handbook (“What makes news ‘news,’ “How to write news,” “Releases: How to prepare them,” etc.), show him to be a hack in practice.
Churches Struggle with Definition of Public Relations Deciding how to define public relations and whether churches should use practices associated with it has been part of the flack-vs.-hack debate for more than 50 years. Scott Cutlip and Allen Center tracked changing perceptions of public relations among church leaders in various editions of their textbook, Effective Public Relations.
Their widely used work, as well as Religion Communicator Council publications released during the same period, showed gradual changes since 1952 in how church leaders— especially at local and regional levels—regarded public relations.
Cutlip and Center (1952, 1958, 1964, 1971, 1978) have reported increasing support for systematic public relations among local church leaders over the years. Their writing was less clear concerning changing opinions at the denominational level. Cutlip and Center indicated a constant acceptance of public relations there. In the first edition of
Effective Public Relations, Cutlip and Center wrote:
Although an increasing number of church bodies are embracing the practice of public relations, there is still staunch sentiment among many clergy and lay leaders to shy clear of something as “modern” and “secular” as “public relations.” … Too many people confuse public relations with the ill-advised uses to which it is sometimes put. For this reason, many religious leaders back off from the adoption of modern public relations methods for the advancement of religion. This thinking, found mostly at the local level, is waning. The major religious bodies have large, strong PR staffs in their national headquarters. As public relations contributes to the work of the church in a spiritually sick, strife-torn, and starving world, it needs no apology. Though they pioneered in the art of communications in the early centuries of civilization, churches in the last century or so have lagged behind in adoption of modern methods. The current emphasis on the importance of PR in religious circles is, in part, an effort to catch up with the refinements and the emphasis in industry, labor, government, and education. (Cutlip & Center, 1952, p. 362) The church could decide where to use publicity, Cutlip and Center continued. But it had no choice in the matter of public relationships with society. Everything about the church was open to public view: achievements, deficiencies, needs, purposes, attitudes and actions (Cutlip & Center, 1952).
The second, third and fourth editions (Cutlip & Center, 1958, 1964, 1971), although slightly rewritten, made the same points. The fifth edition (Cutlip & Center,
1978) was a bit more upbeat. “An increasing number of the 240 church bodies in the United States are embracing the practice of public relations,” it said (p. 483).
Furthermore, Cutlip and Center noted: