A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power
by David Miller and William Dinan
232 pages, Pluto Press, 2008
Dark side of the spin
Miller and Dinan, two university sociologists, are the self-appointed watchdogs of the UK public relations business, a similar role to that performed by Stauber and Rampton in the US (editors of PR Watch and authors of books including Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry).
It’s an important role, given the undoubted growth in the size and status of public relations in the last few decades. Democracy deserves nothing less, and it’s not in the interests of PR practitioners or educators to pretend that the business is too minor to merit scrutiny.
“This book is our attempt”, the authors write, “to explain how the ‘insidious’ and ‘mysterious’ power of PR works to undermine democracy.” So they recount PR’s origins in propaganda, claiming this is “an account which the industry does not want to become common knowledge”, though most PR students will be familiar with the chief protagonists – Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Carl Byoir and Arthur W. Page.
They move from propaganda to lobbying, and make the claim that “corporations and their lobbyists are the real rulers of the world.” The ultimate target of the book is clear: it’s capitalism, in the form of global business interests. So when environmentalist Jonathon Porritt reappraised capitalism in his 2005 book, calling it “the only real economic game in town” and criticising his former Green Party allies for being “too anti-business”, he’s viewed as another tool for corporate propaganda. It’s implicit that the only views worthy of respect are from the old anti-business left; all others have sold out to the corporates.
Above all, the authors state that “global capitalism needs global PR,” and the heart of the book is a review of the globalised public relations consultancy business. They make some telling observations about “the striking concentration in the business”, pointing out that PR consultancies Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton are both part of the same global company, WPP. Elswhere the well-known political affliation of Lords Bell and Chadlington, who head two other holding companies, is used to imply that their businesses, and their employees, would share the same political beliefs.
This world view is notable when turning to China: “the People’s Republic of China (like the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries) had very little use for PR under a command economy.” True. They had little use for multi-party elections and a free press too, yet the authors still argue that PR undermines democracy.
Equally, the creation of New Labour could be seen as a democratic triumph: of the return to government of a political party that had long been unelectable. But these authors view it merely as another insidious victory for market forces. “The change from Tory to Labour was not a change from corrupt to clean politics. It was a handover of power from one party of business to another.”
Theirs is a well-researched and well-written account, but a blinkered one. Public relations academics do not shy away from considering propaganda (think of Kevin Moloney’s 2006 edition of Rethinking Public Relations: PR Propaganda and Democracy and note the lack of punctuation in the subtitle) and in my experience students are always eager to discuss it. But there’s no denying it: the view of the world from a sociology department and from a business faculty is very different. It’s not only the past that’s another country.