Distinguishing Propaganda

“With the development of modern mass communication there is increasing difficulty in distinguishing propaganda material from non-propaganda material…The conscious selection by editors of “stacked news,” as well as their unwitting publication of copy prepared in the interest of special groups, complicates even for those readers who would distinguish, the discrimination between  propaganda and other material…The most innocent material, on the surface, may actually be quite other than it seems.”

 –Malcolm Willey, “Communication Agencies and the Volume of Propaganda,” 1935


Machiavellian Public Relations: Persuading like it’s 1512

“It is of great consequence to disguise your inclination and to play the hypocrite well; and men are so simple in their temper and so submissive to their present necessity that he that is neat and cleanly in his collusions shall never want people to practice them upon.”

-Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, c. 1512

Chapter 5 “Educate the Public!”

Ivy Lee was hired by the Rockefellers to cleanse the reputation of Standard Oil. Lee was hard pressed to change Standard Oil’s negative image in the public eye however, because the Rockefellers severely limited what he could do for public relations work. While working in Public relations, Lee said that the new idea of public interest and corporation policy intertwining was called a “two-way street”. Lee was never able to achieve the goal of the two-way street though, because few industrial owners felt like they needed to move in that direction.

At the turn of the century, AT&T wanted to create a monopoly over telephone service in the United States. In order to achieve this, it was believed that the public had to be diverted from its distrust of big business. In order to help with their image, AT&T hired the services of the recently founded Publicity Bureau, which was located in Boston. The Publicity Bureau was a partnership of a former newspaper men, who prepackaged news to help the reputations of their clients. James T. Ellsworth, took the job of steering the AT&T account.

Ellsworth developed a strategy of using advertising revenue that the newspapers received, to steer the newspapers to writing favorably towards AT&T. Newspapers at this time already relied on advertising revenue as their main source of income. If AT&T became the newspaper best clients in terms of advertising revenue, the newspapers would not want to do anything to lose their best clients. Walter S. Allen, AT&T’s corporate liaison with the Publicity Bureau, saw this plan working and said it should be increasingly easy to get newspapers to write pro-AT&T articles. Allen also said that although articles may be promotions for AT&T, they must not appear to be so.

The system almost worked but fell through. After that AT&T moved away from the Publicity Bureau and hired Theodore Newton Vail to be their new executive chief. Vail believed that businesses must educate the public to an alternative truth. At times there were government officials who called for the government to end monopolies like AT&T. To combat this, Vail had pro-AT&T speakers drawn from the community prepared to speak at debates and had them extensively informed before the debates.

1.) Men like Rockefeller dealt in a business where they were shielded from the middle-class public and therefore did not need to deal extensively in public relations

2.) Vail, knowing that AT&T dealt directly with the middle-class public by providing them with phone service, knew that public relations and maintaining a good image in the public eye was essential to the survival of the company

3.) Vail’s insight into the modern public paved the way for the creation of modern public relations

Chapter 15- Public Ultimatums

Throughout Chapter 15, Public Ultimatums by Stuart Ewen he discusses how in 1936 Adolf Hitler employed the cult of Aryan supremacy to draw the German masses toward the brink of total warfare, and its influence on revitalizing public relations in the United States. The pressure on winning the war took the focus of the problems away from the home front, and allowed for the US to be united.

“Business involvement in a thriving propaganda campaign- this time with a legion of writers, broadcasters, movie makers, publicists, and other mass media experts who were organized by radio newsman Elmer Davis’ Office of War information. had also emboldened private enterpriser’s with the conventionalist hat they might, once again, gain mastery over the popular imagination”.
War allowed for a chance to gain influence over the Public’s mindset and vision of the United States and their interaction with other countries.

New Deal activism had a chance to be reversed. In widespread “planning for postwar” deliberations business leaders emphasized the need to elevate “Private Enterprise” and “Fifth Freedom” and the need for “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Want, and Freedom From Fear.” With so many different public opinions being shared nationalism and pride in our country spread like Wild Fire and the War helped to bring about unity.

Throughout this time of great chaos, Germany continued to spread their Nazi influence internationally through the Olympics and sharing their vision of a supremacy race and his personal intentions of dominating all of Europe. This type of competition allowed for PR to flourish, and remind the people of the US “Why the American way of life- is worth sacrificing anything and everything not only to preserve but to take forward in a future more glorious than ever.”

Libbie Custer

Most Americans are familiar with the name “General George Custer” and his historical last stand at Little Big Horn. He has become a vital and renowned piece of American History that is taught in schools still today. Few people know however, that one of the biggest reasons he is such a well known war hero, is due to the campaigning and image restoration that his beloved wifeElizabeth“Libbie” Custer did for him posthumous.

After his slaughter in the Battle of Little Big Horn, General Custer was doomed to be a forgotten name, just another man who mistakenly led his men into a dangerous and unwise situation. Knowing this, Libbie Custer sought out to restore his image and make him the American Hero that she viewed him as. As part of her image restoration process, Libbie followed the common steps of image restoration – denial, evading responsibility, corrective action, mortification, and reducing offensiveness.

Elizabethwas only able to begin writing and discussing the details of her husband’s life nine years after his death. Grieving the loss of her husband proved to be hard for her, and she ended up wearing the widow’s dressings of all black and muted colors for the rest of her life. This showed her sorrow as well as her determination to not let people forget the greatness of her husband.

As part of her campaign to promote General Custer as an American Hero, Elizabeth used such tactics as showing his loving side as a kind husband, and romanticized a violent period of American History by showing him as a brave and courageous man. Another brilliant move of Libbie Custer was how she presented herself to the world. She carried herself with such poise and grace; she became the kind of person who “must have been married to a hero”.

Elizabeth Custer turned upside down the image of a man who’s legacy was doomed to be that of a foolish man who led his men into a dangerous situation. She made him into the kind of man Americans were proud to have grace the pages of their history books.

Elizabeth Custer and Image Restoration


The writers of the article “Libbie Custer’s  Last Stand: Image Restoration, The Press, and Public Memory set out to answer the question “How did Elizabeth Custer’s publicity campaign contribute to the image restoration and public memory of her husband, (George Armstrong Custer) a controversial figure?”

The authors examined 265 articles written by or about Elizabeth Custer  from  1876 to 1934.

The authors rely on William L. Benoit’s image restoration theory which states that when mistakes are criticized and image is threatened, we feel compelled to offer explanations, defend, justify, rationalize, apologize or make excuses for our behavior.  Benoit also identified five strategies that are commonly used for image restoration: denial, evading responsibility, corrective action, mortification, and reducing the offensiveness of the event.  Other tactics include bolstering, or relating positive attributes or past actions, minimization, which suggests the transgression was not as bad as first seemed; differentiation, or comparing the action to something worse that could have been done; transcendence, which means providing a different frame of reference; attacking one’s accuser; and compensation, or remunerating the victim to offset negative feelings.

In addition to concrete PR methods such as building relationships with congressmen, senators and her husband’s military superiors, Elizabeth Custer also used strategies associated with reducing offensiveness such as bolstering Custer’s reputation by reinforcing positive aspects of his past (military success during the Civil War) and transcendence, suggesting a different frame of reference – that offered by a grieving widow. How could an evil man inspire such devotion from such a saintly wife?  She bolstered his reputation as a courageous military man and tempered this by presenting vignettes of her home life with him as a domestic husband.  Benoit also states that image restoration is at first directed at an external audience, but he notes that such efforts are also geared at making one feel better about oneself. Her mission of image restoration was integral in maintaining her own reputation as well that of her husband.

The authors of this article also point to a connection between publicity and public memory. Public memory is defined as a “body of beliefs about the past that help a society understand its past, present and, by implication, its future.  Although militarily, Custer may be considered, by some, to be a failure at Little Big Horn, he remains in the collective American memory because he fit a heroic mold and represented a public sacrifice in the westward expansion (Manifest Destiny) of the United States. Mrs. Custer bolstered this public memory in many ways—donating personal items from Custer’s military career, writing articles about life in the west, sought compensation for other Last Stand widows and children, wore widow’s clothing to remind the nation of the personal cost of her husband’s sacrifice, controlled the images that were published of Custer and even refused to let a statue of Custer remain in public because she felt that it was not representative enough of Custer the individual.

Elizabeth Custer, a pioneer in public relations, preserving her husband’s memory by pen, voice, and deed.

Libbie Custer

Miller Russel on Libbie Custer

At the time of her death, Libbie Custer was best known for preserving the memory of someone else’s life.  Her husband General George Custer was the commanding officer during the Little Big Horn tragedy, a battle during which Custer’s entire unit was killed, including Custer.  Because of the controversial nature of the event, many people had reservations about Custer and mixed feelings about him as a general and his decision making.  Because of this, his widow Libbie dedicated the remainder of her life acting as the ultimate PR representative.

Custers Last Stand

                Although PR was not a career at the time of Custer’s death, Libbie Custer, unbeknownst to her, was actually using several of the tactics that have since been proven to work when trying to restore and/or preserve someone’s image.

Custer’s memory lives on, in part, because he fits the mold of a hero.  Heroes always have similar qualities; distinctive physical skills, grit, leadership, all things that General Custer did possess.  Also Custer embodies “popular virtues” in American society such as sacrifice and bravery.  Because of this it is easy for us to “have a stake in preserving or giving a boost,” to someone like Custer, whose been branded as a hero.  It is relatively easy already to see how Custer would stick in people’s minds, so what effect did his wife actually have on his image after his death?

                Although Libbie did experience some hard times following her husband’s death she managed to “transform her domestic role as a widow… into a publically sanctioned profession.”  She began writing, and this writing picked up speed because she was not alone in her situation or in her messages.  She had an audience before long, and this is when she began her campaign to restore and maintain her husband’s image.

                According to one biographer one of the deterrents to negative talk against General Custer at first was the presence of such a young widow who was speaking out on his behalf.  But although she was in fact difficult to speak up against when it came to Custer, she still adopted intelligent and well thought out tactics to maintain their name.

                One tactic was to provide historical agencies and news organizations with heroic artifacts from Custer, such as paintings and strategic photographs.  She also romanticized one of the worst losses in the history of the army at the time, making the massacre out to be manly and heroic rather than simply a tragic example of a bad decision.  In her novels she depicted a much softer side of George Custer,  making him out to be overtly kind and gentle to animals and helpless people alike.  A Christian Science Monitor article spoke of a time Custer led his entire cavalry around a birds nest to avoid harming it.

                It got to be that Libbie’s story was so endearing and she was so likeable that the mere fact that he was married to her boosted his reputation.  People had to assume that only an extraordinary man could win over the affection of such an amazing woman.

                Libbie was ever careful, in her husband’s death, to frame him in the right way all the time.  On the battlefield he was experienced, brave and hard, at home he was gentle and loving.  There needed to be a tender side to complement his toughness or he wouldn’t be nearly as heroic or loved.  Libbie knew this even long before recent studies could show that many of her tactics and techniques were truly the correct ones.  In the end, as a devoted wife,  Libbie Custer did as much for her husband’s lasting reputation as he did.

– Jim Wilkinson

Chapter 7 Social Psychology and the Quest for the Public Mind

Introduction to chapter 7: After WWI the American business leaders had much more confidence than before. So with this new found confidence theCommittee on Public Information (CPI) began an experiment in mass persuasion that had fostered the belief that public opinion “might be managed, that a social climate, more friendly to business interests, could indeed be achieved.” 

Roger Babson declared that “the war taught is the power of propaganda. Now when we have anything to sell American People we know how to sell it.”

Roger Babson is an influential business analyst in 1921

Ivy Lee still on of the nation’s “preeminent practitioners of corporate public relations:

Lee in an interview states “I have found the Freudian Theories concerning the psychology of the subconscious mind of great interest. Publicity is essentially a matter of mass psychology. We must remember that people are guided more by sentiment than by mind.

With further research into psychology Lee reports that “the secret by which a civilization might be preserved and a successful and permanent business built.” … That is the understanding of psychology and human activity.

Gustave Le Bon: No other individual contributes more to this psychological perspective.

Most widely acclaimed writings: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.

This put the field of social psychology on the map.

“The conscious life of the mind is of small importance in comparison with its unconscious life” , with this being said Le Bons understanding is that the unconscious life has been around all along lurking beneath the conscious life and is now just being discovered.

Robert Ezra Park: a “thinker”, doctoral dissertation “The Crowd and the Public.” Park embraced Le Bons ideas stating the “crowd” and the “public” are two distinct social forms. One marked by its “simple emotional state” and the other by its “intrinsic ability to engage in critical, relational debate.

Crowd Mind”: embodied the triumph of unreasoned instinct.

Public Opinion”: the sum of individual critical attitudes.

Public opinion was becoming less and less distinguishable from the crowd mind.

Graham Walls: “Intellectualist Fallacy” meaning the break between the rationalist paradigm that had dominated the political theories.

Walls classic study: Human nature and Politics.

Walter Lippmann: Impact on Walls ideas stating.. “consists largely in the creation  of opinion, by the deliberate exploitation of subconscious non-rational inference.”

Wilfred Trotter: Adding to Lippmann, “Human beings were more sensitive to unconscious, instinctual drives than they were to the powers critical reasons.

Humans are more sensitive to the voice of the herd than any other influence.

This shift in understanding of human behavior was greatly influenced by the War and the above listed people but most importantly Sigmund Freud. It has changed the way business now interacts with humans.

Roger Babson                               Sigmund Freud                              Ivy Lee

#9: Mastering the Spin

The article was finally printed by the newspaper.  It was time for the class to see if their experimental spin had succeeded.  The article described the “pseudo” class perfectly.  It claimed that the class was inspecting the Declaration of Independence as a piece of propaganda.  The reporter described the students as 25 hipsters whose class reflected more of a coffee house setting.  The class read the article and beamed with excitement.  They celebrated that they had all mastered the “Way of Spin”.

Top Quote from Chapter 1 PR

Most people respond to their world instinctively, without thought, there exist an “intelligent few” who have been charged with the responsibility of contemplating and influencing the tide of history.  A public relations person is an applied social scientist who advises a client or employer on the social attitudes and actions to take to win the support of the publics upon whom his or her or its viability depends.

Boorstin and Bernays Connect

Number 4

Bernays said that the job of public relations people is to “instruct a client how to take actions that just interrupt the continuity of life in some way to bring about the [media] response”

This explains Bernays philosophy on how to interact with clients in order to successfully impact the media.  This is interesting because year’s later Boorstin made an observation on the vitality of pseudo-events to shape public opinion.

#1: Deliberate News

How do you turn an event into “news”?  For anything to be “news”, Ewen suggests that it must break out of routine.  However, when faced with a point or purpose in which you have no newsworthy event to support your opinion, many times you must turn to the creation and planning of events.  According to Ewen, communications has the power to include many more people than those who witness the event. To bring attention to such a wide audience, you need to present an intriguing story.  “Newsworthy events, involving people, usually do not happen by accident. They are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose, to influence our ideas and actions.” (22).