In the 1920s and 1930s while are economy had its ups and downs, the practice of public relations started booming, in particular, planned propaganda campaigns began to grow. Because of this, there were many people who began to notice changes in American society.
Harold Lasswell, who emerged as the leading student and bibliographer of propaganda activities, was one of these observers. Lasswell believed propaganda was attempting to control public opinion through manipulation of, “significant symbols, or… by stories, rumors, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication”. He wrote about propaganda becoming “one of the most powerful instrumentalities in the modern world”. Propaganda controlling public opinion was leading to the collapse of traditional democracy idealism and instead to the rise of dictatorial habit of mind. Political and business leaders looked at propaganda as their opinion-molding tool.
John Dewey, a pubic champion of participatory democracy, was another observer who became aware of change. This progressive educator saw people swallowed up by different tools of mass persuasion, or psychological trickery. In Dewey’s 1930 book, Individualism Old and New, he writes, “The need for united action, and the supposed need for integrated opinion and sentiment, are met by organized propaganda”. This was sort of the end to a promising democracy because false public responses began increasing and individuals began losing their own personal judgments.
During the 1920s and 1930s, fundamental shifts were under way in America that was transfiguring the definitions of public life.
Newspapers were seen as a prime place for public relations, and Ivy Lee argued that it should remain an essential arena for publicity work. Newspaper chains were beginning to circulate and taken under virile ownerships, and the society “was being melded into generic ways of seeing, shaped by the priorities of modern commercial enterprise”. It was a national channel for distributing messages that never existed before, and this helped to form identical thought processes in all communities, and added to the development of American domination. Overall it deleted independent perspectives and homogenized journalism.
Radio was another development that helped grow the practices of public relations. Broadcast radio quickly became a pervasive national medium, as it pumped information and entertainment straight into people’s homes. It also gave politicians or corporations extraordinary access to the public mind. Big businesses control over radio meant a growing collection of national, commercially guided, cultural stereotypes. It was a great vehicle for political propaganda, and was used as an attitude shaping instrument.
Edward L. Bernays announced repeatedly that, “an effective public relations counsel must be a tireless student of the sociological terrain: of public propensities, opinions, and behavior”. Public-opinion-measurement through surveys and research became very popular to study and guide attitudes of the public. This moved beyond the typical advertising and marketing concerns, but toward a more complete approach to corporate thinking. Corporations must become watchful students to understand the present business, and to anticipate problems in the future. Psychological Corporation, established in 1932, their objective was to apply the methods of behavioral psychology to the needs of American business. Later it moved towards studying peoples behaviors to understand their present and future wants. The old way studied how people think; the new way studies how a person acts. The Psychological Sales Barometer was an examination of consumer attitudes behaviors and opinions.
Polls were another powerful tool for measuring and misrepresenting public opinion. They were “useful manipulative devices on the level or propaganda”. Polls were being used to manufacture and package public opinion. “Polls offered a numerical herd with which one might identify, a subliminal mental magnet for deciding what to think and how to behave”. Polls were starting to become a medium of persuasion.
The profession of public relations was described as a “two-way street”. Their duties were to present the often misinterpreted interests of large institutions to public, while interpreting the ignored interests of the public to the organization. The mass media provided channels through which the public would be schooled to a corporate view point, and the study and research provided the channels through which the public would be known and responded to.