cover image PR!: A Social History of Hype

PR!: A Social History of Hype

Stuart Ewen. Basic Books, $30 (480pp) ISBN 978-0-465-06168-6

Is there any difference between PR and propaganda? Ewen (All Consuming Images), a professor of media studies at Hunter College in Manhattan, doesn't think so. Accordingly, his account of the rise of the public relations industry begins with the U.S. Committee on Public Information, a government-sponsored organization dedicated to maintaining domestic morale during WWI. In the aftermath of the war, Ewen argues, public relations developed largely out of a corporate fear that genuine democracy would obstruct the workings of big business, with PR pioneer Edward Bernays offering, as he phrased it, lessons in ""the engineering of consent."" As corporations like AT&T began to perceive the importance of utilizing public relations in the face of a public increasingly suspicious of monolithic companies, the PR industry hit its stride by learning to incorporate many of the tactics and iconography of the New Deal while simultaneously opposing its progressive politics. Ewen's book trails off after the 1940s; he doesn't substantially probe the colossal impact of television or the incursion of PR methods into politics in more recent times. And although he presents a convincing portrait of a business elite attempting to use techniques of persuasion to distort and mold public opinion, he doesn't fully address the question of PR's effectiveness. (Nov)