Contemplating selfie disruptions in historical and modern-day PR

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Selfie contemplations! Toni Muzi Falconi and Stuart Ewen
“If I were Bernays, as a sign of self expression, I would dedicate my creative genius to adapt (or adopt) the ‘selfie’ idea for a public relations program dedicated to individual emancipation.” Stuart Ewen


By Toni Muzi Falconi

The Museum of Public Relations scheduled an event for late March 2015, at Manhattan’s Baruch College / CUNY Newman Library (where the books and artifacts of the museum are currently situated), anticipated to be a critical and topical public assessment of the PR profession or at least key components of its North American body of knowledge.

Titled Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie, the invited speaker is Stuart Ewen. At 70 years of age, the conversation skills, intensity and passion remain undimmed in this long-time professor of media studies, who is also chair of the department of communications at Hunter College. A prolific author, Stuart Ewen’s 1996 book  PR: The Social History of Spin is, in my opinion, the most important critical history of PR ever published.

A long-time admirer, I jumped at the opportunity to meet him, proposing to PR Conversations colleagues a two-part series: This first post stems from “selfie” contemplations stimulated by the interview with Stuart Ewen; the follow-up one will be a critique of his scheduled session for the Museum of Public Relations and the Corporate Communications International program at Baruch College/CUNY.

The selfie as self-expression

“If I were Bernays, as a sign of self-expression, I would dedicate my creative genius to adapt (or adopt) the ‘selfie’ idea for a public relations program dedicated to individual emancipation in order to bypass the manipulative toxic media environment in which we are immersed.”

This “self expression” thought came to both of us halfway through two, intense hours of conversation, although the selfie metaphor is entirely Ewen’s construct.

An Edward Bernays selfie?

I noted his visually focused expertise, in contrast to my own propensity for the written word, but both of us related to relevant, historical reminders about how many of Edward Bernays’ programs focused on—besides a specific, publicized product—one social issue. For P&G it was the bacon brand related to the “healthy eating lifestyle” of the American middle class family; another example was American Tobacco, with women’s rights expressed through the “liberty” made implicit by images of females smoking in public.

Courtesy of Ewen, an invitation to view efforts by Barak Obama’s team to promote the American Health Care Act (“How did we get Obama to use a selfie stick? Oh, because he wants you to go to https://www.healthcare.gov”). This “visual” post attracted more than two million visits in one month. I would add that it is unlikely that Edward Bernays—as much as he was, like many PR practitioners, a self-promoter on an ongoing ego trip—would have recommended this tactic. I suspect Bernays would have considered it somewhat quaint, bordering on being corny, mainly because it was not sufficiently cool and persuasive enough for his “superior” professional sense of self esteem.

For more historical reference, there appears to be a conceptual “lag” between the “century of self” (the metaphor of the excellent Adam Curtis 1992 BBC documentary) and Stuart Ewen’s 1996 book.

For example, Ewen believes that “[Curtis] focused too much on the Freud family and missed other important persons and factors that molded western public expression in the 20th century.”

(On a side note, it was back in the mid-2000s that Anne Gregory–current chair of the Global Alliance–introduced me to the work of Adam Curtis. As I was in New York at the time, I rushed to the IFC Center on Sixth Avenue in great anticipation to view this documentary.)

To backtrack a bit, as I interpret it, Adam Curtis’ concept of “self” effectively describes the emergence in the 20th century of a cultural and communication conflict between the emancipation of the individual in western society and those “intelligent few” (such as Bernays) who believe that democracy is acceptable.

That is, democracy is acceptable as long as “we the people” are led by the intelligent few—and their carefully crafted and distributed messages—to think and behave along the interests of the clients who compensate practitioners for this work.

(Other musings: Is this the prototypical interpretation of public relations? Are we happy with this? Colleague and friend Anne Gregory has been successful as chair of the Global Alliance, together with many others—including many affiliated with this blog—in moving this interpretation forward to help define a new and less-manipulative 21st century modus operandi to our profession.)

Returning to Stuart Ewen’s interpretation, instead of this earlier metaphor of the “selfie”, his 21st century version evokes what appears to be a toxic landscape. It is a backdrop that immerses all of us, where news—“If it’s not new—it’s not news”—supports the eradication of memory. In the current landscape, each day consumes (and exhausts) the next.

It is Ewen’s view that the result is a mental environment of social and historical amnesia.

The power of the image

Stuart Ewen believes individuals have become their own media. Moreover, while the selfie concept existed in the past—think of artist portraits dating back to the early Renaissance, iconic photographers taking pictures of him or herself and so on—what is fascinating today is how the selfie represents the power of the image.

Here is a recent example:

Look at the black and orange colour scheme in these terrifying images.

Next observe how the Fabrica agency for Benetton quickly made use of the same colour scheme in its advertisement celebrating “women against violence” day!

Despite my conscientious choice to focus on words, I never doubted the importance of the image. Perhaps the biggest self-critique or eye-opener during the conversation with Ewen regarding the power of images was a disquieting feeling about what I missed or lost during my decades of PR practice and teaching, expressed primarily through words.

As Stuart Ewen noted, it is an entirely false delusion that words have more “integrity.”

Self images rewriting (or eradicating) history

“Most of my work has been dedicated to understanding the footprints of public expression, in a critical effort to avoid that ‘phantom of certitude’ that seems to permeate our day-to-day lives: The idea that [we each] have the answer! It appears that nobody is interested in the genealogy of the present.”

Contemplating this particular Ewen observation, I certainly appreciate how the “now” syndrome prevails in younger generations, sometimes witnessing it first-hand in younger co-workers and students. However, what was even more frightening to me was a growing realization that the selfie mentality is gaining ground in political, social, business and academic leaderships. It is in these spheres of public influence that self expression and self promotion (or publicity) appears to be exalted by a manipulative media system and permeating much public expression—to the extent that history, the present and even future have little if any space on their self-promoting agendas.

In conclusion

In its radical disintermediation of all existing channels, one could say that the selfie metaphor represents the disruption of that long-standing apparatus ensured by the mainstream media system (likely Bernays, along with Gustave Le Bon and Walter Lippmann, would have called it “chaos”).

Although a newer construct, the selfie continues to allow an historical persuasion model to function, where the “intelligent few” listen and interpret the crowds’ selfie expressed “gut feelings,” in order to disseminate employer or client objectives.

If intelligently crafted, such messaging can lead the way to coexistence of what we in the west call the “democratic system.” A useful reference is this New Yorker article, detailing the work of two universities that studied the American public decision-making process; both arrive at the conclusion that we are living in an oligarchic rather than democratic system.

Having met and conversed with the scholar and thinker in person, I am now even more eager to hear Stuart Ewen’s scheduled public lecture and the discussions that will follow it—so much so that I agreed to take my first selfie with Ewen specifically for this post. For those who can’t be there, I promise a critical assessment of the consequences such “disruptions” as the selfie has on our public relations profession and its body of knowledge, as detailed by Ewen.

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If you live in the Greater New York City area, consider registering to attend Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie with Stuart Ewen on March 25, 2015, at 6 p.m. The Newman Library is situated at the corner of Lexington and 25th, in the middle of Manhattan.

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Toni Muzi Falconioriginal founder of (Toni’s Blog before it became) PR Conversations, is a seasoned Italian scholar, professional and teacher. Currently he is senior counsel of Methodos, an Italian integrated thinking, cultural change management consultancy and teaches public relations at the Vatican’s LUMSA University in Rome. Between 2006 to 2014, he has also taught global relations and intercultural communication as well as public affairs and issues management at New York University. He remains a frequent contributor to PR Conversations. Founding chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, and past president of Ferpi, he has written many books, the most recent being Global Stakeholder Relationships Governance: an Infrastructure published by Palgrave Macmillan in December 2013. In 2014 he also published Glow Worms: biased memoirs of a global public relator.

Although he’s not very active on it, Toni Muzi Falconi does have a Twitter account.

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Guest post contributor Toni Muzi Falconi expresses his appreciation and props to the two passionately dedicated founders and souls of the Museum of Public Relations, Shelley and Barry Spector, who organized this Stuart Ewen guest lecture. Even if you cannot attend the Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie event, Toni hopes members of the public relations community consider a financial or physical contribution to the museum to assist in its mandate of maintaining an ongoing historical record of the public relations profession and its global body of knowledge.

10 COMMENTS

  1. A clarification. When I showed Toni the Fabrica advertisement for Benneton’s campaign to stop violence against women, I compared it to the ISIS pre-beheading images that had been so prominent in the weeks leading up to the Fabrica ad.

    My point was that the image and color scheme were already embedded in in many people’s minds as symbols of violence. Thus embedded, it could be easily translated for other purposes via visual methods of association.

    • Readers should know that Toni Muzi Falconi did provide the example Stuart Ewen mentions above, but I declined to publish that image on PR Conversations (on moral grounds).

      The “Islamic State” vigilantes certainly do know the power of graphic images, as well as making use of various social media channels to spread ugly messages (of threats and violence against others).

      • On the radio I hear the Islamic state called the “So Called Islamic State” which I feel is a great response.

  2. It may seem churlish, but I fear that if Bernays got behind the selfie idea for a brand as individual emancipation it may end up with the same backlash as the current Starbucks’ Race Together debacle.

    Would be interested to know if Stuart believes Bernays would really understand the way that social media has provided individuals with the power – often through irony and other disruptive use of the channels – to undermine the mighty brands.

    I’m not convinced it is as easy to game the system as it was in relation to associating a brand with a cause.

  3. I would wait some time before claiming that the Starbucks backlash was neither expected nor planned for and am convinced that to ‘game the system’ is less easy than associating a brand with a cause.

    Certainly, this is not the intention of the Benetton ad.

    In my view Fabrica considered that the ‘colour scheme’ (as Ewen puts it) is stronger than the subject it evokes and, from this perspective, it would be very interesting to hear from Fabrica.

    Needless to say, I respect Judy Gombita’s decision, but insofar this is what we have been talking about….not dissimilar to Heather ‘race relations’ gripe about Starbucks.

    I do hope that the conversation does not focus on the decision not to publish the ISIS image. Of course they would be happy….

  4. The main concern that I always have had with Bernays is the concept of the “intelligent few.”

    I usually describe Bernays as an authoritarian liberal. He seemed generally concerned about people other than elites, but he also seemed to believe they needed to be guided by elites such as him and his clients.

    I suspect that most clients consider themselves to be among the intelligent few, no matter how unintelligent they are and no matter how self-centered their interests are.

    I believe there is such as thing as lay intelligence that elites need to understand and take into consideration when they make decisions that affect others.

  5. (From the last paragraph of Toronto Star’s Jim Byers travel column)

    Sex at the Pyramids. Bare butts at Angkor Wat. What is going on?

    “She’s got a point. I was struck by the number of self-portraits I saw at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam last year. One could argue they are not unlike the selfies of his generation. Different tools, same idea.”

    Full article here: http://fw.to/seCT7HR

  6. Very stimulating article, with lots of links that are bookmarked for future sharing.

    As a disruptive “technology” the selfie is surely one of the most interruptive – even celebrities wait for the phone-holder to frame them both and shoot. But this can only be a passing phase, much as the polaroid was in its day, and we will retreat to normal usage, whatever that might be, down the track. The inclusion of President Obama in a campaign close to his heart is likely to be one-off – certainly a coup that Bernays, while perhaps finding it corny, would have eventually acknowledged was successful in garnering publicity.

    Of more concern, and as outlined in the article is the growing philosophy of self-dom and ever decreasing circles of influence. A serious challenge to make inroads in thought leadership.

    • Thank you for this comment. I am now writing my second post on this (after Stuart Ewen’s lecture) and I am struggling with what you indicate as ‘whatever that might be’ and I liked your citation of the Polaroid case.

      Of more concern, as you imply, is the rise of self-dom and the rapid burnout of thought leadership (if such terms have any meaning…).

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