One big question is whether we as public relations practitioners can afford to migrate (professionally) from “we, the intelligent few” to “we, the people,” primarily by helping our clients to listen to and interpret the “wisdom of the crowds”
A post-event reflection on Stuart Ewen’s Museum of Public Relations-sponsored lecture on “Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie”
By Toni Muzi Falconi
As George Bernard Shaw wrote in his 1902 play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession:
“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”
This is a post-reflection (see my PR Conversations pre-contemplation) on Stuart Ewen’s lecture at the Museum of Public Relations in late March 2015, when a crowded hall of public relations and communication scholars, practitioners and students were inspired by his sophisticated, cultured and provocative ideas and concepts dealing with Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie. Our guest lecturer possessed a passion rarely demonstrated by a seasoned academic and writer—even Stuart Ewen occasionally seemed bemused, as if surprised by his own intensity.
At the beginning of his talk, Ewen described how in the 20th “Century of Self” Edward Bernays was convinced that only “the intelligent few”*—i.e., the ones who had an ability to mix words, images and pseudo events à la Daniel Boorstin (think of the 1962 book, The Image: what happened to the American dream?)—were capable of “getting inside the nodal points of the media system and shape mass perceptions,” in order to serve the interest of clients who could afford to pay. Frame this as individuals who “‘created circumstances.” As an example of clients with deep pockets, at the age of 103, Bernays was paid $1,000 an hour for telephone consultation with his long-time client, P&G.
(*In thinking about the intelligent few, seasoned public relators were aware of the thoughts of Bernays’ uncle Sigmund Freud; sociologists Gustave Le Bon, Walter Lippmann and a few others.)
Deconstructing today’s framing
Continuing in this vein, Ewen explained how the “Century of Self” has evolved into the 21st “Century of the Selfie” where—in the best of circumstances—current-day practices may often appear only as a senseless, individualistic self-projection. However, it can also be much worse: this “selfie mode of public relations” also contributes to the creation of a toxic environment where past and (therefore) future are absent and the “I, always-on” dominates public discourse.
Interestingly, Ewen also explained selfies as “a fingerprint of emotional psychometrics,” and opens the way to a mostly involuntary “donation” to others of valuable, private information. When Henry Ford said [in 1916] that “history is bunk” he was giving a password to creative amnesia, to a power of forgetting, which underwrites the pragmatic pursuit of utopia. (This concept comes from George Steiner’s The Idea of Europe, published in 2015.)
Individualism is an optical delusion, developed centuries ago in parallel with the birth of mercantile capitalism. Over time, however, we learned that “toxic, free-market ideology” may do irreparable damage. Today, we appear to be powerless as atomized individuals; therefore, we need to reach beyond this “selfie mode.”
The question for the perceptive public relator is whether we can agree to align with these thoughts expressed by Albert Einstein:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’—a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness….”
By ourselves—or through our selfies—as indicated by Ewen, we count as zero as human beings. What is even more significant, however, is our influence as professionals currently advising powerful organizations, who in recent years, months and weeks, have fallen in love with the (American) First Amendment and publicly invoke its respect more often than individuals do, particularly in the context of a media system that is quickly going towards a “burnout.”
The bigger questions are whether we can afford to migrate (professionally) from “we, the intelligent few” to “we, the people,” primarily by helping our clients to listen to and interpret the “wisdom of the crowds” so brilliantly described by James Surowiecki in 2005?
Today, can we also help to distance our clients (i.e., potential modern-day robber barons) from this depiction?
For example, by helping to “create circumstances” by which organizations use their power not only to ensure processes of equal public policy respect for religious minorities and/or gender diversities, but also by extending an understanding that today’s levels of income inequality and environmental destruction (to name but two) go against clients’ own short-, medium- and/or long-term interests?
Thank you to Stuart Ewen for directly—and indirectly—stimulating the above thoughts. I also offer congratulations to the Museum of Public Relations for organizing his provocative guest lecture.
Toni Muzi Falconi, original 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.