Deconstructing the Century of the Selfie for PR purposes

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 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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6 Replies to “Deconstructing the Century of the Selfie for PR purposes

  1. Toni, I see on reflection that I misunderstood your stance on the First Amendment. You were praising it not criticising it. For getting that plain wrong I apologise. But I remain convinced that in your well-founded objection to modern narcissism (the loss of empathy and rise of self-absorption) you blurred the distinction between it and individualism when you claimed “individualism is an optical delusion”, which arose, as you put it, “in parallel with mercantile capitalism”.

    In contrast I say capitalism actually gave individuals the scope for self-determination; otherwise known as ‘bourgeois’ freedoms. Moreover, the antidote to narcissism is the rediscovery of individualism and empathy (that which unites us in public). In short, we need much more individualism, not much less.

  2. Toni, I don’t question your integrity or your commitment as a professional to our industry. I question your point of view.

    You have launched an assault on the American Dream, individualism, the First Amendment, capitalism and in the process described our clients as “potential robber barons” who put their own interests ahead of society’s. You have also sneered at the best sentiments within the PR industry; for example those among us who help corporations defend freedom, including that of speech.

    Moreover, your attack on the “intelligent few” would be more credible if you had not set yourself up us somebody in possession of the power to “interpret” the wisdom of the crowds. Now that is an extremely elitist assumption, if ever there was one.

    And, yes, I have tried to show readers here how some of the great thinkers you quote in support of your views have been plucked out of context. I’ll end this reply by quoting from Freud’s “Future of an Illusion” where he reveals just how far removed his thinking was from the likes of yours:

    “We may insist as often as we like that man’s intellect is powerless in comparison to his instinctual life, and we may be right in this. Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about this weakness. The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it will not rest until it has gained a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds.”

    Welcome to the Age of Reason, which put the individual at the heart of it.

  3. Toni, this is a very challenging and well-written post. I’ll rise to that challenge by making a few remarks.

    “Individualism is an optical delusion”, you say. Yet you quote Sigmund Freud favourably. But his great contribution to humanity was to see inside human psychology and to show how it is shaped by our social experience. For him consciousness wasn’t an optical delusion so much as something very real and rooted in our experience.

    The idea that consciousness (that of others, as opposed to yours) is an optical illusion peddles the old myth and nonsense of there being such a thing as false consciousness. There is no such thing. There is only consciousness (Freud also identified the role of unconscious influence, which is something completely different and something much more frightening to contemplate).

    You quote Einstein as if he had great authority and insight on philosophical and sociological matters. He didn’t. No more than Steven Hawkins does today when he says “philosophy is dead”. Though Einstein was suggesting in your quote, I suspect, something sensible, which was that humans need to see themselves as social animals with common interests.

    Daniel Boorstin in “The Image: what happened to the American dream?” was defending everything your article is against. And he was attacking the merchants of spin who believed their role, as you seemingly imply, was to “create circumstances” in which perceptions were made. For instance, he loved the American Dream!. Or as you view it, he loved “toxic, free-market ideology”. His work critiques how it was being undermined by an increasingly remote and manipulative elite. He, very unlike you, also thought republicanism and individualism were virtues.

    You mention Le Bon. But one thing I’m sure of is that he saw no wisdom in crowds. Instead he feared (wrongly in my view) sudden spurts of irrationalism in the formation of crowds which had something animalistic and beyond our control underpinning it. I add that Le Bon never grasped the relationship between individualism and individuals and their behaviour in crowds. Hence he was just another plain wrong fear monger.

    You stand far outside the tradition of Kant and Mill and Adam Smith. But I would never accuse you — or anybody else — of being the victim of false consciousness. But worst of all, you don’t seem to have much respect for our clients or the world we live in.

    1. Paul, I thought I had lost your outbursts … good to hear from you..and welcome back….

      Honestly, I do not wish to bore readers in arguing the cultural irrelevance of your erudite name dropping.

      I am fully aware of the more than centennial dilemma between ‘the intelligent few’ and the ‘we the people’ arguments.

      My only concern is when you write ….quote but worst of all, you don’t seem to have much respect for our clients or the world we live in unquote.

      You will appreciate that, if left unchallenged, this statement might imply that I am insensitive to what I consider an intolerable and offensive judgment of my professionalism..and this from an individual like you, whose intelligence I have always respected and acknowledged, in private and in public.

      So I ask you kindly to ‘move out of yourself’, as your shrink might suggest (whose life looking after you must certainly be quite intense), and apologize.

      My entire career–as professional, teacher and scholar–has been lived in respect for my interlocutors, in the belief that the most effective representation of this respect resides in a critical approach and interpretation of their expectations and objectives, based on knowledge, experience and intuition…rather than the usual ‘spin doctor’ lip-service.

      While even Pangloss would today have serious difficulties in praising the state of the world we live in, I also believe to have made an intense effort–in both my personal and public life wherever you wish to draw the line, if any is to be drawn, and despite my many flaws and failures–to make this world less unacceptable to ‘we the people’ by arguing that those powers, who for decades have been operating behind the toxic environment spread by ‘circumstances’ created by the ‘intelligent few’, would themselves benefit if they moved along the path of behaviours and actions coherent, not only with their sudden and encouraging love affair with the First Amendment and same-sex parity, but also on to other issues such as slavery, colour of skin, minimum wage, income inequality, religious neutrality (a la Rawls) and so on.

      This means, rather than simple lip-service tolerance in a true separation of state and church, climate change, environmental protection and organizational sustainability…all increasingly considered as ‘dirty words’ by the ‘intelligent few’.

      Finally it is my turn to apologize to Stuart Ewen for having indirectly involved him in this despicable courtyard brawl.


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