by Stuart Ewen ‧ RELEASE DATE: Dec. 4, 1996
This lengthy history of spin and public relations tends to get stuck in some very narrow grooves. One of the Industrial Revolution's many machine-inflected ideas, public relations was an attempt to apply the principles of engineering and mechanics to popular opinion. While Edward Bernays, one of PR's great founding fathers, and other practitioners understood the practical limitations to their craft, they felt they were developing a real science: ""We can effect some changes in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can manipulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline."" The Industrial Revolution had created a vast newspaper-reading public and, thus, the ability to widely disseminate information and ideas. The power of the medium was brought home to big business at the turn of the century when the muckrakers began their extraordinarily successful series of attacks against monopolies. An effective counter was needed, and so public relations was born. Ewen (Communications/Hunter Coil.; All Consuming Images, 1988, etc.) does an able job of chronicling the evolution of this slippery trade. Drawing on seldom-seen corporate archives from such giants as AT&T and Standard Oil, he paints an alarming picture of corporate America eagerly trying to mold our perceptions to serve their purposes. Ewen believes these subtle manipulations are a terrible threat to democracy, but he tends to overstate his case, ignoring the numerous PR disasters that show the real limits of coercion. His account is labored, narrowly focused (he sticks too closely to his sources), and too America-centered, scanting such masters of PR as Joseph Goebbels and completely ignoring PR as practiced in the rest of the world. Any overview of such an important and surreptitious subject is welcome, even when it is so prosaically presented, but this is a far cry from a definitive history.
Pub Date: Dec. 4, 1996
Page Count: 496
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1996
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