Chapter 12: Public Relations and Framing the Message

Posted: April 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Introduction Video:Toxic Sludge is Good For You (a film about making the invisible parts of the PR industry visible)

I. Early Developments in Public Relations

  • The rise of public relations accompanied America’s shift to a consumer-oriented, industrial society at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • A. P. T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill. The earliest PR practitioners were theatrical agents that courted the favor of the press.

VIDEO: Parade promoting Buffalo Bill event (2 minutes)

VIDEO:PT Barnum (3 minutes)

B. Big Business and Press Agents. During the 1880s, America’s largest industrial companies, particularly the railroads, also employed press agents to win favor in the court of public opinion.
C. The Birth of Modern Public Relations. By the early 1900s, professional public relations had begun to develop in response to a more literate and informed citizenry who could not be easily fooled.

SPOTLIGHT:  Edward Bernays. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays developed the first public relations class and wrote the field’s first textbook.

  • One of Edward Bernays’s clients was Lucky Strike cigarettes. Women weren’t buying the brand because surveys indicated that the forest-green package clashed with their wardrobes. The company didn’t want to change the color of the box because it had already invested money in the package’s look and color. Consequently, to convince the women’s fashion world to embrace the color green, Bernays did the following:
  • Organized a “Green Ball” and hired a well-connected socialite to talk Paris couturiers into supplying green gowns.
  • Talked a leading textile manufacturer into organizing a luncheon for fashion editors, with the discussion centering on “new green fashions” for fall.
  • Convinced historians and psychologists to talk about the significance of green as a color.
  • Organized a “Color Fashion Bureau,” which disseminated the new green trend to the press. Wrote to interior decorators, department stores, art-industry groups, and women’s clubs—on green paper—about the new trend.
  • Got department stores to display green dresses in their windows.
  • Got an established gallery to feature a “green” painting exhibition.

Here are some more examples of Bernays’s public relations campaigns:

  • Bernays established a national soap-carving contest in schools to promote Ivory soap. The contest didn’t suggest any association with Ivory, but Ivory was the only brand soft enough for sculpting.
  • Working for American Tobacco in the 1920s, he tried to convince women that smoking was more than acceptable by organizing a troupe of fashionable women to smoke “Torches of Freedom” during the 1929 Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He also organized a group of “neutral” doctors to celebrate the benefits of smoking, including a trim waistline and a soothing effect on the throat. Meanwhile, he forbade his own wife to smoke, flushing her cigarettes down the toilet and calling smoking a nasty habit.
  • In promoting the Ballets Russes’s Scheherazade performance, he took prima ballerina lores Revalles to the Bronx Zoo and had her photographed with a snake around her neck. The snake would become the dancer’s trademark.
  • He tried to refashion the rather dour image of Calvin Coolidge in 1924 by bringing forty Broadway performers—including Broadway and film star Al Jolson—to the White House.
  • He helped the United Fruit Company (today’s United Brands) continue its profitable banana business in Guatemala. The term banana republic actually originated in reference to United Fruit’s domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries. United Fruit basically paid off governments so it could exploit labor to produce cheap bananas for the lucrative U.S. market. When a mildly reformist Guatemalan government attempted to rein in the company’s power, United Fruit called in Edward Bernays, reportedly paying him $100,000 a year, a huge fee in the early 1950s. Bernays created a media and political campaign to recast this new Guatemalan government as a communist dictatorship—an idea that resonated throughout 1950s North America. He did this by engineering articles in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, Time, and Newsweek that discussed the growing influence of Guatemala’s communists. He also mailed 300,000 copies of a brochure titled Communism in Guatemala: 22 Facts to American Legion posts and auxiliaries. Bernays’s propaganda campaign for United Fruit led directly to the CIA’s overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala. The result meant decades of tyranny under a United Fruit–friendly Guatemalan government, whose brutality, according to some, rivaled that of the Nazis. Bernays apparently never regretted his work for United Fruit.
  • Bernays is not remembered too dearly by many of his own children and grandchildren. A relentless self-promoter as well as a successful PR man, he is recollected as a womanizer who called his secretaries “Little Miss Nitwits,” and he once fired five employees on Christmas Eve.

II. The Practice of Public Relations

  • The formal study of public relations has experienced significant growth in college and university settings since the 1980s.

A. Approaches to Organized Public Relations. In 1988, the Public Relations Society of America offered this definition of PR: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”
B. Performing Public Relations. Propaganda is one of many practices and techniques used by public relations firms.

  1. Research: Formulating the Message. Often using social-science techniques, research has become the key ingredient in PR forecasting.
  2. Conveying the Message. One of the chief day-to-day technical functions of PR is composing press releases.
  3. Media Relations. Through publicity, PR managers promote a client or an organization by securing favorable news-media coverage.
  4. Special and “Pseudo” Events. To promote their clients, public relations firms associate them with special events. The term pseudo-event refers to any circumstance created to obtain coverage in the media.

Special and “Pseudo-Events”

  • Creating pseudo-events everywhere they go, the Budweiser Clydesdales appear in nearly seven thousand parades and travel 1.5 million miles a year. There are actually five Clydesdale hitch teams, which travel from their home bases in St. Louis; Merrimack, New Hampshire; Romoland, California; and Sea World in Orlando to make about 330 appearances a year. Anheuser-Busch acquired the first eight-horse team in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition.
  • In 1985, Domino’s Pizza tried to promote its brand with a family-oriented hitch team of miniature horses, but the team never became the official symbol for the company.
  • VIDEO: Clydesdales (1:00)
  • Budweiser is also the biggest sponsor of sports in the world.
  • Convincing the American public to endorse and invest huge amounts of tax dollars in space exploration in the 1960s required a strategic public relations campaign. There was much to be gained politically and economically from a space race with the Soviet Union. Instead of framing space travel in terms of these advantages, however, NASA and other space boosters packaged space travel as an exploratory journey for the positive and benign pursuit of knowledge. In contrast to the Soviets, the Americans were understood as good guys winning the race for the sake of humanity. Astronauts became the helmsmen for the new frontier and were individually celebrated as heroes so that Americans could identify with them, enjoy the thrill of space travel vicariously, and unite in public approval. The public relations campaign worked. Politicians’ careers were rejuvenated, the space industry enjoyed full funding, the communications industries got satellites launched for free, and (aside from ads for Tang and space-food bars) there was hardly any discussion about how the race would actually benefit the American public at large. The 1980s brought another gimmick—sending a teacher into space—to stir up public interest in space exploration, but it ended in the horrible Challenger disaster and a more critical discourse about the purpose of the space program. The 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Columbia exposed malfunctions at NASA and led to renewed questions about the role and purpose of the agency.
  • VIDEO: Space launch (2:30)
  • President George W. Bush’s landing in a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier off the coast of California in May 2003 to announce the end of the war in Iraq is a good example of a pseudoevent. But there was some backlash about the transparency of the pseudo-event: Accordingto the Washington Post, “Others factored in the money it must have cost to fly the president and his chief of staff (who was riding in a separate S-3B Viking) to stage this event, calling it a ‘tax-subsidized commercial.’” Despite the Mission Accomplished banner displayed behind Bush during his speech, soldiers continued to die almost daily in the conflict, causing much of the public to question the pseudo-event. Eventually, in October 2003, Bush disavowed the Mission Accomplished slogan.
  • VIDEO: Michael Moore skewers the event (2 minutes)

Community and Consumer Relations. Another important PR activity is encouraging positive relationships between companies and their communities and customers.

Community and Consumer Relations

  • Two of the biggest attractions in Atlanta are corporate headquarters. Coke has a popular museum, and CNN gives tours. Both corporate headquarters have gift shops, too.
  • NutraSweet “philanthropically” sponsors an annual walkathon fund-raiser for the American Diabetes Association. Not coincidentally, people with diabetes have to watch their sugar intake, and NutraSweet happens to be a sugar substitute.
  • Apple initiated the practice of donating computers to schools, a sure way to generate good PR. Apple’s donations, along with those from other computer companies, however, are tied in with a marketing strategy for accustoming young people, their parents, and teachers to a certain computer or software brand. Donations also enable the company to make future sales and upgrades, since the school has already committed to its brand. Other companies outside of the computer industry donate computers as well, and while these moves are also widely regarded as philanthropic, these companies are generally undergoing a computer upgrade and need to get rid of their old systems anyway. Some computer donations have been contingent on students and their families shopping at a certain local store and collecting register receipts to prove it, or on writing letters to relatives and friends begging them to buy magazine subscriptions in return for more school equipment.
  • To enhance consumer relations, retailers such as Pier 1 Imports invite their “preferred” customers to do secret surveillance of the company’s own employees. Pier 1 mails credit-card customers a form asking them to come to the store, document their consumer relations experience, and mail the responses back to the company, all for a discount on their next purchase. The PR strategy works in more than one way: it brings customers back to the stores, it ensures that store employees are on their toes in terms of individual consumer relations, and it gives the consumer a sense of control and ownership in how the store is run.
  • American Express was one of the first companies to do “cause-related” marketing, a strategy whereby a company supports a cause but generally spends more money to celebrate its own generosity than to help the cause. In 1983, American Express offered to support the renovation of the Statue of Liberty over a three-month period. The more people spent on their credit cards, the campaign urged, the more funds would be raised for the project. The campaign raised $1.7 million toward statue renovation. American Express spent $6 million in advertising to tell Americans of its good deed. Ultimately, the generosity came from people being inspired to use their American Express cards to help preserve the landmark. As they created more debt for themselves, more profit was ultimately generated for American Express, a percentage of which went to the statue renovation project. More recently, American Express chose an antihunger organization called Save Our Strength to communicate the company’s philanthropy. Strategically airing around Christmas, the slick ads spoke of American Express’s commitment to donating up to $5 million to the organization—depending, of course, on the percentage that people charged on their credit cards. “Charge for Hunger,” the ads said.

Government Relations and Lobbying. Government-relations arms of PR firms engage in lobbying to influence the voting of lawmakers.

C. Public Relations during a Crisis. One important duty of PR is helping a corporation handle a public crisis or tragedy, especially if the public assumes that the company is at fault.

IV. Public Relations and Democracy
Many people believe that after corporate mistakes or misdeeds occur, PR firms are hired to alter the image rather than to correct the problem.

Public Relations, Social Responsibility, and Democracy

  • A survey published in 2000 by PR Week revealed some troubling numbers. Of 1,705 PR professionals, 25 percent admit to lying on the job; 39 percent say they had exaggerated the truth; and 44 percent were uncertain of the ethics of a task they were required to perform. And nearly two in three of those surveyed say their work has been compromised by being told a lie.
  • In 1996, the California-based Odwalla fruit juice company did a commendable job in responding to a crisis after E. coli bacteria in its unpasteurized products made children sick. It was the first time E. coli had been found in fruit juice. Within twenty-four hours, Odwalla had set up an explanatory Web site that received twenty thousand hits in forty-eight hours. Product was pulled from shelves in seven states and Canada.
  • When the safety problems of Bridgestone-Firestone tires on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles came to the forefront in 2000, many said it would be enormously bad news for Ford and the end of the Firestone brand. In 2001,, operated by the branding company Interbrand (a subsidiary of Omnicom), discussed options for the brand’s future. First, Bridgestone could spend heavily to rehabilitate the brand—the current company line. Or it could drop or rename the Wilderness line, which has been linked to most faulty tires. More drastically, it could drop the Firestone name in favor of Bridgestone, or create a new name altogether. What is certain is that, if the brands are to recover, tires must be replaced quickly, lawsuits settled promptly, and stringent new quality-monitoring procedures put in place.
  • Imagine McDonald’s disappointment, from a PR standpoint, when Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary created a new entry in 2003 for McJob, defining it as “low-paying and dead-end work.” McDonalds’ got straight to work, writing an open letter to Merriam-Webster asking the publisher to remove the entry and contesting the notion that jobs at McDonald’s were essentially low-paying, dead-end work. This letter was sent to every media organization possible. Then the McDonald’s PR team developed a “Not bad for a McJob” campaign, creating new terms such as McProspects, McOpportunity, and McFlexible, and hanging posters examining the benefits of working for the company in all of McDonald’s restaurants. According to the BBC, “The term McJob was coined by the Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel Generation X to describe a ‘low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector.’”
  • A company called Lifetime Learning Systems, in Fairfield, Connecticut, does public relations footwork for other companies that want to get their corporate products or ideological messages into schools. The firm’s brochure says, “Let Lifetime Learning Systems bring your message to the classroom, where young people are forming attitudes that will last a lifetime. . . . Imagine millions of students discussing your product in class. Imagine their teachers presenting your organization’s point of view.” Lifetime specializes in producing teaching kits that work corporate products into lesson plans. One teaching kit says it’s geared toward teaching math, language, and social science skills, but it is actually allied with the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association. The kit uses “The Chip Story,” a tale about the history of the potato chip, to emphasize reading. Students are asked to become “chip-ematicians” and solve basic math problems by using potato chips, or to figure out how many potato chip bags add up to the six pounds of potatoes the average American supposedly eats per year. Organizations that have used Lifetime include the American Nuclear Society, the Coca-Cola Company, the National Frozen Pizza Institute, and the Snack Food Association. The government of Saudi Arabia has also used Lifetime.
  • The use of PR is, of course, not restricted to the corporate world. The Bush administration has resorted to various PR tactics to improve America’s image overseas. Here are some examples:
  1. In 2002, the White House created the Office of Global Communications (OCG) to combat anti-American news stories in the Arab world.
  2. In 2003, the State Department spent $6 million to launch an Arabic-language monthly magazine called Hi, aimed at eighteen- to thirty-five-year-olds in the Middle East. It focuses on similarities between American and Middle Eastern cultures. But at $2 a copy, it might be more than many in the Middle East are willing to spend.
  3. By mid-2003, as news from Iraq grew increasingly negative, the U.S. government unleashed a flood of positive news releases, promoting U.S. good deeds in the country. Stories typically depicted how GIs were helping rebuild the country’s infrastructure (much of which was destroyed by U.S. war efforts) or how children’s lives were improving.
  4. Since the Persian Gulf War the caskets of dead soldiers have been censored from the media. Not only has the government prevented public viewing but it has now begun to take its efforts a step further—refusing to make any direct reference to “body bags” as the government’s official designation has become “transfer tubes.”
  5. The year 2004 saw the launch of an Arabic television network funded by the U.S. government to compete with the Qatar-based Arabic network Al Jazeera.
  6. The year 2006 saw the launch of a blog called “Grandma in Iraq” (, which featured the good deeds that a “grandma” (Suzanne Fournier) was doing to promote peace and goodwill in Iraq. But this grandma was actually a public affairs official working for the U.S. government. The picture-filled blog was picked up by such newspapers as the Cincinnati Inquirer, which never revealed the PR motives behind “Grandma in Iraq.” Amid public outrage, Cincinnati eventually pulled the link.
  7. Here are some other tactics used by the Bush administration to secure favorable coverage on various initiatives:
  • In 2005, USA Today revealed that Armstrong Williams, a conservative television and radio talk-show host, had been contracted through Ketchum Communications by the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Education Act. Williams plugged the policy on both his television and his radio programs without consistently disclosing that he was being paid $240,000 to do so. The Government Accountability Office conducted a subsequent investigation into government PR practices and declared that Williams’s contract was but one part in a network of activities determined to be covert propaganda. The Bush administration immediately distanced itself from the controversy, saying that the contract was established in the Education Department and denying knowledge of the deal. The episode caused ripples of self-analysis within the public relations industry.
  • According to a recent Government Accountability Office report on PR spending by the government, all branches combined spent $1.6 billion in 2005. The money was spent on everything from producing “fake news” (VNRs) to Caribbean cruise prize giveaways, to embroidered golf towels—all part of “engineering consent.”

Examining Ethics: Improving the Credibility Gap

  • In the 1990s, Nike was dogged by several disturbing reports about its overseas production units’ labor practices. For example, the mostly female workers in Vietnam were reportedly receiving $1.60 a day, not even enough to pay for three simple rice-and-vegetable meals, which typically cost 70 cents each. Workers also got only one bathroom break and two water breaks per eight-hour shift. Some workers were hit on the head, had their mouths taped, or were forced to stand in the hot sun as punishment from supervisors. In response to these reports, in February 1997 Nike hired the high-profile Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and a U.N. representative, to review its international labor practices.
  • Nike’s subsequent PR campaign to improve its image got the company into more trouble. Mark Kasky, a labor rights activist, examined Nike’s statements and sued the company on the basis of false advertising. Nike’s lawyers argued that the company’s PR campaign was protected by free-speech rights. Kasky’s lawyers, on the other hand, said the PR campaign should be regarded as advertising and therefore, as commercial speech, it didn’t benefit from the protection granted by the First Amendment. The case was settled out of court in September 2003, when Nike agreed to donate $1.5 million to the Fair Labor Association, an organization that monitors working conditions in overseas factories.
  • Nike estimates that 97 percent of Americans recognize their swoosh symbol and that every man, woman, and child in the United States spends an average of $20 a year on the company’s products. In fact, Nike worried that the swoosh had become so ubiquitous that it was becoming uncool, so it began to hide the swoosh, shrink the icon so that it was barely visible, and focus on women and soccer for its future sales.


  • Pre-Exercise Question: Why don’t some people recycle? This Critical Process exercise is a case study for nonprofit public relations and involves the process of persuading citizens to make a minor personal investment of time and energy for the good of the community. As the new environmental coordinator for the make-believe city of Murphystown (pop. 100,000), your duty is to get the citizens to reduce, reuse, and recycle their household garbage.
  • More than six months ago, a citywide curbside recycling program went into effect. Each household received plastic bins for separating its paper, metal, glass, and plastic products. Pickup is every two weeks, on the same day as weekly garbage collections. But many citizens of Murphystown are either not recycling or are forgetting to put out their recycling bins on time and are then later overloading the containers. Others are incorrectly sorting their recyclables, while still others are putting nonrecyclable waste into their bins. Moreover, few citizens are composting yard waste such as leaves and grass clippings, and many are still putting those items into their garbage cans, which is now illegal. So after six months, the new recycling program is a failure, and you are hired with the unenviable task of fixing the situation. Asurvey indicates that Murphystowners are accustomed to a throwaway convenience culture, and they think recycling and composting are too time consuming, with little benefit for them.
  • The recycling program needs to be a success. The program will extend the life of the city’s landfill from twenty to seventy years, and it will also provide (through the sale of bulk recycled garbage) an important revenue source for the operation of the city’s environmental-management system. Your job depends on your ability to turn the program around. The city’s mayor has privately demanded that you dramatically improve the citizen participation rate in the program in a year, or you’ll be fired.

Your Job
1. Identify all of the public relations problems in this scenario. Who are all the “publics” you
need to consider? How will you communicate with them?
2. Your solutions should shun top-down administrative edicts and, instead, encourage open,
democratic communication and creative participation. How will you frame your strategies
and messages to do this? How will you get the entire city of Murphystown to make a
personal investment in energy and time for a long-term plan in which they may not see
immediate tangible benefits?
3. Consider not only the message but the entire organizational process. Are there things you
could do to change the entire recycling process that might create higher participation rates
and improved performance? How will you find out which parts of the process to improve?


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