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Compliance Professionals and Modern Strategies of Rule

Living in a society in which nearly every moment of human attention is exposed to the game plans of spin doctors, image managers, pitchmen, communications consultants, public information officers, and public relations specialists, the boundaries of my inquiry appeared seamless, and the shape that my analysis should take, illusive. Surveying the American cultural habitat, I observed that nearly every arena of public communication — the windows through which we come to know our world — was touched by the deliberate activities of “compliance professionals.”

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Bernays’s [Edward Bernays, the father of PR] take on public relations was remarkable in that it tended to ignore the particular processes or details of the periods that had given rise to it. Throughout the interview, he described public relations as a response to a transhistoric concern: the requirement, for those people in power, to shape the attitudes of the general population.

For Bernays, public relations reflected the refinement of techniques developed to serve ancient purposes. He appeared to have thought little about his life or his field as bearing the imprint of a specific historical era. As I prepared to depart from him, I felt a bit disappointed in this regard.

Then, as we began discussing the means by which I would get from his house back to the airport, a curious conversation unfolded. Amid a general complaint about the cost of taxicabs, and after counseling me to save my money and hop a trolley, Bernays indicated that he had never learned how to drive an automobile. I expressed surprise. He explained that he had simply never had to learn to drive; among his family’s train of up to thirteen servants, there was always a chauffeur. Bernays then proceeded to tell me a story of one chauffeur in particular, a man he called “Dumb Jack.”

Each day, he related to me, Dumb Jack would awaken at five o’clock in the morning and prepare to drive Bernays and his wife (and partner in public relations), Doris Fleishman, to the office. The trusty chauffeur would then return to the family home to carry their two daughters to school. From there, he would return to the office to chauffeur Bernays and his wife to business meetings throughout the day, taking time out to retrieve the daughters from their school. At the end of the day, according to Bernays, a subdued Dumb Jack would step into the kitchen and, as the cook prepared the evening meal, would sit at the kitchen table, lay his head in his hands, and take a nap. He would go to bed a nine, only to begin his routine again the next morning at five. Comparing this situation favorably to the cost of one cab ride to the airport today, Bernays ended his story by saying that for all this work, Dumb Jack received a salary of twenty-five dollars per week and got half a Thursday off every two weeks.

“Not a bad deal,” Bernays confided, characterizing the benefits that his family had derived from Dumb Jack’s years of compliant service. Then, with a lilt of nostalgia in his voice, he concluded his story: “But that’s before people got a social conscience.”

At that moment, in that nostalgic reverie over a bygone era, my quest for historical explanation — or at least a piece of it — was satisfied. In an incidental reference to “social conscience,” Bernays had illuminated a historic shift in the social history of property, shedding inadvertent light on the conditions that gave birth to the practice of public relations. As the twentieth century progressed, people were no longer willing to accommodate themselves to outmoded standards of deference that history, for millennia, had demanded of them.

Bernays was the child of a bourgeois world that was, in many ways, still captivated by aristocratic styles of wealth, in which relations among the classes were marked, to a large extent, by deep-seated patterns of allegiance — of obedience and obligation — between masters and servants. Like Mr. Stevens (the Anthony Hopkins character) in Remains of the Day, Dumb Jack was also a child of these circumstances.

The “social conscience” to which Bernays had referred arrived at that moment when aristocratic paradigms of deference could no longer hold up in the face of modern, democratic, public ideals that were boiling up among the “lower strata” of society. At that juncture, strategies of social rule began to change, and the life and career of Bernays, I should add, serves as a testament to that change.

The explosive ideals of democracy challenged ancient customs that had long upheld social inequality. A public claiming the birthright of democratic citizenship and social justice increasingly called upon institutions and people of power to justify themselves and their privileges. In the crucible of these changes, aristocracy began to give way to technocracy as a strategy of rule. Bernays came to maturity in a society in which the exigencies of power were — by necessity — increasingly exercised from behind the pretext of the “common good.” Bernays, the child of aristocratic pretense who fashioned himself into a technician of mass persuasion, was the product of a “social conscience” that had grasped the fact that a once submissive Dumb Jack, in the contemporary world, would no longer be willing to place his tired head quietly in his folded hands at the end of the day, only to awaken and serve again the next morning. Born into privilege, developing into a technocrat, Bernays illustrates the onus that the twentieth century has placed on social and economic elites; they have had to justify themselves continually to a public whose hearts and minds now bear the ideals of democracy.

As I pursued my research following my encounter with Bernays and repeatedly ran into the fear of an empowered public that ignited the thinking of early practitioners of public relations, the story of Dumb Jack — the man who was no more — came to mind again and again, reminding me of the human flesh that encircles the bones of broad institutional developments.

Stuart Ewen. PR! - A Social History of Spin, pp 19-20; 11-13