We live in a world where the truth can be commodified and sold to the highest bidder. Companies and governments decide what is or is not the truth. They said that cigarettes do not cause cancer, that opioids are not addictive and that global warming does not exist. These are small examples of how corporations can manipulate the truth to fit their agendas. Have you ever wondered who created these lies and spread them amongst the public? Maybe it was the advertising executives or the corporate media, but much of the blame falls on public relations firms. This becomes a bigger question- what is a PR firm?
Public relations is a career field that is somewhat difficult to define. The Public Relations Society of America describe PR as “… a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” They go on to say it is about “influencing, engaging, and building a relationship between organizations and their publics.” The phrasing of these sentences makes the public relations field seem positive, innocuous and professional. Under this definition, it almost seems as if PR firms help the public more than they help their clients. However, this cannot be further from the truth. The one goal of a PR firm is to make their client look good by any means necessary. This is where the use of propaganda comes in.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” By that definition, we can say that PR firms do in fact spread propaganda. It is their job to spread information that helps their client. Often, this information is detrimental to the public. There are numerous examples to choose from.
Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm based in New York, was paid $10.7 million dollars to increase American support for the 1991 Gulf War. Using focus groups, they determined what would sway public opinion- “atrocities.” Hill and Knowlton used a woman named Nayira, the daughter of Kuwait’s U.S. Ambassador, to testify about the atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers. Hill and Knowlton fabricated her testimony, stating that she was a volunteer at an Iraqi hospital who witnessed Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators and leaving them to die. Her testimony was so moving that it swayed seven senators to support the war. This, of course, led to a short and costly invasion that killed 382 U.S. soldiers and 2,300 Iraqi civilians.
The Ketchum PR firm is a serial offender when it comes to lying to the public. Ketchum paid political pundit Armstrong Williams $241,000 to positively discuss No Child Left Behind on CNN and CNBC. They also paid him to interview the Bush Administration’s Education Secretary, Rod Paige, for TV and radio ads. Ketchum also paid two conservative columnists to discuss the Bush Administration’s marriage proposal. Maggie Gallagher was paid $20,000, while Michael McManus was paid $10,000.
To add insult to injury, Ketchum created a fake news broadcast for the Department of Health and Human Services that violated government propaganda laws. Ketchum has also produced propaganda for other countries. In 2013, Ketchum was used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to publish his op-ed in the New York Times. The op-ed is complete Russian propaganda. Putin discusses his wishes to form a relationship with President Obama, and to bring about a peaceful end to the war in Syria.
The Pentagon hired a U.K. PR firm named Bell Pottinger $500 million to create pro-war propaganda in Iraq. Bell Pottinger produced fake news segments, created fake Arabic news networks and manufactured fraudulent Al-Qaeda insurgent videos. They kept a record of all viewers watching these fake news segments. An unnamed contractor said they ran black, gray and white propaganda while in Iraq. It was later found that BP not only worked for the Pentagon, but would report back to the CIA and National Security Council. BP’s clients don’t just include the U.S. They’ve worked for Margaret Thatcher, Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syria’s president, and a number of other totalitarian regimes.
I can go on and on about the evils of the PR industry, but it won’t make a difference. PR firms have been around since 1901, and can easily dodge anything thrown at them. They are masters of information warfare, psychological manipulation and truth suppression. They’ve started wars, ruined lives and influenced the beliefs of entire generations. Yet, some people have argued that if used correctly, PR firms can positively impact society. They can be used to spread truthful information, warn us of danger, and show alternative views not found in the mainstream media. I doubt there’s any money in spreading the truth or helping marginalized groups get media attention.
Besides, PR was never designed to spread the truth. It was made to persuade the public through psychological manipulation. In the words of Edward Bernays, one of the founding fathers of the PR industry, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”