Few PR pros know that modern public relations emerged from the propaganda war that raged throughout World War I. Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, the "father of PR," wondered whether the propaganda model could be applied to the private sector to influence public opinion during peacetime.
The era of conscious media manipulation was born.
But it's tough to manipulate (by selling uncertainty, for one) when the truth is only a Web search away. Edward Bernays's flavor of PR is dying, and we're in the process of watching a whole new era of marketing rise from the ashes.
Leaving Fear and Uncertainty Behind
Since the early 20th century, public relations has relied on a massively disproportionate range of access to information.
For example, around the time of the women's suffrage movement, Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company to help it break into new markets (i.e., sell more cigarettes). He saw potential in women, who were essentially culturally forbidden to smoke. He saw an opening in the suffrage movement and staged actresses smoking cigarettes at demonstrations where women were marching to get the vote.
His famous "Torches of Freedom" campaign positioned smoking—falsely, by using actresses and fleets of photographers—as a way to express solidarity with women who wanted to vote. It was a massively successful idea, and a whole lot of women took up smoking.
Think about how the same sort of campaign would go today. The smart women in charge of the suffrage movement would be taking to social media to say that women don't need to emulate the bad habits of men to gain independence—that they simply need the right to vote—and blogs would explode with posts about how men are co-opting the movement for financial gain.
Today, the average First-World consumer has easy access to an incredible amount of information, and the old PR model that created fiction to influence behavior is losing its effectiveness.
In the modern world, there are too many easily recognized angles to a story. Someone is tweeting from the opposition, someone else is launching a boycott over the blogosphere, and media outlets all over the world are speculating in real time about future developments.
Simply put, it has become much more difficult to sustain a false mass manipulation.
More Story, Less Spin
Today, people who want to make great stories can use technology to influence public perception, rather than shape public perception around a lie. Think of it like this: Consumers no longer buy out of a fear of not having something; they buy because the product has the potential to enhance their personal story. Progressive marketing companies such as SHIFT Communications and TGPR talk more about how we make and share real stories—rather than "tell" them.
This is hugely important for technology producers, as their products are all about personalization. Items such as Google Glass, smartphones, and wearable fitness technology were all created to extend the range of human ability, and today tech companies have a tremendous need to educate potential customers about the joys of using what they have to offer.
A company can take three steps to create and share better stories.
1. Forget everything you know about public relations
The general public doesn't like the entire concept behind "public relations" because old PR is a nasty idea. People don't like to think of themselves as people who follow the herd, and now they have the information available to make informed decisions.
2. Decide what you want people to know
Want to make the world a better place? You need to show people how your product is making an actual impact—and back up your claims with real evidence. Maybe you want people to know how your innovative product will simplify their lives. Let them try it for themselves, and they will tell the world for you.
Suddenly, "public relations" starts to look a lot like "education"—which old PR, as an industry, has largely abandoned. As humans, telling stories to educate is in our DNA. And with the right words and information, people can be persuaded rather than inculcated. The shift from "telling" something good to "doing" something good is the essential core, and you should start viewing your public communications function more as a broadcaster and your marketing more as privately held media.
3. Think about your legend
You no longer have to think about your "hook" or "spin." Today, your goal should be to think more like a minstrel. Create a legend that incorporates your company's values and gives people a living, breathing framework.
Today's smarter storyteller has an arsenal of case studies, statistics, founder's stories, and core values. Although Bernays staged a "Torches of Freedom" march, today's more authentic legend maker actually does something with his product or service to show its effect. Today's reputation creator enables real people to have an unbelievable experience and blog about it. It's authentic, with the story providing a medium to chronicle an actual transformation.
All this cannot really be called "public relations" any more. It's a new incarnation of marketing, where it's necessary to incorporate a real narrative. That takes mind, not manipulation.