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.