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How the Information Age Killed Public Relations... and What You Can Do About It

by Lisa Calhoun  |  
April 23, 2014

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.

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Lisa Calhoun is founder of tech public relations firm Write2Market, recently recognized among the Top 100 Agencies in the US. She blogs at How You Rule the World.

LinkedIn: Lisa Calhoun

Twitter: @lisa_calhoun

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  • by Lyndon Johnson Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    Public relations is NOT media manipulation. Public relations is about relationships and to suggest that information is killing the importance of building relationships is just nonsense!

    If you can't read the PRSA [Public Relations Society of America] definition of PR then you shouldn't be writing about it. You're doing more to kill the industry with misinformation than information ever will.

    Thanks, Lyndon

  • by Maura D Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    You certainly have a skewed perception of what Public Relations really means based on your antiquated historical examples. Obviously you have never been involved in a modern PR campaign designed to enhance the public's understanding of an issue, a product or a service. There is a reason PR is considered part of "earned media".

  • by Bob Zeitlinger Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web


    You've taken the worst aspects of PR, and in a sense, all of PR, and categorized it as "old PR," which does a gross disservice to a great portion of the industry. A good portion of PR has always been about educating various publics about products, services and issues. To ignore this for the sake of being able to create a theme that "PR is dead" is very suspect indeed.

    Look no further than all those that handle PR for professional services firms. Most of what we do is about promoting issues and challenges facing our clients' clients. For an accounting firm, it may include how to strategically use debt to grow your business; for a law firm, it may be raising issues about patent trolls and how to protect a firm's intellectual property.

    Hardly "mass false manipulation."

    With fewer and fewer reporters to cover news, PR people have had to work harder to offer real stories to overworked journalists. And with social media, companies have the ability to blast out any information they want via their own social media platforms. At least when a story appears in BusinessWeek or Bloomberg, it's been vetted by a reporter and an editor. You can't say that about 90 percent of today's online content -- which is created by and for companies.

    Bob Zeitlinger
    B To Z Communications

  • by Chris Nahil Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    The "information age" did far more to boost the reach and effectiveness (and respectability) of the public relations profession than almost any other cultural milestone. Not only is this article's reading of what constitutes PR entirely wrong, it's manipulative to make a specious point...kind of like bad PR.

  • by Lisa Calhoun Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    I appreciate the strong and passionate comments on this article! There's nothing I'd rather do than kick off a dialogue among different perspectives in the industry about what it really means to represent a brand--yesterday, today--and even more importantly, tomorrow.

    Historical context in our industry is just as critical as in any other industry--ignoring it, or calling it old, doesn't mean it's not there. And like other industries, ours is also on the move. The bigger story is from where, to where? Today is only today, but there's an arc involved. For us practitioners, making that journey a conscious one is critical. My vote is toward authenticity.

  • by Lyndon Johnson Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    Maura, PR is not part of earned media. Earned media is part of public relations where the media is one of many delivery channels.

    Bob, I agree with you that this does a disservice to the industry, but disagree that it is the majority. The majority of PR people are in the business publicity [earned media] not relationship building. This is a serious issue and the case of a lot of the misunderstanding about the value of PR.

    Chris, I'm not sure I agree with you about boosting effectiveness or respectability. It has provided a way to reach more people, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Playing a numbers game is a lottery - and also generally means the dilution of anything you're communicating because it has to be relevant to a much larger audience [resulting in a greater chance it'll be relevant to the people that matter].

    Lisa, I agree that we need historic perspective, but I'd argue that this is about the psychology of relationship building in order to understand how to deliver the right message, to the right audience at the right time, via the right channel in order to build relationships with audiences - not just repeatedly shouting the same thing on the basis that the more you say it the higher the chances are somebody will believe it.


  • by Brad Marley Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    Yes. What they said.

    The examples of PR you use in your article to support your idea died out a long time ago.

    We are not in the business of "media manipulation." Media are smart, and one Google search can debunk an entire campaign if we are not being truthful. So unless we are just terrible at our jobs, we are not building PR programs around manipulation. But if we are, we should not be practicing public relations.

    I would say that this article only serves to add to the negative connotation around the PR industry, but anyone can see that this is no longer how we operate.

  • by Deborah Fisher Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    MEOW you PR folks sure are sensitive. I'm sorry, but I believe that Lisa is right on the money. PR is and can still be based on manipulation which is why many, many companies and brands steer clear of it. Lisa brings to light that it is much better to tell a story and let the public decide what they believe.

  • by Lisa Calhoun Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    Thanks Lyndon, Brad and Maura for the strong stances. I hear that we can all feel, as Brad puts it, "anyone can see that this is no longer how we operate."

    Unfortunately, that's not quite the case. Our profession can be insular. Two points--have you read recently what journalists think of common mass pitching practices promoted by some of the largest media databases in our industry? I know it's not how YOU do it...but it's how IT is often done, today, right now. Second point, if you have not personally, perhaps you know someone who has worked on a campaign that was not, shall we say, fully credible. The story sounded good, the evidence wasn't there--or was more vision or vapor ware.

    Media is smart, but money is smart too and often it knows how to buy a good story. What we do in shaping opinion influences the world--it's a critical charge the requires we brings our minds and hearts to work every day. Keep in mind 100% of us public relations people are paid promoters. In other words, we are paid to take a situation, story or stance, and find ways to help it get more reach than it otherwise would. That's called "how we add value."

    Let me make no mistake in my point here; I know we add value--but while we're slinging stories, and technology is creating a more transparent information structure, it's well worth pausing and asking ourselves where this profession delivers value, precisely. For example, 100% of business professionals believe in relationship building. It's not our unique purview! HR is building relationships. Sales is building relationships. Marketing...I could go on and on. We do have a unique purview, however, and it's not pure relationship building at scale. It's beyond that--it's legend building. It feeds building relationships for all other sectors if we do it right. My selection of VERY old ideas, like minstrel or bard, was not by accident.

    Going back to the bones of our profession, before it was hijacked into manipulation (in the past or present depending on your point of view and experience in the industry), helps us recover our roots--and move forward for finer outcomes all around.

    I am not surprised to find some of us on this thread don't realize many of the articles posted today are not actually editorially vetted at all, but bought, even at some of the larger outlets. In any event, I'm totally jazzed and inspired by the passionate defense of PR as practiced by some of the commentators. (Like you Lyndon.) I Clearly, you all are inhabiting a future I wish more of us were already in. Let's make sure we all get there. And thanks again for the dialogue. It's inspiring.

  • by Bob Zeitlinger Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web


    Saying PR is based on manipulation, is like saying that telemarketing is a way for crooks to cheat senior citizens out of their social security checks. If people are using various media and relationship-building methods to manipulate various publics, I wouldn't call that "public relations."

    Sensitive? No. Passionate about what we do? Yes. Annoyed when it's mischaracterized? Definitely.

  • by Bob Zeitlinger Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web


    Can you point me to examples of articles that are "bought" at some of the "larger outlets?" Any information on actual costs would be helpful as well. Thanks.

  • by Deborah Fisher Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    Bob, I am in advertising and Direct Response Advertising to boot, so I understand your sensitivity to mis-characterization. Some say folks actually think that Advertising is glamorous. HA!

    However, I do believe that Lisa brings up a great point about what the internet has brought to all forms of media which is the need to be better with our facts. News reporters today can not fact check their information before news is reported anymore and the decline of the veracity of their news is declining every day. PR was built on spin, and in some cases has risen above it's humble beginnings. Not always. Same with all media. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't. I'm only suggesting that maybe there's too much sensitivity surrounding her points e.g. thou doth protest too much?

    OR worst case, I'm a DR advertiser that's enjoying seeing someone else's category beat up on for a change. ;)

  • by Brad Marley Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    If other industries outside of PR are pitching members of the media with mass distribution practices, then I guess I am insular in that I'm not aware of their tactics. In my brief time in this industry, I've never worked for an agency that bombarded media with pitches because we all agreed that that was bad practice.

    I like to think I'm adding value for my client by pitching a story in a captivating and truthful way. I don't rely on smoke and mirrors to land a story.

    Nothing comes to mind immediately that is comparable to hawking cigarettes in the 1920's. (Fracking might be close, but most people agree that it's harmful to the environment.) But if there was something similar, I'd like to think we would be sniffed out immediately.

    I can't stop a client from telling me what to pitch, but I can ensure that it's truthful and not spin. It's the least I can do.

  • by Lyndon Johnson Wed Apr 23, 2014 via web

    Hi Lisa,

    Relationships is the foundation of the definition that our industry body uses to describe what we do - so while relationships are important in other parts of the business, it is what we are paid money to do. The truth is that most PR companies seem to think that is only done via the media. That's like managing a relationship with a spouse via our mother-in-law or best friend. It's a very inefficient way to do it and, in many cases, the message will get lost in translation.

    Imagine if the intermediary only passed on the messages that they thought were of interest to our spouse. That is why we communicate directly. The only case when we get an intermediary involved is if there is a problem - usually a separation or divorce!

    Let's be honest, the reason that most agencies sell media relations programs under the banner of PR is because it is easy to commoditize. It's easy to package up and charge activity as billable hours, rather than actually helping our customers [internal or external] to build the relationships they need to build in order to achieve their desired commercial outcomes.

    The internet is full of PR people bemoaning that they're not taken seriously; they aren't seen as strategic; don't have a place at the top table; aren't recognized for the value they delivery - but when we can't even agree on what PR is, is it any wonder? The industry is its own worst spin doctor!!

    Best wishes,


  • by Judy Gombita Wed May 7, 2014 via web

    If you want a "living" history of (American) public relations, a recommendation to check out the series of (monthly) posts that my UK co-content editor, Heather Yaxley ( is doing on PR Conversations, drawn from the 1948(!) book, YOUR PUBLIC RELATIONS.

    The current chapter (six) was written by John W. Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, who apparently had an immense impact on the culture and values of this agency for decades. You will see very little of media relations (or manipulations) in his "How to use Public Relations Counsel" chapter

  • by Stuart Bruce Thu May 15, 2014 via web

    So we're meant to believe 'old' public relations was about spin (it wasn't), but in 'new' PR we "Create a legend"?

    That would be the type of legend that is a "1.a popular story handed down from earlier times whose truth has not been ascertained." (Collins English Dictionary)

    Think I'll stick to real public relations which always sticks to the truth and facts and doesn't go in for spinning legends.

  • by Lisa Calhoun Thu Nov 20, 2014 via web

    Thanks again for all the great comments on this post--as an update,check out the ongoing coverage around Edelman--highly relevant to our discussion.

  • by Lisa Calhoun Fri Mar 20, 2015 via web

    Hey everyone, an important update to this story was just published in PR Week--70% of the US public does not trust public relations people, according to a new survey. More here:

  • by Bob Zeitlinger Thu Mar 26, 2015 via web


    so 70 percent of the public doesn't trust PR people. What do you think the public level of trust is with newspapers? wait for it...

    How about less than 25%!

    Most people only see PR pros when there is a crisis and they are front and center. And since PR is so often associated with "spin," it's not surprising. Let me ask it this way: when are PR people in the public eye when a crisis isn't involved? And by this I mean, not standing back and off to the side when a CEO opens a store, or announces something positive.

    Bob Z.

  • by Lisa Calhoun Thu Mar 26, 2015 via web

    Bob Z, you're funny! The dive in public trust in newspapers says a lot about public relations! :) Thanks for the add.

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