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The Engineering Of Consent

Bernays explained, "Professionally, [public relations] activities are planned and executed by trained practitioners in accordance with scientific principles, based on the findings of social scientists. Their dispassionate approach and methods may be likened to those of the engineering professions which stem from the physical sciences."[2]

The engineering of consent


A range of social forces contributed to the effective recruitment of women to cigarette smoking in the crucial period between 1900 and 1940. Cigarette advertisers and public relations experts recognized the significance of women's changing roles and the rising culture of consumption, and worked to create specific meanings for the cigarette to make it appeal to women. The cigarette was a flexible symbol, with a remarkably elastic set of meanings; for women, it represented rebellious independence, glamour, seduction, and sexual allure, and served as a symbol for both feminists and flappers. The industry, with the help of advertisers and public relations experts, effectively engineered consent for women as smokers. The "engineering of consent" has a role to play in smoking cessation, since negative meanings for the cigarette can be engineered as well.

A key corporate PR strategy to foster 'favourable business climates' is 'issues management' -- a strategy which was more tellingly and more accurately called 'engineering of consent' in the early 1920s (when corporate PR was called 'corporate propaganda' by its practitioners). The PR techniques to engineer consent were first developed and propagated by Edward Bernays, one of the most influential PR-practitioners and theoreticians. Bernays described engineering of consent as:

"quite simply, the use of an engineering approach -- that is, an action based only on thorough knowledge of the situation and the application of scientific principles and tried practices in the task of getting people to support ideas and programmes. Any person or organisation depends ultimately on public approval and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public's consent to a programme or goal".11

Issues management, the modern version of engineering of consent, is a similarly pro-active and systematic propaganda campaign based on intelligence gathering and on a thorough assessment of the socio-political situation. Bob Leaf, an executive with major PR company Burson-Marsteller, has said that:

Awareness of Pagan's international issues management strategy facilitates better recognition of the ways in which TNCs and industry business organisations have tried to influence international public interest debates, particularly at the level of the United Nations.20 To gain a broader picture of corporate public relations strategies and techniques, however, particularly of those which attempt to engineer consent, an analytical working model can be useful. This model is based on analysis of actual corporate PR strategies (such as those described in PR textbooks, issues management industry seminars, leaked documents and accounts of activists), blended with insights from theories on communication and power.21

Besides attempting to ensure that a corporate version of public issues dominates public debate, engineering of consent attempts at the same time to exclude 'unfavourable' views from the public discourse by neutralising critics. Instead of risking negative publicity, such as Nestlé encountered when it sued the Swiss solidarity group for libel, engineers of consent may prefer to 'neutralise' critical voices rather than silence them. 'Let them talk,' they concede, 'but let's prevent them from influencing public opinion.'47

To be in a better position to resist corporate attempts to manipulate public debate and engineer consent, corporate accountability activists need to learn how better to distinguish between marketing -- selling a product-- and corporate public relations -- selling industry views (although manipulation is key to both kinds of activities). 'PR literacy' can be increased by reading PR textbooks (in particular, glossaries and sections on issues management and sponsorship) and investigative work on corporate PR strategies.54 Spaces for democratic decision-making can be recovered in various ways:

Given PR practitioners' vital role in engineering consent to anti-social business practices, action groups could attempt to expose PR practitioners' violations of the various voluntary codes of conduct instituted by major professional PR associations such as the Public Relations Society of America or the International Public Relations Association.

Concealment of industry attempts to manipulate public debate is an essential feature of corporate propaganda. A corporate PR campaign designed to engineer public consent to a particular industry's views often tries to hide the origin and true aim of the persuasive message. This concealment can be called PR laundering.

This could be seen as a real shift in industry accountability -- if industry practices were to shift accordingly as well. Yet, such 'dialogues', when incorporated into international issues management strategies, are often just one more tool for engineering of consent to socially-unacceptable practices.

11 Bernays' PR approach was based on opinion polls, policy analysis and thorough planning. He said that "it is careful planning more than anything else that distinguishes modern public relations from old-time hit or miss publicity and propaganda". See Bernays, E.L., Public Relations, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1952. According to communication scientist Kevin Robins and his colleagues, the rise of public relations and other information industries marked a profound shift in the means of social control from violence and bribery to softer, persuasive means: "Faith in a rational public gives way to the invocation of expertise and to the scientific managmenet of public opinion ... Political rule becomes a matter of social engineering, and the machinery of propaganda and information management becomes all pervasive". See Robins, K., Webster, F. and Pickering, M., "Propaganda, Information and Social Control" in Hawthorn, J., Propaganda, Persuasion and Polemic, Edward Arnold, London, 1987, p.10.

Mass societies are characterised by a balance between coercion and consent. Where other institutions like the courts and prisons operate as a coercive mode of power, media institutions exercise power via consensus, or agreement.

Notes Edward Bernays quote is from Bernays, E. (1947). The engineering of consent. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 250(1), 113-120. Excerpt of CJ Lawrence talking about Black Lives Matter is from CBS News August 14, 2014 '#iftheygunnedmedown creator on the representation of Mike Brown'.

All engineering is social, of course, affecting how societies function. Some subfields of engineering are more directly targeted at human action than others. Sanitary engineering, for example, affected habits of waste and consumption in urban centers. Through a seemingly politically neutral process of building infrastructures such as sewage systems, engineers started to see how their work could directly shape society.

As an antidote to the unruly crowd, social theorists began to explore ways to engineer a better society. This positivist vision was fueled in part by the advent of new social sciences at the turn of the 20th century, particularly sociology, economics, and psychology, which promised to illuminate the previously messy world of human action. The basic idea was to implement the expert knowledge gleaned from sociological surveys, economic analysis, or psychological theorizing into specific social programs meant to guide the newly ascendant masses. As the president of the American Statistical Association put it in 1937, the application of social science to social ills would be social engineering, just as the application of physics to bridge-building was called engineering.

Social engineering means not merely charities and philanthropies that care for the victims of vice and poverty, but also intelligent organized effort to eliminate the causes that make these philanthropies necessary, and it means also an attempt at a readjustment of our economic and industrial system by wise statesmanship through social control, so that the profits of social production may be more equitably distributed to all the legitimate factors in society.

The social reformers were not the only ones using the term social engineering. So, too, were the Scientific Managers, adherents of the philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a trained engineer famous for his studies of how industrial workers did their jobs. Scientific management targeted the world of industrial work, seeking to make production more efficient.

Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was famously known as the \"father of public relations\" and a pioneer of propaganda. He wrote an essay called \"The Engineering of Consent\", in which he explains how to manufacture mass demand through psychological manipulation. Bernays described modern propaganda as \"a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.\" The \"engineering of consent\" was promoted by Bernays to subvert democratic governance, as he once said \u201CIf you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway\u201D. Bernays famously worked with United Fruit Company in the 1950s, connected with the covert CIA-orchestrated coup d'\u00E9tat to overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954. One of his favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of \u201Cthird party authorities\u201D to plead for his clients\u2019 causes. In this technique, he qualified the use of a reputable and prominent sponsoring groups as an appeal to authoritative consensus.

A seminal and controversial figure in the history of political thought and public relations, Edward Bernays (1891-1995), pioneered the scientific technique of shaping and manipulating public opinion, which he famously dubbed "engineering of consent." During World War I, he was an integral part of the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI), a powerful propaganda apparatus that was mobilized to package, advertise and sell the war to the American people as one that would "Make the World Safe for Democracy. The CPI would become the blueprint in which marketing strategies for future wars would be based upon. 041b061a72


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