Does P.R. Exist? A Case Study Right Before Our Eyes

baltimore_port.2.jpgThe past week’s hullabaloo over Dubai’s DP World’s bid to buy out a seaport management firm that runs several U.S. ports will be studied from many angles for many years to come. The horrified reaction of so many otherwise intelligent journalists, politicians and pundits contains a fair amount of opportunism on all sides, so you can discard some of it. Once the political winds start blowing in a different direction, many of these so-called leaders will keep smilin’, and shift course.

The opportunists’ rhetoric, however, reflects a genuine public panic. And underneath that panic is, I think, widespread public discomfort and ambivalence over the rapid evolution of the global economy.

The picture many of us carry around in our minds of the American economy is out of date. Not only are many American assets no longer owned or controlled by strictly American companies, not only are many American brand-name products no longer produced in America, not only are dyed-in-the-wool American merchants now largely selling foreign-made products; the entire concept of a national economy distinct from the world’s is rapidly melting away.

The port-management contracts that Dubai seeks were already in the hands of a foreign company — P&O, a British concern. United Arab Emirate companies already have an established presence in Houston’s port, have had for many years, and no one’s complained. The contracts Dubai DP were taking over were for terminal operation. Something like 80 percent of the terminal operations at the Port of Los Angeles are conducted by foreign-owned companies. The contracts do not give Dubai DP responsibility for security. And anyway, this is not a takeover of anything. DP World can be fired from any of these contracts if the public agencies owning the ports believe it is not acting in their best interests.

Besides, ports are already incredibly insecure, a problem no one has figured out a cost-effective way to fix. A nuclear bomb could be on its way to the Port of Los Angeles right now, and our chances of detecting it are close to mathematical zero. The Dubai deal doesn’t change that sad fact one way or the other.

Once these facts got into the public discourse, the reaction was interesting. Some critics went into Emily Litella mode: “Never mind.” But others — from Tom Delay to Hillary Clinton — plowed ahead with legislative proposals to limit who can get U.S. port-management contracts.

And, see, that’s the problem. The story hit the public consciousness sideways, like a two-by-four swung out of a shadow. Of course, the initial reaction was going to be reflexive and irrational.

How did that happen? The same facts journalists, politicians and bloggers have “unearthed” in the past few days have been out there, like grapefruit in a tree, ripe for the picking. Is it the fault of the scribes and politicians for shooting from the hip? Or shouldn’t the vast economic interests involved in global trade, including our own government, have done a better job educating the public on the whys and wherefores of the international shipping industry?

A few months ago, I started doing research and collecting notes for a book I hope to write on the history of the public relations industry and exploring the continued relevance of the PR approach in a communications landscape that has shifted so radically. In the course of this research, I started reading Edward Bernays, one of a handful of people who can claim parenthood of the public relations industry. (Bernays’ Wikipedia bio is here.)

The only one of Bernays’ many books that’s currently in print is Propaganda, a slender 1927 volume that distills his approach to its very essence. This book is where Bernays famously defined PR as “the manufacture of consent,” and as “applied social science,” which can be used to correct what he perceived as democracy’s great flaw — the potential for mobs to form around bad ideas that would damage the orderly operations of business and government. (Yes, I’m aware that this sounds creepy and manipulative. Read the book.)

The-Music-Room.jpgBernays applied his theories to clients that included governments, large corporations and utilities, as well as for product marketers.

His basic strategy can be illustrated by a small example:

One of Bernays’ clients was a piano manufacturer that wanted, naturally, to sell more pianos. Bernays suggested the pianomaker could accomplish this goal indirectly — by working with home builders on home designs that would include a music room, and to promulgate images, warm cozy images, of families singing around the piano in the music room. So, when families moved into these new homes the absence of a piano would make the room seem unfurnished, and the family deprived. Piano sales took off.

The same techniques should be applied, per Bernays, to the great projects required by government, utilities and business. The voting public might be confused, upset, frightened by some plan of these large institutions, but Bernays’ “applied social science” could “manufacture consent” by educating the public on the necessity for the plan, indirectly, by using the various communications outlets of that era — such as newspapers, radio, movies, school classrooms, speeches social and business organizations — to build awareness of the problem and steer the public to the desired conclusion.

Like it or hate it, that’s how PR is supposed to work, back then and today. Anyone who has worked in the PR industry surely is familiar with campaigns that have been structured like this.

The Dubai shipping controversy demonstrates one of two things. Either a global industry that generates billions in revenues and underpins the world’s economy has so little faith in the techniques of PR that they chose not to use them; or the industry used those techniques, and they failed.

Until this week, the Dubai bid to operate port terminals was deemed by senior officials in the Bush Administration, Dubai officials and shipping industry leaders to be a run-of-the-mill event — something not worth notifying either the president or his Homeland Security secretary about.

A reasonably intelligent 27-year-old PR pro could have told the client otherwise, that the industry needed to prepare the public for this plan. And maybe they tried! The ad supplements that appear in USA Today and other papers promoting the United Arab Emirates might have been part of a multi-million dollar PR and advertising blitz to distinguish the UAE from Al Queda. But from what I can tell, the shipping industry and its many stakeholders — like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot — made no impact on the public debate.

So, you might ask, what’s the harm? Aren’t the the facts getting out now? Yes, but it’s too late. Key political leaders like Clinton, Delay, Rep. Peter King, Sen. Charles Schumer, the mayor of Baltimore and dozens of others have already run far out onto a limb demanding this deal be rescinded and that future deals of this type be banned. Their careers are at stake. The crediblity of news outlets and various pundits is also at stake. They’ve got a dog in this fight now — their own reputations. The industry can’t start running a campaign now that says, in essence, “you’re all a bunch of idiots.” So while the sudden emergence of old information as if it’s new information might save the port deal, a lot of unnecessary damage has been done and bad will created. Consent has not been manufactured, and now it might never be.

Unless you want to argue the controversy and the damage it has caused couldn’t have been avoided. Is that an argument anyone in the PR industry wants to make?

2 thoughts on “Does P.R. Exist? A Case Study Right Before Our Eyes

  1. The problem is that politics is indistinguishable from PR. How things appear to the public and how their views are formed is sometimes completely disconnected from reality.

    Of course it sounds lousy to say an Arab owned company is going to run the port operations in NYC and other US cities. It might be racist, irrational and completely groundless. Then you wake up the next morning and see that a mosque has been blown to shreds or millions are marching about a cartoon and you wonder if your fears are really groundless.

    If it is silly to suppose that we invaded Iraq to prevent another 9/11, then it is equally as ridiculous to think that stopping a foreign company from managing an American port will somehow save us from nuclear Armageddon.

    But there is no PR machine that can untaint Islam in the minds of non-Muslims. Republicans and Democrats play the fear card because that’s how they stay in power. They have taken their game plan from each other. We liberal democracies now live under the rule of mental despots of every stripe.

    We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

  2. Andrew: You’re right. Those who thought invading Iraq was a non sequiter are among those who are most exercised about the port deal. It’s almost like a Rorsach test for each individual: What do you believe makes us more vulnerable to terrorism? For some, it was the continued reign of Saddam Hussein. For others, it’s a bunch of Dubai bureaucrats running operations at U.S. ports. Probably we’re all grasping at straws. The (God forbid) next 9-11 will come at us in a way most of us can’t imagine — and won’t fit into our pre-existing political biases.

    You’re also suggesting that no amount of PR savvy could avert a negative public response to an Islamic country taking a significant position in our economy. Islam is, simply, feared too much now. I’m not sure I agree. I think the public does have a sense that the jihad is being waged by radicals, not by all Muslims. However, I concede that the cartoon protests are challenging that perception.

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