When my students ask me, “What will be the next big thing in historical studies?,” I tell them to watch out for the history of public relations. The University of Bournemouth in the UK has a fairly new center devoted to the subject, Baruch College in Manhattan has just set up a Museum of Public Relations, and I think that’s just the beginning. Yes, plenty of work has been done on the history of advertising and propaganda, but PR is different: Dan Draper and Joseph Goebbels were perfectly upfront about what they were doing, but PR is a medium that commonly and deliberately disguises its own authorship. Let me state at the outset that everyone today uses publicists, and much of their work is entirely ethical. For publishers, they write up promotional material, send out review copies, arrange author interviews, and extract blurbs from reviews of their books—this one, for instance. But the main focus of this chapter is the kind of PR that surreptitiously plants stories in various media. It works only insofar as readers don’t recognize it, and therefore distrust of the media is in large measure a function of reader recognition of PR. The standard narrative holds that public relations was invented by Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays in the early twentieth century, but the basic concept of publicity can be traced back as far as Socrates’s Phaedrus, who observed that “an orator does not need to know what is really just, but what would seem just to the multitude who are to pass judgment, and not what is really good or noble, but what will seem to be so; for they say that persuasion comes from what seems to be true, not from the truth” (260a). One of the most brilliant PR agents of the pre-newspaper era was working before Shakespeare staged his first play.
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