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Mobs and public relations. (Ad/PR).

Mob psychology, the intolerance of human society for a dissenting point of view, has made it difficult and often dangerous for a man to plead for a new or unpopular cause," wrote one of the great thinkers of public relations. "When an argument on an abstract question engages opponents they often desert the main line of argument in order to abuse each other. How often this is true can be seen from the congressional records of controversies in which the personal attack supersedes logic."

This writer hadn't listened to talk radio or watched condescending, bow-tied television pundits ridicule and shout down opponents to make opposing viewpoints seem "unpopular." Edward L. Bernays, often referred to as the father of public relations, wrote these views in 1923 in the book Crystallizing Public Opinion.

Bernays, who died in 1995 at the age of 103, was one of the first communicators to consider psychology as a tool of public relations and, by extension, public affairs. He wrote 80 years ago that group affinities, emotions and the innate need for superiority had to be considered before launching a case based on a logical presentation of facts.

"Public opinion is a term describing an ill-defined, mercurial and changeable group of individual judgments ... The mental equipment of the average individual consists of a mass of judgments on most of the subjects which touch his daily physical or mental life," Bernays wrote. "The reader will recall from his own experience an almost infinite number of instances in which the amateur has been fully prepared to deliver expert advice and to give final judgment in matters upon which his ignorance is patent to every one except himself ... It is axiomatic that men who know little are often intolerant of a point of view that is contrary to their own."

Bernays cited a contemporary but timeless debate in Congress--a congressman argued for a particular tariff by publishing "long vindictive statements, in which he tried to confound the character and the disinterestedness of his opponents. Logically his discussion should have been based only upon the sound economic, social and political value of the bill as presented."

Bernays' book quoted other written works of the time that surveyed communications as a psychological undertaking. One of the books, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, was written by William Trotter. Bernays described the book as a comprehensive study of the social psychology of the individual.

According to Trotter, the average man carries "a vast number of judgments of a very precise kind upon subjects of very great variety, complexity and difficulty. The bulk of such opinions must necessarily be without rational basis, since many of them are concerned with problems admitted by the expert to be still unsolved, while as to the rest it is clear that the training and experience of no average man can qualify him to have any opinion upon them at all."

Everett Dean Martin, author of The Behavior of Crowds, defined a crowd as "the peculiar mental condition which sometimes occurs when people think and act together."

Crowds, wrote Martin, create logic-proof compartments which block other points of view that could threaten the existence of the groups.

"Every crowd 'boosts for' itself, gives itself airs, speaks with oracular finality, regards itself as morally superior, and will, so far as it has the power, lord it over everyone. Notice how each group and section in society, so far as it permits itself to think as a crowd, claims to be 'the people."'

The crowd mindset is not limited to the ignorant or uneducated, Martin said. "Any class may behave and think as a crowd."

Bernays did not use the current term "demonization" to describe a tactic for marginalizing opponents, but he did cite Martin's views that a good enemy can save a weak argument.

According to Martin, "even the verifiable facts and figures" of the other side are labeled "by that dread name propaganda."

Bernays acknowledged that "propaganda" already had achieved negative connotations, but he argued that it was a neutral term that should apply to any public communications. In his 1928 book, called Propaganda, he wrote, "Whether ... propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published."

Crowd psychology must be understood in shaping further public thought, Bernays wrote. The public relations counsel should understand that "the cause he represents must have some group reaction and tradition in common with the public he is trying to reach.

"Propaganda is a purposeful, directed effort to overcome censorship-the censorship of the group mind and herd reaction. The average citizen is the world's most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own 'logic-proof compartments,' his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction," Bernays wrote in the 1923 book.

Making a new opinion seem like a product of the old group was recommended. A small part of Bernays' wisdom may have been proven wrong by modern events--the part in which he wrote, "It is seldom effective to call names."

Rick Stoff, a former St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter and editor, now practices public relations through his own firm, Stoff Communications.
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Title Annotation:theories of Edward L. Bernays
Author:Stoff, Rick
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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