Stuart Ewen. PR! A Social History of Spin. Basic Books: New York, N.Y. 1996.
Stewart Ewen argues that public relations began in the period between 1900 and the First World War, when public indignation at the prevailing practices of big business in the United States. Magazines such as McClure’s, Munsey’s, Hampton’s, Everybody’s, Colliers, Cosmopolitan, Scribner’s, and The American Magazine authored by illuminaries such as Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, Henry Demarest Llloyd, and Edward Bellamy published “muckrake” journalism whiles novels such as The Octopus, The Jungle, and The Shame of Cities shed light on New York City gangs, the human price of industrialization, the slow but awful degradation of the working class.
In response, businessmen became convinced that private enterprises needed to become more responsive to public concerns. An entire group of social engineers, led by Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) and Walter Lippman’s Drift and Mastery (1914) influenced burgeoning PR men such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays working for the Rockefellers, AT&T, or Standard Oil, to provide damage control strikes, industrial deaths, and pollution to unruly masses incapable of reason. However, it wasn’t until WWI that public relations became a successful apparatus for controlling order. Shortly after gaining reelection for “keeping out of the war,” Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI) after joining the Allied Forces in 1917. Opposition from those such as the Industrial Workers of the World were ultimately overruled by the CPI’s publishing of the Official Bulletin, posters, and creating feature films such as Pershing’s Crusaders, America’s Answer, Under Four Flags. Americans supported the war in droves and Wilson’s popularity exploded. Once Freud began to discuss Le Bon's irrationality of crowds and transplant them to discuss the irrationality of the individual, PR experts begin to emerge.
From this point on, Ewen describes a pendulum: a progressive populace (or government) that is superseded by a regressive and conservative PR apparatus. During the New Deal, FDR’s Progressive-like populism, and programs such as the FSA Photographs of rural America instilled more trust in the public. If the business sector didn’t deliver on the promises of pension funds, health plans, and other social security policies, the public would turn once more toward their government, and the survival of ‘free enterprise’ would be in jeopardy.
This back in forth continued until the 1980s: the New Deal liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s was halted by McCartyhism and propensity of the 1950s. It reemerged in the 1960s and 1970s as “underground” presses created a counterculture. However, writing in the late 1980s and 1990s, "From the onset of Reaganism, we have witnessed the premeditated undermining of civil rights; the growing economic misery of vast, largely African American populations; and the rollback of opportunity as even a glimmer of a promise in many American communities. Some may argue, looking back on the history recounted in this book, that present circumstances are transient – that as in the past, the force of democratic expression will undermine and ultimately transgress the engineering of consent. For those who are used to looking at American history as a ‘pendulum’ swinging back and forth between conservativism and liberalism, such an eventuality may seem preordained. But if one examines other developments chronicled in this book, this interpretation is significantly flawed. Over the course of this century, while arenas of public interaction and expression have become scarce, the apparatus for molding the public mind have become increasingly pervasive."