The Wires that Control the Public Mind (2008)

Dandelion Salad

May 14, 2008

Google Tech Talks
May, 6 2008


“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. … In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” — Edward Bernays, founder of the public relations industry.

Billions of dollars are spent each year in the United States alone on public relations, a little-understood profession that has become a modern propaganda-for-hire industry. “Publicity” was once the work of carnival hawkers and penny-ante hustlers smoking cigars and wearing cheap suits. Today’s PR professionals are recruited from the ranks of former journalists, retired politicians and eager-beaver college graduates eager to rise in the corporate world. They hobnob internationally with corporate CEOs, senators and U.S. presidents. PR wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phony “grassroots” front groups, spy on citizens, and conspire with lobbyists and politicians to thwart democracy. In today’s electronic age, they use 800-numbers and telemarketing, advanced databases, and “video news releases” — entire news stories written, filmed and produced by PR firms and transmitted electronically to thousands of TV stations around the world. Canned news from PR firms is designed to be indistinguishable from real news and is increasingly taking its place, used as “story segments” on TV news shows without any attribution or disclaimer indicating that what viewers are seeing is in fact subtle paid advertisements. On the internet as well, PR firms have created slick websites that promise to inform the public while pushing hidden agendas. Example include:

The Greening Earth Society (funded by the coal industry), which claims that global warming is actually good for the environment
The Foundation for Clean Air Progress (which opposes regulations to control air pollution)
The African American Republican Leadership Council (a conservative organization headed by white Republicans)
Working Families for Wal-Mart (secretly funded, of course, by Wal-Mart itself)
Project Learning Tree (sponsored by the logging industry)

PR firms create front groups as part of what they call the “third party technique.” The basic idea, as described by one PR executive, is to “Put your words in someone else’s mouth.” They realize that their messages are more likely to persuade the public if they come from seemingly independent “third parties” such as a professor or a pediatrician or someone representing a nonprofit citizens’ group. The problem is, these third parties are usually anything but neutral. They have been handpicked, cultivated, and meticulously packaged to make you believe what they have to say–preferably in an “objective” format like a news show or a letter to the editor. And in some cases, they have been paid handsomely for their opinions.

Speaker: Sheldon Rampton
Sheldon Rampton researches deceptive PR firms for the Center for Media and Democracy and is the co-author, with John Stauber, of books including “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry”; “Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With your Future”: and “Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq.” He will discuss the Center’s work including its website,, a wiki-powered collaborative research project to document the “names behind the news.”

From the archives:

Front Groups – The Hidden Persuaders

Edward Bernays and the Art of Public Manipulation