Private Business IS a Public Trust

Chesterfield cigarette's 'Women in War' campaign featuring a women in a US naval uniform. (Women in War, Stanford University)

What exactly is the sentiment behind private business is a public trust?

Previous to the Depression, businesses operated with complete autonomy and without regard to public interestThe public never questioned business interest, for it had no need to, as the economy was a robust one where most flourished.

After the Depression of the 1930s, public sentiment regarding business changed drastically. The public, after having experienced one of the worst financial disasters of the time, no longer trusted the word of business.

And the public had good reason to be distrustful….

One of the biggest issues related to the cause of the Depression and this subsequent distrust of business is that business, as a whole, operated with little transparency. Corporations were not required to disclose financial information or even held accountable for irresponsible actions that impacted the public.

What happened?

Lucky Strike campaign advertising that their cigarettes help consumers stay slender. (The University of Alabama)

Some years after the Depression, organizations actually campaigned to rebuild the reputation of the business sector. One of the major principles that business came away with from this experience was that they needed to build a trust with the public that promoted the cause of everyone not just private organizations or the idea that private business was indeed a public trust.

More significantly, as a result of the Depression, the public demanded businesses not only be held accountable to the public but they were also made to practice disclosure! In this way, the public begins to trust business, but in some cases, it invests in business—whatever business it might be.

From this idea, the field of public relations really takes shape and form because it was the first time that business interests collectively realized they had to relate to the public on more than just a monetary level. They had to actively engage in two-way relationships that sometimes culminated in partnerships with communities they served.

Once establishing these relationships, organizations have pretty much set the platform for any campaign that requires them to persuade or inform the public.

Okay, so how do you engage and then persuade the public to invest in an idea?

Edward Bernays is commonly known as the father of public relations. (Wikpedia Commons)

In public relation’s naissance, the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, theorized that public organizations can influence the public through the engineering of consent.

Incidentally, Freud was one of Bernays’ uncles, and Bernays borrowing from Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, stipulated that business can manipulate the consumer by tapping into the subconscious, or influencing the public without it knowing it.

The engineering of consent simply is a term that describes how organizations influence their publics, unknowingly, by targeting their basic desires.

So, how does engineering of consent relate to public consumption?

One of the best examples of the way in which this is reflected is with Bernays’ Torches of Freedom campaign at the end of the 1920s.

The Torches of Freedom was a campaign targeted toward women, and it encouraged women to take up smoking in an effort to fight sexist ideals that prevented women from smoking in public, as smoking and the cigarette was a symbol of male sexual power.

Bernays went about convincing women to participate by tapping into their desire to address this sexist, outmoded ideal of femininity by Bernays hiring women to march in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York while smoking. Not only did this campaign promote dialogue on this particular topic, it increased cigarette smoking among women!

Another example of the way in which this plays out is….

The American democracy is another example of the way in which engineering of consent plays out in the real world arena. Whether it is innocuous messages from private corporations like Pepsi that promote the American spirit or government inspired promotions that encourage young people to join the military, these campaigns influence the public to believe, and more importantly invest, in democratic ideals.

Chesterfield Cigarettes PR campaign targeting women. (Stanford University)

What happens when engineering of consent does not work?

Without the public’s investment, the campaign becomes fruitless. An example of this would the public’s investment in cryptocurrency. Currently, Bitcoin and some of the other cryptocurrencies are struggling in the area of public relations as a result of negative publicity.

For one, the currency is a highly volatile market, and it has been linked to unsavory, illegal interests. The verdict is still out as in some countries like Japan the currency is traded like others, but in the United States, none of the cryptocurrencies have been authorized.

Essentially, for cryptocurrencies to succeed at the same level of other currencies, the industry as a whole has to establish trust among its publics by getting them to invest in the whole idea, or through engineering of consent.

For the public relations field….

Both the ideas private trust being a public interest and the engineering of consent laid the groundwork for modern campaigns where organizations actively establish relationships between and among publics.


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