At the turn of the 20th century, the father of modern public relations, Edward Bernays, the double nephew of Sigmund Freud, used his uncle’s theories of psychoanalysis to create modernity and influence public opinion.
“The counsel on public relations,” Bernays explains in “Crystalizing Public Opinion,” his magnum opus, “not only knows what news value is, but knowing it, he is in a position to make news happen; he is the creator of events.”
Written in 1923, it set the theoretical foundation of the field and created a sensation, especially in Hollywood. The major studios understood what it meant to be “the creator of events,” a way to reach mass audiences with the new talking pictures. And there was an opportunity for unconscious persuasion because the rising news media of the time were looking for stories that would attract readers and advertisers. The use of press releases to disseminate news nationally was revolutionary.
The press release, created by public relations pioneer Ivy Lee, spokesman for the Rockefeller family, served as the vehicle for “making news happen.” I argue it was the first social media platform that influenced the news. In 1919, Lee created the press release with this Declaration of Principles: “We aim to supply news, our plan on behalf of business concerns and public institutions to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which is of value and interest to the public to know about.”
Initially the media acquiesced and saw publicists as valuable to the news cycle, but as press releases became one-sided, many in the media saw this as propaganda.
The legal industry became the new standard bearer of the press release in 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-4 decision in Bates v. The State Bar of Arizona, ruled that lawyers and law firms are allowed to advertise their services. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, writing for the court’s majority, argued that commercial free speech merits First Amendment protection given the important function it serves in society, such as providing consumers with information about services and products and helping to allocate resources in the American system of free-enterprise.
It was a revolutionary. With Hollywood as its backdrop, legal marketing by L.A. law firms using press releases to promote appointments, honors, and lawsuit victories soared as a way to “create” news in the late 1970s and’80s.
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