January 7, 1994

Public Relations

A half truth is a whole lie.

Old saying

John D. Rockefeller was one of the richest men in the world. He made his fortune on oil. In 1863 he and his partners formed an oil business and rapidly bought out, or forced out, their competition. It was a game that Rockefeller played with a Machiavellian ruthlessness. If you want a study in the acquisition of wealth and power, the Rockefeller story tells it all. Toward the end of his career, he had accumulated a fortune and was the most hated man in America. At that point in his life, he decided that he didn't like being hated.

It was shortly after the turn of the century that several writers, such as Upton Sinclair, started writing books exposing whatever was rotten in America. These muckrakers stirred the conscience of the country. Suffice to say that unbridled greed and corruption permeated the nation -as it still does. Big business started hiring newspapermen to build up their image from rotten to good. Thus started the business of public relations. In 1914, J.D. Rockefeller hired newspaperman Ivy Lee to help improve his image. Lee convinced J.D. that to get people to think better of him, that he should spread a little bit of his wealth around; hence the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and the practice of giving shiny new dimes to children. He would have had to spread a lot more of that wealth around before it would make a significant dent in his immense fortune.

Public Relations(PR) has grown into a major industry. Virtually all large institutions have a PR person or PR department. Not just business, but public institutions such as universities, medical schools and even public schools. The objective is to change the image of the institution from whatever it is now to something better. It is standard operating procedure that, if you can't change an institution, you try to change the image.

If I call PR the business of lying for your employer, I might offend several people. I would be told that a reputable PR person -whatever that means- will tell the truth. However, it is that truth that is favorable to the company. Unfavorable truths are suppressed, when possible. There is an old saying that a half truth is a whole lie. For example:

Mother: Who broke the vase?

Child: The cat did it.

What is not said is that the kid was swinging the cat around by its tail at the time of the accident.

When I see TV commercials for the Kaiser hospitals that portrays its physicians as kind, caring human beings, I know that it is because Kaiser has an image of being an uncaring, unfeeling, red-tape ridden bureaucracy. Who pays for those TV ads and the PR department? The subscribers, of course. When I hear that Health Net supports Save the Whales, I can see the heavy hand of the PR people and know that the subscribers are getting short changed.

A good product will advertise itself. A restaurant that serves good food and provides good service will need a minimum of advertising. The worse the food and service, the more the advertising -they need it.

It is not illegal for a public institution to hire a PR person or have a PR department. I have serious reservations about the morality of using public money to hornswoggle the public.

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