The Engineering of Consent is an essay by Edward Bernays first published in He defines engineering consent as the art of manipulating people. Edward Bernays applied the principles of propaganda to marketing. he developed an approach he dubbed “the engineering of consent. The PR techniques to engineer consent were first developed and propagated by Edward Bernays, one of the most influential PR-practitioners.

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Corporations use public relations techniques to limit campaigns against the socially-irresponsible or environmentally-destructive practices of transnational companies. IBFAN ‘s financial contribution towards some of the printing costs is gratefully acknowledged. One of the major challenges facing citizen groups campaigning to cohsent, minimise, limit or regulate socially-irresponsible or environmentally-degrading practices of transnational corporations TNCs is how to deal with the corporations’ increasing calls for ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation’.

Many TNCs say they have seen the error of their ways cnsent have rectified their mistakes or at least are in the process of doing so. Eager to do their best for “our common future”, they claim to be keen to listen to their critics.

Thus ‘dialogues’ with companies or industry organisations are frequently portrayed as the way ahead for citizen groups seeking corporate accountability, rather than ‘confrontational’ strategies such as boycotts. But how are industry critics to know whether, when and how entering into ‘dialogue’ with corporations will be effective?

What are the dangers and limits of doing so? An answer requires exploring the ways in which calls for bfrnays or ‘cooperation’ have masked hernays to manipulate public debates; to silence or neutralise critics; and to create an image of socially-concerned business. In short, it requires an introduction to contemporary corporate public relations or PR. Knowledge of corporate PR strategies may help activists and concerned citizens to recognise manipulative strategies and distinguish them from industry behaviour which is truly indicative of change, and thus be in a better position to counter such strategies.

Putting the spotlight on this least examined — because best hidden — source of corporate power may increase the transparency of public debates on critical issues and allow citizens to recover spaces for democratic decision-making.

What egnineering public relations? Definitions range from befnays “mutual influence and understanding” between the PR practitioners’ employer and its various ‘publics’, 2 to practising the “gentle art of letting the other fellow have your way”.

Baskin and Craig E. Aronoff, authors of an authoritative PR textbook, believe that the diversity of public relations and the constant changes in the field make it, at most, a “moving target for definition”. They state that “one of the best ways to define public relations is to describe what its bernqys do”.

As communication scientist Michael Kunczik points out, “public relations is also the art of camouflage and deception”. Some light may be shed on the question by considering the purpose of a specific PR strategy. A PR campaign which aims to recruit more donors for a non-profit charity, for instance, will be very different from conseng motivated by a profit-oriented TNC in response to calls for better regulation of its activities. One benchmark tends to hold true in assessing whether a Brnays campaign is attempting open, honest and straightforward communication or is using more manipulative strategies: The underlying purpose of corporate PR has in fact changed little since it enginerring first developed in the United States last century 8 — to establish and maintain a ‘favourable business climate’.

According to Baskin and Aronoff:. Effective public relations smooths and enhances a company’s operations and eases and increases its sales. It enables a business to better anticipate and adapt to societal demands and trends. It is a means by which businesses improve their operating environments”. Corporate perception of what constitutes a favourable business climate, however, may vary from one era to another, between service and capital intensive industries, engoneering different branches of an industry for instance, between the pharmaceutical and the chemical industryand even between different companies of the same branch.

It has become easier over the past 30 years bdrnays so for corporate PR to work towards its goal because of the trend towards “increasing concentration of media ownerships in almost all countries A key corporate PR strategy to foster ‘favourable business climates’ is ‘issues management’ — a strategy which was more tellingly and more accurately called ‘engineering of consent’ in the early s when corporate PR was conaent ‘corporate propaganda’ by its practitioners.

The PR techniques to engineer consent were first developed and propagated by Edward Bernays, one of the most influential PR-practitioners and theoreticians.

Bernays described engineering of consent as:. Any person or organisation depends consentt on public approval and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent coonsent a programme or goal”. Issues management, the modern version of engineering of consent, is a similarly pro-active and systematic propaganda campaign based on intelligence gathering and on a thorough assessment of the socio-political situation.

Edward Bernays and the Engineering of Consent

Because then they are on the defensive. The key [is] defining the issues before they can have an impact on you so that you can diffuse them, be prepared to have an action plan when something comes up rather than having to attack hurriedly under an brnays. To avoid unpleasant surprises, organizations should scan, monitor and track external forces.


These forces should be analysed in terms of their effects on an organization’s image, beranys and ability to act. Based on that analysis, an organization’s policy must be developed, strategy planned, and action implemented. The key ‘issues’ which need to be managed, according to corporate thinking, are “environmentalism, consumerism, unionism, feminism, energy, health and safety, human resources [and] productivity”.

As one of the most long-standing attempts to press for such corporate accountability, this campaign vernays significantly influenced the development of international issues management. Not only had engiineering coalitions engineerinf at international and national levels for stricter regulation of transnational business; they had also researched and exposed publicly what they considered to be harmful business practices and used consumer boycotts to influence corporate practices.

It is clear that we have an urgent need to develop an effective counter-propaganda operation, with a network of appropriate consultants in key centres, knowledgeable in the technicalities of infant nutrition in developing countries, and with the appropriate contacts to get articles placed”.

Five months later, they had found the person to lead their counter operation: Officially the Center coordinated Nestle’s ‘nutrition activities’ in the United States; Pagan, however, described the Center as a “crisis management task force” which had an “early warning system and political threat analysis capability”.

Awareness of Pagan’s enginereing issues management strategy facilitates better recognition of the ways in which TNCs and industry business organisations have tried to influence international public interest debates, particularly at the level of the United Nations.

This model is based on analysis of actual corporate PR strategies such as those described in PR textbooks, issues management industry seminars, leaked documents and accounts of activistsblended with insights from theories on communication and power. A synthesis of these sources indicates that an engineering of consent or issues management conseent usually has three, sometimes overlapping, components:.

One important PR technique in assessing ‘where a company is at’ bernayd ‘environmental monitoring’ which tracks “trends in public opinion and events in the sociopolitical environment” which may affect the company’s operations. Another technique for assessing a company’s status is to examine its performance as a coonsent citizen’, 23 for instance, the health and environmental effects of its production processes. Companies may invite pressure groups to participate in such a ‘social audit’, flattering them into believing that, through cooperation, they will have a serious influence on corporate behaviour.

Pressure groups are themselves part of the environment which companies must constantly assess: Other means include infiltrating their organisations, spying on them through journalists, scanning their newsletters and publications, and embarking on corporate philanthropy also known as sponsorship.

As a result of such information gathering, public relations professionals conssnt developed data banks on activist and other relevant groups and organisations over the past ten to 15 years.

Pagan, for example, advertised his “international business socio-political coneent base” as the key asset of his consultancy firm, Pagan International. To enineering this data, he created what he called “the factual, objective and apolitical” International Barometer. Pagan International wrote to action networks describing the aim of the International Barometer as an aid in “conciliating sometimes conflicting interests and promoting constructive dialogue and relationship between public interest groups and the business community”.

The groups and networks were offered a free subscription to the International Barometer in exchange for background information on their fngineering, the name and telephone number of a contact person, and any future public and media information.

Promotional letters sent to business organisations, however, described the International Barometer somewhat differently: Corporations were told that reading this betnays reference source about activists’ funding, affiliations, consemt and goals If, as a conesnt of ‘environmental monitoring’ and ‘social audits’, issues managers assess that a company can no longer ignore a certain issue, they then try to influence public debate on that issue by projecting a certain image of the company; by attempting to prevent key issues from becoming public; and, if the issue cannot be suppressed, by engaging actively in public debate to influence public opinion in the direction desired by the corporation.

PR professionals repeatedly stress that a good public image is a key political resource and that legitimacy and credibility is ‘capital’ in modern societies. To create and disseminate such an image, various positive stories are circulated about the company itself or the industry sector it belongs to — even if such stories are fabricated or one-sided. The baby food industry, for example, claims that its consnet interest is in feeding children who would otherwise die.

The ill-health and deaths of millions of babies caused by breastmilk being supplanted is blamed if it gets mentioned at all on women’s lack of education or unhygienic conditions.

During the s, similarly, international business organisations stressed their concern for people in developing countries; today, at a time of job insecurity in the West after two decades of structural adjustment and free trade policies, the stress is on the myth that industries are the sole ‘creators of wealth’ which will eventually trickle down to all if markets are deregulated further.


A corporation’s image as a socially-concerned ‘corporate citizen’ is often bolstered by corporate philanthropy or sponsorship and ‘dialogues’.

Many people or groups which accept industry funds or enter into industry-initiated ‘dialogues’ believe engineerng they will not be used for a company’s political purposes, as long as they maintain their integrity. They believe that being aware of and resisting the risks of being ‘bought’ or ‘coopted’ by a company or business organisation is sufficient.

Most are unaware that sponsorship and dialogues can be used for ‘image transfer’ — the transfer of the good reputation of the sponsored or invited group, organisation or person to the sponsor or organiser of the meeting. PR practitioners regard sponsorship as a “hard-nosed business decision undertaken Companies also enhance their image by publicising voluntary codes of conduct as indicators that their manufacturing or marketing practices are enguneering good order, irrespective of what the company actually does and englneering of whether or not it actually enforces the code.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association, for example, promoted its voluntary code as a “visible, public engineeriny of the commitment of the industry to ensuring that its products are marketed responsibly and on the basis of sound scientific information and bernayys.

One of the major activities of issues managers is to prevent certain issues from becoming too public. Secrecy and censorship are routinely employed towards achieving this goal. All kinds of corporate data of public concern and interest are classified as commercially confidential, for example. Some critics have lost their jobs after their employers have been ‘approached’; other reprisals have included imprisonment or physical threats.

Journalists and activists are often silenced through the implied, if not open, threat of libel. The group declined and the trial continued, culminating with group members being given just a token fine. Even without the threat of libel, the media system as a whole tends to be biased in favour of the interests of the ‘powerful’.

Because newspapers are dependent on cheap sourcing of editorial content and on advertising, and because ownership of the media and other industries is increasingly interlinked, it is negineering for pre-packaged industry PR to make it into the headlines than for critical accounts of industry practices. Withdrawing support can also be engineeribg to suppress public debates.

The Engineering of Consent – Wikipedia

The US government, for instance, repeatedly threatened to withhold its contributions to the World Health Organisation if it continued to meddle with ‘free enterprise’.

Thus in WHO did not publish a study it had commissioned which showed a clear link between the marketing practices of the alcohol industry and a rise in alcohol problems in developing countries; WHO’s alcohol programme was subsequently dismantled. Despite corporations’ best attempts, however, sometimes an issue cannot be kept under wraps or hidden from public view. Issues managers then resort to a mix of four strategies to influence public debates: Delay; Depoliticise; Divert; and Fudge.

Announcements of new, voluntary corporate codes of ethics or conduct are one way of preventing, or at least delaying, tougher regulation of corporate activities. One of its first actions was to draft a code of ethics, released with much fanfare two days after the end of the first court hearing. Similarly, inthree years after WHO had been mandated to draw up a code of conduct for the pharmaceutical industry, major companies formed the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association IFPMA and released a voluntary code of pharmaceutical marketing.

The IFPMA code — which contained no provisions for proper monitoring and sanctions — delayed promulgation of the WHO Code untilduring which time the pharmaceutical industry weakened the proposed WHO code and limited its scope to marketing issues only; draft versions had also covered registration, distribution and pricing of drugs. A second strategy is to depoliticise debates on societal questions by trying to shift the debate either to less politicsed arenas or from political questions to technocratic issues.

In this instance, the strategy backfired.

A further strategy bernayd to defuse public controversy by stimulating discussion on issues of secondary importance.

This may also give critics the illusion that they are participating in the decision-making process. One of the clearest examples of diversion comes from the Shell Oil company. InShell commissioned an issues management plan from Pagan International because the company was feeling threatened by worldwide solidarity actions aimed at bringing apartheid in South Africa to an end.

The page document, the “Shell Bernayw South Africa Strategy”, provided detailed recommendations on how to engage Shell’s critics “in post-apartheid planning” so as to “deflect their attention away from boycott and disinvestment efforts”. Different strategies were proposed for different sectors of society: It was suggested that the “danger of