PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Are special events inherently deceptive?
© 1999 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

Public relations practitioners routinely stage events and try to control the situations in which their clients and their publics interact so that the client is presented in the best possible light. This reading, however, is based on and extensively quotes Daniel Boorstin's extremely thought-provoking book,The Image; A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, which raises some serious philosophical and ethical questions about "special events."

One of the most frequent and effective ways public relations practitioners control situations and the circumstances surrounding an organization's interactions with its publics is by conducting "special events." Instead of waiting for happenstance to provide a situation in which the organization and its publics encounter one another and which may or may not turn out positively, they orchestrate a situation that occurs when the organization wants it to and proceeds in ways that favor the organization.

Public relations practitioners and their clients are enthusiastic and laudatory about special events. And, for the most part, the publics who participate in them are also fairly accepting, and sometimes highly appreciative, of them.

Some critics think of them as pseudo events.

But, not everyone likes them. Some critics are very suspicious of public relations-sponsored special events, and there are enough legitimate concerns underlying criticisms that we need to take them into consideration. Let's take a look at one such event, through the rather critical eyes of Daniel Boorstin.

"The owners of a hotel, in an illustration offered by Edward L. Bernays in his pioneerCrystallizing Public Opinion[1923], consult a public relations counsel. They ask how to increase their hotel's prestige and so improve their business.

"In less sophisticated times, the answer might have been to hire a new chef, to improve the plumbing, to paint the rooms, or to install a new crystal chandelier in the lobby.

"The public relations counsel's technique is more indirect. He proposes that the management stage a celebration of the hotel's thirtieth anniversary. A committee is formed, including a prominent banker, a leading society matron, a well-known lawyer, an influential preacher, and aneventis planned [say a banquet] to call attention to the distinguished service the hotel has been rendering the community. The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported, and the object is accomplished."

To this point, Boorstin has presented an accurate and not-too-judgmental recap of the public relations suggestions that were discussed by Bernays in his book. But, as is evident in what follows, Boorstin is very critical of this type of created event and is concerned about their long-term impact on society. He goes on to say:

"Now this occasion is apseudo-event, and will illustrate all the essential features of pseudo-events.

"This celebration, we can see at the outset, is somewhat -- but not entirely -- misleading. Presumably the public relations counsel would not have been able to form his committee of prominent citizens if the hotel had not actually been rendering service to the community. On the other hand, if the hotel's services had been all that important, instigation by public relations counsel might not have been necessary.

"Once the celebration has been held, the celebration itself becomes evidence that the hotel really is a distinguished institution. The occasion actually gives the hotel the prestige to which it is pretending.

"It is obvious, too, that the value of such a celebration to the owners depends on its being photographed and reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels, on radio, and over television. It is the report that gives the event its force in the minds of potential customers."

As an historian and long-time observer of American life, Boorstin is very concerned about the proliferation of pseudo-events to which we're all being exposed, and he's very critical of those who create them. His very choice of the termpseudo-eventwith its emphasis on "pseudo" which means false or sham reveals his distaste and disapproval.

According to Boorstin, a pseudo event is ...

Pseudo event is certainly not a popular term among public relations practitioners, especially those who frequently rely on special events to generate news coverage for their clients, but it is a perspective would-be practitioners need to be aware of and be prepared to address.

Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress and author of more than a dozen books, is one of the most brilliant and eclectic thinkers of the 20thcentury.The Image, his only book dealing with public relations, is quite critical of the profession and deserves careful reading by anyone who hopes to work in this field. Several of his other books examine the ways history has shaped modern life and also offer valuable insights for public relations professionals.

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22 Sept 2013