The Economist on the early history of public relations:
“[Edward] Bernays’s greatest opportunity came with the outbreak of the first world war. President Woodrow Wilson realised the government needed to bring on board the many doubters who saw it as a capitalists’ war that their country should shun. Bernays and other leading PR men were recruited to a new Committee on Public Information (CPI), a vast propaganda operation. They were to put into practice one of Bernays’s main findings from the studies of mass psychology by Uncle Sigmund and others: that the public’s first impulse is usually to follow a trusted leader rather than consider the facts for itself.
In small towns across the country the CPI recruited bank managers and other local authority-figures as “four-minute men”. They gave brief, supposedly impromptu, speeches in cinemas and other public places. Many made the bogus claims that antiwar sentiment was being fomented by German agents, and that America risked being overrun by Prussians.
So successful was the CPI in shaping public opinion that it encouraged the early PR men, Bernays especially, to puff themselves up to new heights of grandeur. No longer would they be mere lackeys of the robber barons; they were now the Great Manipulators, shapers of public opinion for the public’s own good. (…)
All sorts of outfits have discovered the power of persuasion. Charities, trade unions, protest groups and other anti-corporate organisations create stunts and “facts” as powerful, and sometimes as dubious, as those staged by Bernays’s minions. A masterful recent example is a Greenpeace video in which an office worker opens a KitKat and finds an orangutan’s finger inside—the intention being to press Nestlé, the chocolate bar’s maker, to stop buying palm oil from places where the ape’s native forests are being cut down. Such anti-corporate PR often goes curiously unnoticed by historians of the industry, but it is at least as manipulative as what companies get up to.”