David Finn

Image Making–Spin Control

VTR Date: September 17, 1989

Guest: Finn, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Finn
Title: “Image Making – Spin Control”
VTR: 9/17/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is a much admired connoisseur, creator and collector of fine art of the imagery, the sights and sounds and feel and form of human creativity that raises us all above and beyond the more mundane levels of sheer survival from day to day. Yet it is another kind of imagery, the world of image-making, of image merchandising that I want to discuss today with David Finn, for he is also Chairman and CEO of Ruder Finn, one of the world’s largest independent public relations firms and an enormously articulate spokesperson for his profession.

Now, recently Mr. Finn referred to an article he had written for Harper’s magazine nearly thirty years ago, entitled “Stop Worrying About Your Image”. He says, “I was then upset about the implication that images could be manufactured disguises, and that public relations people were image merchants, whose job it was to cover up the truth. I thought”, he wrote, “people should concentrate on being themselves and letting the world see them as they really are, and not try to primp or dress up t appear to b something different in public”. Well, now, that’s surely a welcome personal testament, as was Mr. Finn’s fear as expressed thirty years ago that “an over-concern with images may lead to the sacrifice of convictions for the sake of impression”.

But one wonders if that isn’t a bit like, “say it isn’t so, Joe” when it is very much so, and I want to ask my guest whether image merchants, persuasion for profit, spin control and all such common descriptive for public relations today don’t add up to showing us how innocent it was for him to write in that Harper’s piece so long ago, “phony efforts to create an image, whether in the fields of entertainment, politics or business are always transparent”. Mr. Finn, you said it.

Finn: (Laughter). Well, it’s nice of you to remind me of that article. I did say it, and I really haven’t changed my mind. I, I wanted, at that time, which was over 25 years ago, t see if I could stop the use of the word “image” in the way that was … had come into our language. Image is a wonderful word … imagery has to do with art, there were imagist poets, and it was being abused, I felt, when it began to be used in the late 1950s, for the first time, as a way of creating impressions … an image … to project an image of a corporation or of an individual or a political candidate, and I thought this was unfortunate. I took a clipping service at the time, as you may remember, and I found out that elevator operators were worried about their image, policemen were worried about their image, everybody was worried about their image. I thought “well, that’s ridiculous, let’s stop all this nonsense”. But now, some twenty-five or thirty years later, everybody still is worried about his or her image, and I’ve given up the battle. I think images are here to stay in that sense. But I, I still think that the word is deceptive and the concept is deceptive, and I like to mention that when I talk about the word image, the best reference that I have found is one by the poet Yeats, in which he said, “Man is nothing ‘till he is united to an image. Man is nothing ‘till he is united to an image”. That means to me that we need to have an image of what we want to be, an image of our ideal, and if we relate our own activity, our own actions and our dreams and our plans and our activity to this, this ideal that we have in our mind, and call that an image, that’s okay. I like that word, that use of that word, and now I’m trying to get people not to stop worrying about it, but to think of image as an ideal.

Heffner: But hasn’t your profession in this quarter century devoted itself, in fact, to creating those images and finding the identity for individuals and for causes that aren’t really there?

Finn: No. I think that’s an illusion. I remember hears ago Bob Heilbroner, the sociologist, wrote an article in which … about public relations, and he described it as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing. A sheep in wolf’s clothing”. It looks terrible, it looks dangerous, it looks as if these guys can manipulate all kinds of things out in the public mind, where in fact it really is not that effective at all. I don’t like to undersell our, our business or our profession, I think we do a lot of good things in the world and we’re good communicators, and I love the practice of public relations, but we don’t manipulate, and we cannot fool people. I mean Abraham Lincoln was right, and when we work with clients, and if they have an idea that we can come up with some kind of a wonderful image for them, or picture of what they should look like in the public, and they’re, they’re wrong. We can’t. All we can do is really help them figure out what they want to say, and help them say it very effectively, in whatever environment that may be, whether it’s a … selling a product, or promoting a city, or promoting a country, it’s all the same. You have to tell the truth. (Laughter)

Heffner: Now, are you suggesting that that was the operational notion in American politics in the past … oh, let’s say twenty, thirty years?

Finn: I’m not a political expert.

Heffner: Oh, but come on … you, you certainly know that one of the concerns abut public relations, about “spin control” …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … the new phrase, has had to do with the use of public relations techniques in our political life.

Finn: Well, you see, a good example of the illusions about public relations and politics even was found in the Watergate tapes, when Nixon is quoted as saying, “Let’s get the public relations people in to solve the problem”. You see he saw it as a public relations problem, and he felt people like us could solve it, and it, you know, it didn’t work. Now … I do worry about a lot of things in politics that’s related to our business. For instance, one of my pet peeves is the fact that people do not speak or write what they really think, somebody else writes it for them. Speech-writers are commonplace today, and so are people who write articles, and I’m afraid that a lot of people in my business do that for politicians or business people or college presidents, or whatever, and I think that’s unfortunate because then you don’t know who, who these people really are. When they speak are they saying their own words or somebody else’s words, and we certainly have seen political figures in our time who made a lot of speeches and we didn’t know whether they … if there was anything behind them or not.

Heffner: But isn’t that the point? When you quote Yeats …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … to begin our program …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … isn’t that the creation of an identity that really isn’t there except that it is “made” by a p.r. person or by someone else who is manipulating …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … those who listen, who hear, who read, what … what-have-you.

Finn: Well, it’s certainly possible, I believe it’s possible, for a political individual, political leader to become, let’s say, President of the United States without a lot of substance behind him. That upsets me, I think that is possible. I don’t think that’s public relations, I think that’s a lot of things that happen, that’s how he’s … the people he’s surrounded by, his own attitude towards what he says, and that’s very unfortunate. But I tell you I’ve been in this business for over forty years, and I have never seen, in my life and my practice and the work that I do, anything manufactured of that sort.

Heffner: You mean in political life?

Finn: Well, anything that I’ve done …

Heffner: Oh, no, but, but Dave, I’m not talking about what you’ve done, I’m …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … we’re talking about your profession.

Finn: Yes, but I see … in politics I see people who, who seem t be creations of the, of the people, of those behind them, who are pulling the strings or providing the words for them to say.

Heffner: And?

Finn: And that worries me. That worries me. I don’t know much about that process, it just … as an observer I’m as upset as anybody else. But I see public relations at first hand, and the public relations I know, and what I practice isn’t that kind of public relations.

Heffner: What is it? Putting your best foot forward?

Finn: Well, let me give you an example. One of our proudest achievements in the last year or so has been work we’ve done for a little town in western Pennsylvania called Johnstown. Johnstown was commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the flood, the terrible flood in 1889 that killed over two thousand people. They wanted to take advantage of this moment in their history to attract a lot of tourism. What should they do to accomplish this? We came up with a lot of ideas that are very genuine. For instance, we suggested t the people of Johnstown that they commission a sculptor, a fellow named Jim Wolfe to come and live in the steel mills; you know steel died in Johnstown also; for six months. They still have Bethlehem Steel there, and create a series of sculptures which they would put along the river to commemorate the spirit of the people of Johnstown. We wrote a … we published a book on the spirit of these people who … the triumph of the American spirit we called … that was the theme, “Triumph of the American Spirit”. A book was published, I took the photographs for the book along with my daughter, Amy, and it’s a beautiful book about the history of this town, how they’ve overcome all these difficulties again and again over the years and succeeded in building a, a new future for itself. We created a laser sculpture in town … laser sculpture … that rises above the city and every night thousands of people go up on the hillside overlooking the city to look at these wondrous sculptures. Now that’s, that’s attracted tens of thousands of tourists to Johnstown who never were there before, from all over the country. We didn’t invent anything, we didn’t create anything phony, we did something very genuine.

Heffner: Yes, but … but David, no one would do anything other than congratulate Johnstown and congratulate Ruder Finn for that. But “spin control” which that was not an example of …

Finn: Yeah.

Heffner: … is what is of concern to American people, it seems t me when we talk about public relations. Is that unfair?

Finn: Spin control. You know, I must tell you the truth, Dick …

Heffner: Yes.

Finn: … I’ve never heard that phrase before.

Heffner: You’ve never heard the phrase in terms of political life?

Finn: Not … not … explain it to me.

Heffner: Well, of course, I was going to say to you, “David Finn would you explain spin control to me”?

Finn: (Laughter)

Heffner: But you do that to me …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … and that’s fair, turnabout is fair play. Certainly the phrase “spin control” was repeated time and time and time again during the political conventions, particularly those conventions where you wanted t control something that had been said …

Finn: Oh, yes, I do remember.

Heffner: … or done that might work against your candidate.

Finn: Yes, so after each speech or event there would be a lot of activity with the media to try and …

Heffner: That’s right.

Finn: … direct the coverage of that particular discussion.

Heffner: You remember the, the news network … the networks themselves showed you in their news booths …

Finn: Right.

Heffner: … the spin controller standing there to put a slight “spin” on what had happened. I think that many of us think of public relations in that fashion. You seem not to. What’s the … what divides us?

Finn: Well, when … when there is a conflict going on between, let’s say, environmental conservation and economic development we, we get involved in struggles like that, sometimes representing the community, sometimes representing developers. We try to be, we try to be very careful in deciding ourselves how we feel about those issues so we don’t find ourselves working for an issue that we don’t believe in.

Finn: But when a reporter or reporters are going to, are going to write about an event, or comment about an event we try to give them written information that presents our point of view. If we don’t give them that information then they can’t write about our point of view. So, in a sense, we are, we are trying to influence how they react to a particular incident in which there are two different, opposing points of view. You might … you could call that spin control, only … only spin control, as you’ve described it really is more relevant to crisis situation where people are going to be … it’s going to be a front page story one way or the other or top of the news on television, and then the question is, how is it going to be reported? So, it’s a logical extension of what we do to try to give reporters the perspective that you feel they should use in covering that news. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Heffner: Yu don’t see anything wrong with it, but you know, when I go into my class … we’re taping this on a Sunday … when I go into my class tomorrow at Rutgers and I ask my students to read Walter Lippmann’s PUBLIC OPINOIN, I always get, eventually, to that chapter of this on the buying public in which he writes … “convinced … … wrote … “convinced that the wisdom was there if only you could find it. Perhaps provided by a p.r. man. Democrats have treated the problem of making public opinions a … as a problem in civil liberties”. And then he quotes John Milton, “Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter”, and I think what you’re saying is that in an ideal situation, party A and party B both put their best feet forward and the point is “Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter”, so that truth will prevail. Isn’t that a rather innocent notion at a time when we can more easily merchandise opinions, when, indeed we even create, as you pointed out yourself, imagery?

Finn: Yeah. Well, it’s … I must say that truth does not always “out” in the way that many of us think it should, and there are all kinds of ways that … the way the media report on the … on circumstances produces opinions that may be fallacious in the public mind. But, you’re talking about public relations and I just urge you, as somebody who’s been observing this scene for a long time, as long as I have been practicing in it, not to believe that these wily, clever public relations people are the guys out there who are able to manufacture opinion. You know that was one of my old friend’s idea, Mr. Bernays, if you go back to Walter Lippmann, you can go back to Bernays and his famous phrase, “engineering of consent”. He’s still, I think, in his nineties, proud of that phrase.

Heffner: Do you think it is a misstatement, a mis-phrase?

Finn: I certainly do. I, I … I mean either I’ve been missing something for forty years, and I’ve been … and not learned how to do public relations the way he did or somebody else can, r else that’s just a lot of nonsense; and I don’t think we can engineer consent. I mean it would be wonderful if a client could hire us and say, “Look, we’d like public opinion t feel positively about his, or negatively about that. We’ll give you all the money you need, now you guys know how to do this, just give us that result”. Can’t do it.

Heffner: David, do you think that advertising does not engineer consent?

Finn: No.

Heffner: Consent being purchase.

Finn: No. I think advertising is a very … in this … nobody has yet found out a way to really measure the impact of advertising, believe it or not.

Heffner: Or a public relations, presumably.

Finn: Or a public relations. But I mean one, one can spend a hundred million dollars or more on a product in advertising, the product may be successful, it may be a failure, and there’s still no way to actually trace the impact, even though all kinds of research can be done and so on, but trace the impact of that advertising on a buying decision or a non-buying decision because s much else is at stake. You have the merchandising, you have the retailers, you have the product itself. Why, after all, did the Edsel fail? I mean isn’t it wonderful we have an example like that … Edsel … with all the research in the world, with all the design in the , with all the skills in the world, to promote a new car with all the predictions that it was going to be a success, for it to be a failure. That’s one of the great stories in American business.

Heffner: You don’t want me t say, “Well, let’s let the exception prove the rule”, but I still want to know why you take such exception to the phrase “engineering of consent”.

Finn: Because I don’t know how to engineer consent. I really don’t. I mean a client will, will retain us. We’re working on a project in New Rochelle, New York. It’s a billion dollar development for a place called David’s Island. I’ve lived in New Rochelle for over thirty-five years. I think this development is going to be a great boon to our community, and there are many critics who don’t like it. They say it’s going to be environmentally unsound or it’s going to be aesthetically unattractive, r it’s going to create traffic, there are a lot of criticisms of this project. I have seen the research which says that it ain’t so. That it’s going to be a fine project, but it’s very hard to convince the public that that is true. A small group of people who say “No, it’s bad” get a lot of press.

Heffner: But suppose we call it then, mass persuasion, what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to persuade a mass of people to opt for one point of view rather than another.

Finn: Sure.

Heffner: Would that be more acceptable?

Finn: Well, persuasion is again, you see, I mean I’ve read a lot of books on persuasion, and talked to people who have studied, studied it rather carefully. I really think we are trying to develop a point of view in the public. I’d rather submit to them our point of view. Persuasion sounds as if I can succeed. I’m looking forward to watching the Bill Shirer program on The third Reich which will review how Hitler managed to gain control over Germany, over the people of Germany, that’s an interesting phenomenon. He was a master of something. I certainly wouldn’t call it public …

Heffner: Mass persuasion?

Finn: … I wouldn’t call it public relations.

Heffner: Would you call it mass persuasion? Engineering of consent?

Finn: Propaganda. That’s a difference between public relations and propaganda. Propaganda was where you control the media. When you can control the media, you can certainly build up that kind of a feeling in the country, as he obviously did.

Heffner: I’m … I find it a little bit difficult to understand this, this distinction without a difference, or difference without a distinction.

Finn: This hesitation on my part to admit to being a persuader. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, you said it, and it’s the thing that I mentioned to you before when I go back to this, I think, stunning piece that you wrote way back in 1975, your OpEd piece in The New York Times, “The business of businessmen is not just business”. There is this, ahh, not quite “now–you-see-it, now-you-don’t”, but a reluctance to take the credit, if credit if what we’ll call it, because usually it’s blame for being in the business of … well, let me use another pejorative word, manipulating … consent. What, what else are you doing if you’re not, not illegally, or even immorally, but taking the tools of your trade and trying to convince people “this way”, rather than “that way”.

Finn: There are people in my business and you may interview them or have interviewed them who will be very glad to take credit for it, and who will claim …

Heffner: No one. Dave, no one.

Finn: No?

Heffner: It’s always “there’s no one in here but us chickens”. The news people, newspaper people say that, the p.r. people say that, the advertising people say that, “Don’t attribute to us”, they say, “that kind of power”. Why?

Finn: Well, it’s interesting, Dick, I think that it’s so easy to look from the outside and say that these, these guys can accomplish that. It somehow makes you feel better that things aren’t going the way they ought to because those guys are out there making it go the wrong way. I’ll be glad to claim credit and say that we have mastered the technique of success in this regard. I mean we do succeed, often. We work for products that become successes and we help make them successes, we brought a lot of people to Johnstown. And there are many good case histories, I think that show that public relations is useful and effective and so on. But it simply isn’t true, and I think you ought not to kid yourself that it is true, after all these years. (Laughter)

Heffner: But you see, you see what I liked is that at this point, unfortunately, we’re almost at the end of our program, but you, you, you say now, and I think it’s persuasive, that we, people on this side of the table …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … have so frequently said “You manipulate, you persuade for profit, you engineer consent” because, perhaps, we want to have a devil, and the devil theory is always convenient.

Finn: I think that’s true. I think that is true and I think that is why there’s this recurrent idea that the image-makers, or image-merchants or hidden persuaders, or spin turners, or whatever you call them, are really the people who are making things go the way they shouldn’t go, and all …

Heffner: Or the way they should go.

Finn: Or the way they should go, for that matter. All I’m saying is that I have worked for many, many causes over the years that I’ve believed in fervently, and I worked professionally and I was paid for it as well as doing it out of sheer conviction, and there are many, many times when we simply haven’t succeeded because the forces were going other ways. It’s a very mysterious process, public opinion. Walter Lippmann made a great contribution analyzing it many years ago. But I … it’s, it’s … respect for the process and, and not believe that the marionette theory works, it just doesn’t.

Heffner: Well, the marionette theory is not, however, that everything happens because of someone’s …

Finn: Yes.

Heffner: … contrivance. It is rather, though, that there is a lot of contrivance, and that quite frequently, perhaps politically speaking, it works too often.

Finn: Contrivance there is, and I keep fighting against it, and I keep writing and speaking and working to try to direct the course of public relations into an honest practice with integrity, which I believe it is and can be. But sometimes it’s not, and I think that there are people in our business who make up stories and make up platforms and make up images, if you will, and I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t think they succeed very often, and I’m glad for that, but occasionally they do, and that’s sad.

Heffner: It’s funny, what you didn’t say, and I wondered whether you would, and I haven’t found it in your writings, “Hey, Heffner, this is an adversarial society, are you going to say the same nasty things about lawyers, who’s object is to …

Finn: Win a case.

Heffner: … win a case?

Finn: See I think there’s a fundamental difference between lawyers and public relations people …

Heffner: What is it?

Finn: … and I’ve written about it before. Lawyers work in a judicial system that’s well established. There is a body of law, there is a judge, there is a jury, they argue a case, somebody else makes a decision as to whether they’re right or wrong. We, public relations people, are speaking to the public. Who is the public? We are the public. We’re speaking to ourselves, so we have to believe in what we’re saying or else we’re deceiving ourselves, we’re doing something very dishonest, if we actually argue a case because any adversary has a right to have an advocate, that’s true in law. It’s not true in public relations.

Heffner: We have a half-minute left. I just want a little advice from you. IF I had to bet my bottom dollar, could I safely bet it on the notion that most practitioners of public relations, particularly newer ones, believe what you just said, and act accordingly?

Finn: I would not suggest you bet your bottom dollar (laughter) on that. I think they’re confused.

Heffner: That’s a very, very, very fair bit of advice, David Finn, thank you so much for joining me today.

Finn: Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure, always.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s provocative theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.