The Book Club

Spinning the Company, Not Just Consumers

Dear Jack,

Ever so gently, and with the proviso that I knew Roland Marchand and gave Creating the Corporate Soul a cover blurb,  I’d like to take issue with your contention that “we already understand that corporations exist to earn profits for their stockholders.” 

Marchand’s book breaks new ground, I believe, in grappling with an issue not even understood well by contemporary corporate executives and marketing-communications specialists: that all organizations consist of competing, even warring, factions; and that the first job of the corporate image creator is not to seduce that mythical beast “the consumer,” but to provide a unifying idea around which these various constituencies can rally. Or, as Marchand himself writes, PR specialists must “constantly renegotiat[e] their position along a series of increasingly fuzzy boundaries within business itself.”

I can’t tell you how important this is–or how true. Our whole, negative conception of “spin doctors,” whether in the business or political realm, derives from our perception that they are trying to manipulate us into believing or acting against our better interests. Naturally, we rebel against this, just as we recoil from the notion, implicit within, that we, “the public,” are just sheep, easily led to that slaughter.

But if you spend quality time inside organizations where things are going awry (as I did–plug alert–for my last book, Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story), you discover that winning the fealty of these warring internal constituencies is a prerequisite to success. For how can you hope to proselytize among the heathen if you yourself are not a true believer? While I agree the book is too long and too detailed (a consequence, perhaps, of Marchand’s untimely death last year), I think it’s a worthy adjunct to such seminal works of communications theory as Jim Carey’s Communication as Culture, in which Carey posits that groups communicate not to extend their dominion over additional territory (the traditional view) but for ritualistic purposes, to maintain the group through time.

So I really appreciated Marchand for putting fact behind this theory, and for resurrecting such great characters from earlier in this century as business evangelist and advertising pioneer Bruce Barton, who resolutely believed that “institutions have souls, just as men and nations have souls.” 

If I have a complaint, it’s that Marchand focuses too intently on internal corporate dynamics, and pays scant attention to the intellectual backdrop against which this history was taking place. After all, grand sociopolitical developments–and the rise of “spin” in the 20th Century certainly fits in that category–need three things: nervous buyers, like General Motors and U.S. Steel, wary of government regulation and worried about public support; avid salesmen, such as Barton or the grand hucksters of PR, Ivy Lee and Edward L. Bernays; and intellectual legitimacy.

That’s why I think the best of the recent crop of “spin” books is Stuart Ewen’s P.R.: A Social History of Spin (another work, I’m compelled to point out, whose cover  bears the imprint of my rolling log). Among other things, Ewen reminds us that modern PR and modern journalism, like Moslems and Jews, spring from the same father: Walter Lippmann. Which may be why journalists are so nasty toward, frightened about and ignorant of the realities of “spin.”

I didn’t see the commercial, but I’m far from dazzled. It’s easy to do a shock-ad that’ll induce one-time trial. Tell me if there’s an advertisement that made you switch from Crest back to Colgate. Or made you believe that Budweiser was anything but swill. Or persuaded you that Archer-Daniels-Midland really is the “supermarket to the world,” and not just an avaricious beneficiary of government welfare. Then I’ll be impressed.