PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Are special events inherently deceptive?
© 1999; 2019 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

Public relations practitioners routinely stage "special events" which are planned and carefully executed to garner public attention and present their clients in the best possible light.

However, this reading presents an alternative view of special events, looking at them from a slightly different and non-public-relations perspective. It is based on, and extensively quotes Daniel Boorstin's extremely thought-provoking book The Image; A Guide to Pseudo-events in America which raised serious philosophical and ethical questions about the very nature of "special events."

Daniel Boorstin, a former Librarian of Congress, wrote more than a dozen books and was one of the most brilliant and eclectic thinkers of the 20thcentury. The Image is his only book to specifically address public relations, and it is highly critical of that profession. It deserves careful reading by anyone who hopes to work in public relations. Several of his other books which examine the ways history has shaped modern life also offer valuable insights for public relations professionals.

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 in a situation and circumstances which may or may not turn out positively, the public relations people create and orchestrate a special event that occurs when the organization wants it to occur and is carefully guided so it proceeds in the ways that are most favorable for the organization.

Generally speaking, public relations practitioners and their clients are enthusiastic and laudatory about special events. And, for the most part, so are the publics who attend and participate in them.


Conceptually, special events are a logical outgrowth of image-making.

Setting aside its use in art and photography, the term "image" usually refers to a representation of a person or an organization. It can be visual (photo, drawing, or sculpture) or narrative (expressed in words) and usually captures key elements of the person/organization's appearance, behavior, demeanor, beliefs, and/or status. It gives those who encounter the image a quick impression of the person/organization without having to invest all of the time and effort that is normally required to get to know a new acquaintance.

Image-making is the process of creating and projecting an image. It's a conceptual construction process that erects a facade or false front for a person or organization that can represent that person/organization to key publics. Depending on the person/organization and the skills and integrity of the image-maker, the created image may be a very close approximation of the actual person/organization. On the other hand, due to ineptness or a conscious effort to deceive the public, the created image may bear little resemblance to reality.

As is discussed in another of my readings, images are neither inherently good or bad, nor honest or deceptive, nor ethical or immoral. They have to be judged on some combination of their stated purpose, their maker's intent, their correspondence to reality, the quality of their production, and/or how satisfactory the public finds them.

In the same way that an image-maker constructs an artificial representation of a person or organization, a special event planner constructs an artificial situation which people can experience and in which they may interact.

As I just said above, about images, my view of special events is that they are neither inherently good nor bad. Nor are they automatically honest or deceptive, nor ethical or immoral. They have to be judged on their intended purpose, their planner's goal, the quality of their execution, and public satisfaction.


However, Daniel Boorstin critically calls them "pseudo events."

Here's how he described a typical special event in his book The Image; A Guide to Pseudo-events in America:

"The owners of a hotel, in an illustration offered by Edward L. Bernays in his pioneering book Crystallizing 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 a city official. Then an event is 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 becomes evident in what follows, Boorstin does not agree with Bernays and is suspicious of everything that public relations does. He is particularly critical of its penchant for creating special events and is very concerned about the long-term impact such activities may have on society.

His discussion of this hypothetical special event continues as follows.

"Now this occasion is a pseudo-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 term pseudo-event with its emphasis on "pseudo" which means false or sham reveals his distaste and disapproval.


According to Boorstin, pseudo events are ...

Thus, for Boorstin, they are inherently troubling and probably unethical. He is particularly concerned because they are dramatically proliferating, to the point that they are in danger of over-shadowing naturally-occurring events. And that, he contends, could have dire consequences for society.

Whether we agree with him or not, Daniel Boorstin's reputation as a historian, sociologist, scholar, and thought-provoking author mean that his concerns should not be ignored. His perspective on our profession and its tools, including special events, are views that would-be public relations practitioners should be aware of and should be prepared to address.

Online Readings Table of Contents
Image-making Managing encounters
Perceptions TV's impact on perceptions  
Practicing Public Relations home page

21 April 2019