Public relations in the United States, United Kingdom, and China shares overlapping features

recent book about governance practices in China has captured my attention.

When I read the book, I was reminded of driving a red, early 1960s Austin Healey Sprite sports car on winding mountain roads in British Columbia forty-five years ago. Variables at play that come to mind when I think about such an experience include:

  • Controlled skids during high-speed cornering
  • Evolution of design thinking related to motor car racing
  • Design variables such as low centre of gravity and rack and pinion steering
  • Conditions under which high-speed maneuvers can be conducted safely
  • Driver variables (age, experience, competence, sobriety)
  • Road variables (street racing v. race track)
  • Safety of spectators, passersby
  • Presence of other vehicles

1960s Austin-Healey Sprite. It was like driving a wristwatch. Photo source:

Metaphors are often used when a person describes memorable experiences such as the reading of an exceptionally fine book. Tomba’s study brings to mind the design and performance of a well-tuned sports car. Each part fits into place. Nothing is superfluous. Each part is an essential part nothing more, nothing less. A remarkable achievement, a source of inspiration.

Five backstories related to The Government Next Door (2015)

The current post concerns backstories that come to mind with regard to Luigi Tomba’s study of governance practices in urban China.

Backstory No. 1: Public relations

A back story related to Tomba’s research is provided by Evan Osnos at an interview entitled: A ‘New Yorker’ Writer’s Take On China’s ‘Age Of Ambition’

An excerpt reads:

“And what they said was, we need to become much more sophisticated about how we conduct what’s known as [sic] Chinese as thought work. And so they began to study the masters, really. They began to study the United States and the origins of public relations culture. So they went back and they actually – if you look in the textbooks for Chinese propaganda officials today, some of the things that they cite are the success of Coca-Cola. They say, if you can sell sugar water in effect to people, well, then we can sell anything at all.

“They also looked very admiringly at the way that the Bush administration dealt with the press in the run-up to the war in Iraq. They think this is an example of a successful relationship with the press. They also look at the way that Tony Blair’s government in Britain handled the media around the issue of mad cow disease. And so there’s been this real effort to study what’s been done in the West and to take from it the best attributes – or at least the most efficient and effective attributes of the free-market public relations industry.”

[End of excerpt]

A May 6, 2016 Quartz article, of relevance regarding public relations, is entitled: “China’s propaganda news outlets are absolutely crushing it on Facebook.”

A Dec. 25, 2016 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Tibet: Behind the looking glass.”

Also of interest: One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment (2016).

Backstory No. 2: Soft drinks

The reference to Coca-Cola and public relations brings to mind a previous post:

World Health Organization recommends that no more than 5 percent of your caloric intake – that is, 25 grams – should come from sugar

I have written in previous posts about the relation between sugar and health.

Also of relevance with regard to public relations: The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations (1998)

A Jan. 6, 2015 CBC article, is entitled: “Taxing sugary drinks could help cut consumption, researchers say.”

A Jan. 17, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Sweet nightmares: a guide to cutting down on sugar: Sugar is making us fatter and sicker. Yet we still don’t realise how much we’re eating. As the government considers imposing a tax, we look at how to cut down without missing out. Plus: alternative recipes.”

A March 5, 2016 CBC article is entitled; A Canada’s Food Guide should seek inspiration from Brazil: researcher: New Senate obesity report suggests introducing a sugar tax in Canada.”

Also of interest: Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism (2015)

Backstory No. 3: Neoliberalism

From anecdotal evidence, I have the sense that proponents of neoliberalism would oppose any attempt on the part of government to reduce sugar intake in any country. A related backstory concerns the history of the global financial system.

The backstory related to neoliberalism warrants elaboration; a good place to start is at the following link:

The China Syndrome

The latter link refers to The China Fantasy (2007) by James Mann. A blurb notes:

“James Mann is author in residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet [2004], and two books about China: About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton [1999], and Beijing Jeep [1997]. He was previously a diplomatic correspondent and foreign affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, serving from 1984 to 1987 as Beijing bureau chief.”

An excerpt (pp. 38-39) from Mann’s 2007 study reads:

“Those in the United States who favor the promotion of human rights and democracy in China have, in recent years, been subjected to a new label: They are sometimes branded as ‘ideological.’ This is a curious usage, since originally ‘ideology’ meant a comprehensive worldview like Marxism or Nazism, not simply a belief in democratic government or self-determination. Under this new definition, Woodrow Wilson was ‘ideological,’ as were Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Unfortunately, the cause of promoting democracy has been damaged and tarred as ideological because of the way in which the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters pursued a change of regime in Iraq. Bush settled upon democracy as the principal reason for the Iraq war only after the grounds initially cited for the war (that is, weapons of mass destruction and the supposed links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda) were found to be baseless. The neoconservatives, meanwhile, embraced Wilsonian democratic ideals both before and after the Iraq war but linked these principles so closely to the use of military force and to American unilateralism that the result has been to weaken support for the promotion of democracy elsewhere in the world, such as in China.

“To seek changes in a political system that eradicates all organized opposition is not ‘ideological’ in the original sense; ‘idealistic’ would be a fairer and more accurate word. Yet in America’s current political lexicon, promoting democracy is increasingly mislabeled as ‘ideological.’

“In the current idiom, it is interesting to note what is not branded as ideological when it might well be: an unwavering commitment to free trade. Those who argue that trade will lead inexorably to democracy, or that all other priorities should be subservient to principles of economic efficiency, are every bit as doctrinaire as those who favor democracy. Yet our current usage suggests that somehow the proponents of free trade are by their very nature prudent and sober, while those who favor democratic principles are out of touch with reality. Actually, sometimes the reverse is true.”

[End of excerpt]

The reference to Woodrow Wilson brings to mind a Nov. 26, 2015 CBC The Current article entitled: “Calling out the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and other historical figures.”

Backstory No. 4: PepsiCo

I am reminded of a September 2015 Harvard Business Review article entitled: How Indra Nooyi Turned Design Thinking Into Strategy: An Interview with PepsiCo’s CEO.

An excerpt reads:

You often use the term “purpose” in talking about your business. What does that mean to you?

When I became CEO in 2006, I did a series of town hall meetings with employees. Few said they came to work for a paycheck. Most wanted to build a life, not simply gain a livelihood. And they were well aware that consumers cared about health and wellness. We realized we needed to engage our people’s heads, hearts, and hands. We had to produce more products that are good for you. We had to embrace sustainability. Purpose is not about giving money away for social responsibility. It’s about fundamentally changing how to make money in order to deliver performance—to help ensure that PepsiCo is a “good” company where young people want to work.

Would you be willing to accept lower profit margins to “do the right thing”? Surely, there have to be trade-offs.

Purpose doesn’t hurt margins. Purpose is how you drive transformation. If you don’t transform the portfolio, you’re going to stop top-line growth, and margins will decline anyway. So we don’t really invest in “purpose,” but in a strategy to keep the company successful in the future. If we hadn’t tackled certain environmental issues, especially with water, we would have lost our licenses in some countries. Now, sometimes when you’re changing the culture radically, you run into problems. Transformations sometimes hit your margins or top line because things don’t always go in a straight line. But if you think in terms of the life span of the company, these are just small blips.

But aren’t you still selling a lot of unhealthy products?

We make a portfolio of products, some of which are “fun for you” and some of which are “good for you.” We sell sugary beverages and chips, but we also have Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Naked Juice, and Izze. We’re reducing the salt, sugar, and fat in the core products. And we’ve dialed up the good-for-you offerings because societal needs have changed.

Would you consider stopping a popular product line because it doesn’t meet the good-for-you standard?

That wouldn’t make sense, because none of our products is bad or unsafe. We give consumers choices that reflect their lifestyles. If you want to consume Pepsi, we’ll give you Pepsi in every size possible so that on one occasion you can consume 12 ounces and on another only seven and a half. We want to make sure that both the good-for-you and the fun-for-you products are readily available, affordably priced, and great tasting. And we make sure that good-for-you tastes as good as fun-for-you. We want you to love our Quaker Oats Real Medleys as much as you love Doritos Loaded.

Do you try to push sales of the healthier products?

Yes, but we also want to preserve choice. We’ve taken lessons from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge. We try to put portion-control packages out front on the shelves. We make sure our diet products are merchandised as aspirationally as our full-sugar products are. We advertise Gatorade only with athletes in mind because it’s not intended to be a recreational beverage.

[End of excerpt from September 2015 Harvard Business Review article]

Backstory No. 5: Big Food

I am also reminded of a Dec. 27, 2015 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Will the Liberals stand up to Big Food and follow through on their proposed consumer health agenda?”

An online introduction to the article notes:

“The Liberals have promised things will be different now that they are in power. Aside from high-profile initiatives, such as helping tens of thousands of Syrian refugees enter the country and pushing forward with the legalization of marijuana, several of the ‘real changes’ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising involve Big Food – and would upset quite a few industry players along the way.”


A text that reminds a reader, in a vivid way, of topics that are otherwise treated in a manner that is academic and abstract, is featured in a Jan. 22, 2015 Guardian article entitled: “I want you to understand the sense of fear that Chinese people feel every day.”


With regard to the history of public relations and advertising, a valuable study is entitled: Advertising at War: Business, Consumers, and Government in the 1940s (2012). A blurb for the latter study notes:

Advertising at War challenges the notion that advertising disappeared as a political issue in the United States in 1938 with the passage of the Wheeler-Lea Amendment to the Federal Trade Commission Act, the result of more than a decade of campaigning to regulate the advertising industry. Inger L. Stole suggests that the war experience, even more than the legislative battles of the 1930s, defined the role of advertising in U.S. postwar political economy and the nation’s cultural firmament. She argues that Washington and Madison Avenue were soon working in tandem with the creation of the Advertising Council in 1942, a joint effort established by the Office of War Information, the Association of National Advertisers, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

“Using archival sources, newspapers accounts, and trade publications, Stole demonstrates that the war elevated and magnified the seeming contradictions of advertising and allowed critics of these practices one final opportunity to corral and regulate the institution of advertising. Exploring how New Dealers and consumer advocates such as the Consumers Union battled the advertising industry, Advertising at War traces the debate over two basic policy questions: whether advertising should continue to be a tax-deductible business expense during the war, and whether the government should require effective standards and labeling for consumer products, which would render most advertising irrelevant. Ultimately the postwar climate of political intolerance and reverence for free enterprise quashed critical investigations into the advertising industry. While advertising could be criticized or lampooned, the institution itself became inviolable.”

[End of text]

A Feb. 19, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘The Most Wanted Man in China’ and ‘The Cowshed.’ ”

An Aug. 15, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary: ‘No one believes me now, but I knew nothing’: Brunhilde Pomsel worked at the heart of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. As a film about her life is released, she discusses her lack of remorse and the private side of her monstrous boss.”

Two studies that provide back stories related to the topics at hand include:

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time2nd Beacon Paperback Ed. (2001; originally published 1944)

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999)

Update re: Public relations

Public relations professionals play a key role in storytelling. Their work relates to the concept of role play as an element of storytelling. With regard to the power of public relations, A Feb. 9, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review (@CJR on Twitter) article is entitled: “PR flacks may be the media’s secret weapon against Trump.”

A May 26, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘Most Orwellian winner yet’: The Invention of Russia takes Orwell prize: Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia, an account of media manipulation and of language in modern Russia, wins UK’s top award for political writing.”

A 2016 RAND Corporation article is entitled: “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” You can find the article by pointing your browser to the above-noted title.