“For the Socialist Unity Party leadership, the Leipzig Trade Fair was an ideal platform for demonstrating the economic power of the German Democratic Republic – and thus also that the political system was a functional one,” Astrid Otto says. Otto, an instructor at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, just recently finished her doctorate with a dissertation on public relations work in the GDR, with the Leipzig Trade Fair Office as an example.
Trade Fair as Instrument for Advertising East German Technology and Industry Abroad
The spring and fall trade fairs held in Leipzig drew exhibitors, journalists, and attendees from numerous countries and political systems to the city each year, so they offered an outstanding opportunity for the GDR to present itself, Otto says – especially to “capitalist foreign countries.” The goal of the PR activities conducted during the Leipzig Trade Fair was to shine a spotlight on what were then called “foreign trade firms” in heavy industry and the technology sector. These firms were held up as an example of the country’s international competitiveness, especially in comparison with the neighboring Federal Republic of Germany.
Otto’s dissertation was a pioneering one, as there was not yet any empirically based research from the perspective of communication studies on public relations work in the GDR. “At the same time, the media control apparatus in East Germany was a fascinating system that was influenced both by internal political events, such as the shift in power from Ulbricht to Honecker, and by external factors, such as the construction of the Berlin Wall,” the 40-year-old scholar explains.
In the 1950s, the press department initially still had a say in how the content of the fair was aligned and in PR activities. While the trade fair organization had been restructured into a state-owned enterprise at the time, it was still permitted to operate largely autonomously. Says Otto, “The Leipzig Trade Fair was a pioneer in the field of public relations. It was here that one of the first advertising and media departments anywhere in Germany was founded, in the 1920s.”
When the Berlin Wall was built, in 1961, the situation changed abruptly: All aspects of operating the fair – organization for exhibitors and attendees, exhibits, media relations – were declared a top priority starting in January 1962. All PR activities increasingly had to be coordinated with control and monitoring bodies up to and including the Politburo. “This led to a bizarre situation in which, starting in the 1970s, not even the head of the advertising and press department himself knew the working guidelines in detail,” Otto says, adding, “That was because they were top secret, and they were communicated orally only.”
Otto reconstructed the media relations work done by the Leipzig Trade Fair organization, along with other operating processes, using numerous individual documents and conversations with contemporary witnesses. “In the late 1970s, under Central Committee General Secretary Erich Honecker, the ‘cadre policy’ had progressed to the point that you could call it a kind of studied self-censorship on the part of the press, and active media control was hardly needed at all anymore. The most important domestic media, such as Aktuelle Kamera and Neues Deutschland, no longer asked critical questions.”
Foreign Journalists Often Asked Uncomfortable Questions
Steering foreign media representatives to arrive at the desired positive reporting was more difficult, but still possible. On the one hand, there were media organizations that could not be budged from their negative stance toward the GDR. A team from Deutsche Welle, for example, had to leave the 1973 spring trade fair early because of their critical reporting. Foreign journalists who used the trade fair press conference to ask uncomfortable questions about the Berlin Wall and refugees were passed over and referred to other areas of responsibility.
On the other hand, the East German media relations work fell on fertile ground among many other foreign media outlets, especially those that leaned more to the left. “These publications had an interest in showing that a country can also be successful with a Marxist-Leninist ideology, especially a country with a planned economy. This lived up to their readers’ expectations,” Otto says. Western consumers were seldom aware, however, that the products advertised abroad from businesses such as Meissner Porzellanmanufaktur or Carl Zeiss Jena were not advertised in the GDR itself to avoid triggering any needs that could not be met.
On the whole, the Leipzig Trade Fair press department was able to meet its specified goals in most cases. “The image of the East German economy and domestic trade relations in Germany was a positive one in some places, even in capitalist countries,” Otto says. The PR activities conducted by the Leipzig Trade Fair, in its position as a high-exposure platform for the East German economy, were so convincing that even leading GDR government agencies themselves often believed in the flourishing East German planned economy, she explains. “They were so far removed from the needs of East German citizens,” Otto says, “that they perceived the media orchestration as reality.”