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So Where Did We Get the Old PR Model?

21 February 2005 2 Comments

As we build a new model of communication for our new age, it’s useful to consider how we came by the old model. Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye nominated Edward Barnays the “Father of Spin” (The Father of Spin : Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, 1998). I think Tye's title is an appropriate late-20th century designation for the self-proclaimed “Father of Public Relations.”

Some early prize winners in the Ivory Soap sculpture contest

Bernays is famous and infamous for his brilliant and manipulative influence on early 20th century culture, from inducing a generation of children to carve P&G’s Ivory soap  to “liberating” women to smoke cigarettes But he also gained national attention for the NAACP conference in Atlanta in 1920, and he was certainly in the forefront of efforts to position public relations as a respected profession.

Barnays did a prodigious amount of his own writing on public relations and communication models. I think his most accessible book is The Later Years, Public Relations Insights, 1956-1986(Edward L. Bernays, 1986), which covers 20 year’s-worth of collected articles from Public Relations Quarterly.

There are two big ideas that Bernays returns to time after time in this brief little volume. The first is his total commitment to the social sciences as the foundation of PR (and disdain for those who would focus on PR writing). The second is his insistence that PR professionals are consultants (not communicators) and should be licensed like doctors or lawyers.

In defining PR as “an art applied to [social] science,” the author sought to disassociate public relations from its predecessors–such as press agents– and position it as an elite profession, deserving the same respect, social stature and legal status as medicine or law. Having majored in Sociology as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, I can personally attest to the value Bernays sees in the social sciences for the practice of public relations. It has given me both a perspective and tools to work with that have been an advantage to my career.

I do not agree, however, with Bernays’s antagonism toward employers, educators and PR professionals who place writing and other communications skills at the center of public relations practice: “Public Relations is treated generally as an adjunct of communications,” Bernays wrote. “Words are the core of study….[not] the social sciences. Graduates… [are] taught to be press agents….movers of words [rather than dealing] primarily with advice on action, based on social responsibility.” (P. 67).

Bernays’s own turgid writing style might have benefited from a good writing course (he studied agriculture in college). In addition, his championing of the social sciences would have benefited from more detailed examples of precisely how he employed these sciences in the practice of his art.

To be fair, some detail can be found in his other books, but it seems odd that in 20 years of writing for Public Relations Quarterly, he never once got specific about his revered social sciences. About all you can surmise from this collection of writings is that he especially valued public opinion polling.

Bernays may well have been correct in seeing a social need for a PR priesthood in the secular mass society epitomized by the great events of his most formative working years: WWI, the Great Depression, the rise of Stalin and Hitler, WWII and the Cold War. And while he never succeeded in getting PR licensed, his tenacious focus on PR counseling, as opposed to communications, did give those practitioners who followed the possibility of rising above the status of hired pens.

It is possible, however, that Bernays made a critical error in his choice of professional models in positioning the PR profession, one that is particularly problematic for the practice today. Bernays may have been too enamored with the medical/legal profession model to see other possibilities, such as engineers and entrepreneurs who have become so much more visible in the Internet age.

By opting for behind-the-scenes counseling, PR careers never have the opportunity to progress beyond a staff position in organizational hierarchies: always the invisible adviser, never a public leader. Contrast that to another 20th Century invention, marketing, which has become a path to corporate leadership. Positioning PR in a counselor’s role makes the profession especially vulnerable today, with information technology causing the disintermediation of all middlemen, perhaps including public relations counselors.

You have to marvel at the fun a Freudian might have contemplating how (and why) Bernays became obsessed with licensing. It requires little imagination to see the relationship with his Uncle Sigmund Freud in Bernays’s lifelong yearning for the respect PR might derive as a legally sanctioned profession. His relation to Freud may also explain some of Bernays’s ardor for social science and his insistence that, “Public Relations professionals are not flacks, press agents. They are societal technicians who advise their clients…to reach their social goals.” (p. 62).

The final chapter of this collection of writings is an article about Bernays by Marvin N. Olasky, written in 1984, when Olasky was a professor in the journalism department at the University of Texas in Austin. Olasky holds that Bernays wrote his most important book on public relations in 1928, “and proudly titled it Propaganda. He realized that the pursuit of propaganda is the logical step once belief in a God sovereign over human activities is no longer present.” (p. 148).

He then quotes from Bernays book: “It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes…. manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses….” (p. 150). The “socially responsible” public relations counsel, Bernays maintained, would defend freedom by “manipulating public opinion to prevent chaos.”

How fitting that a nephew of Freud should make himself “father” of a secular priesthood to serve as the social conscience of a mass society that thought it had killed God. Edward Bernays was born in 1892, just as mass communication was going electric, and died in 1995, at the dawn of communication going networked. 


  • Anonymous said:

    Great post on Bernays and the history of PR! Does Bernays ever say how the PR professional is to be tethered to “social goals” rather than the goals of the corporation or organization he or she represents? It's considered malpractice nowadays to advocate for anything other than the goals your corp or org has committed to.
    Also worth commenting on is PR's junior position to marketing. I've seen publicity budgets gutted because they can't prove R.O.I. the way marketing can. Is an activity worthless if its benefits cannot easily be measured? I fear the whole concept of publicity, and maybe even PR, may become totally absorbed into marketing.
    Not an Agent Provocateur —
    Just a Guy with a Loud Cursor

  • Anonymous said:

    Good question, I often get the impression that these early advocates of