PR Redefined – Why not look to an old master?


The Public Relations Society of America is looking to redefine Public Relations. A healthy and welcome discussion but I wonder if they have not missed a trick.

Edward Bernays
Edward Bernays (from wikipedia)

Edward Bernays is regarded as one of the father’s of public relations (Wikipedia entry). He combined the best psychological theories of the time with a strong belief that a ruling class should sway the masses and that this was necessary  for a healthy democratic society. Putting aside his politics he has certainly interesting and an influential figure over the PR profession and his definition of Propaganda could have been an ideal starting point.

He defined his work in the following way…

Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of a public to an enterprise, idea or group.

The word propaganda comes, unfortunately, pre-loaded and Bernays himself encourages a return to its more egalitarian roots in his book Propoganda (available free and well worth a read).If you just change the word propaganda to PR, I see at lot to like in this definition:

  • It has agency in it. The PR effort is doing and changing something
  • It is platform agnostic (no mention of media, social media or a technology yet to be invented). I hate the idea of a definition of PR being wedded to a current set of tactics or channels. This has a lot to do with how we got into a mess in the first place
  • It does not judge. PR can be used for good and bad, judge the individual not the field. A definition should not to try to enforce a moral code
  • Influence is here; a key part of the PR role
  • The word free is thankfully absent.
  • It has a focussed output, a change of an relationship.
Of course it has its problems – for starters I would prefer a mention of behaviour and the term public is too broad – but the definition feels modern in comparison  to existing statements from some professional bodies.
So, could it be a case of back to the future for a definition of public relations? Can we separate a man and his words from his politics? What do you make of Bernays’ definition?
[The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that this is my first post on Babble of Tongues, thanks for visiting.]

Copyright Joe Walton 2015. Please use and reshare with attribution and links.