Public Relations: Dark Beginnings

9 Jan

The best, or at least most amusing, piece of advice I was given about working in the Public Relations industry was:

“If you ever want to gain the upper hand in negotiations with an older practitioner then simply mention the word Propaganda as much as you can.”

It was a jokey quip from a highly respected practitioner but it does hit to the heart of the profession’s greatest hang-up and the main reason that many people hold a dim view of our industry: the entire foundation of the profession is impossible to separate from the idea of Propaganda and, therefore, the dark art of Psychological Operations during times of war. I made this link on Twitter last year and was shocked by the amount of Surprise shown by some of my PR followers and even the odd accusation that I was in some way making it all up. I’m not making it up, here’s the story of the dark beginnings of PR and it all begins with one man: Edward L. Bernays.

Bernay’s was the nephew of Sigmund Frued and became the father of Public Relations (many argue Ivy Lee was the first true practitioner and certainly gave us the art of Crisis Communication) when, inspired by the impact his message of ‘Spreading Democracy to Europe’ had in American when he worked in Woodrow Wilson’s administration during the first world war,  he made the move of combining the idea of  Crowd psychology, Group Dynamics with the psychoanalysis of his Uncle Sigmund to form what he called ‘The engineering of public consent’. It is of note that the only reason those of us in Public Relations are not working in the propaganda industry is that Bernays’ felt the word had been tainted by its association with the German regime during the WW1, which is why he finally settled upon the term Public Relations, although Propaganda did become the title of his seminal work in 1928. Even from it’s beginnings, Bernays’ approach to shaping the Public Relations industry was not exactly high on the morality scales. Here are two things he quite openly stated and that were at the heart of his beliefs:

“If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” – Propaganda (Page 71)

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” – Propaganda (Page 37)

But Bernays’ did not just stop at sayine morally and ethically questionable things, he was also a man of action:

  • In the 1920s, he worked for American Tobacco where he was instrumental in persuading a generation of women that smoking in public was no longer a taboo by sending a group of débutantes to take part in the New York City parade where they were pictured puffing on their ‘torches of freedom’. This was picked up by the New York Times (1 April 1929) who ran the headline: ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom’. Sticking with smoking, in the 1930s he convinced many women that the forest green Lucky Strike Packs were the height of fashion.
  • Also in the 30s, he went a long way to convince consumers that disposable cups were more sanitary than over types of cup, arguably contributing to the disposable society that still endures today.
  • His influence was felt outside of the States and his most audacious campaign was probably to facilitate the overthrow of the government of Guatamala at the behest of The United Fruit Company and the US Government (Operation PBSUCCESS). In doing so, he gave the world the term ‘Banana Republic’ which was used in relation to the companies overthrow of Guatamala and other corrupt South American States.

The legacy of Bernays isn’t all negativity though, he was clearly a man with the capacity for conscience! He expressed his shock and sorrow that his book Crystallising Public Opinion featured in Joseph Goebbels’ library of Propaganda and was being used as a primary text in the justifying  the extermination of the Jewish People during World War Two. He also seems to have changed his position on smoking and throughout the 60s, after his retirement, he worked with anti-smoking group ASH to raise awareness of it’s dangers. He saw himself as always in adherence with democratic process suggesting that a public relations counsel ‘must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society.’ Considering some of his actions and beliefs, that are well documented, it’s not clear that he paid much more than lip-service to this ideal.

What he gave PR

We have Bernays’ to thank for the practice of the press release (although Ivy Lee pipped him to the post slightly in 1906 with the first documented release) and also third party product endorsement, whereby products are given credibility by a seemingly neutral, but well known authority or celebrity; both practices endure within the profession today. He also set the scene for the melting pot of psychology, philosophy and sociology that still defines PR theory.  As an interesting aside, the practice of PR possibly began hundreds of years before Bernays with the much less well known Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, whose efforts in the 18th century included celebrity endorsements, press relations and lobbying.

Bernays’ most enduring legacy however is his dark shadow; PR academics still wrestle with the separation of the image of profession from the legacy of manipulation and propaganda that Burnays left in his wake, you only have to look at Grunig and Hunts for models of Public Relations to see evidence of this. It’s a futile act, we cannot change the past of our profession, but we can be content that the Public Relations most of us practice bears little resemblance to the work of Edward L Bernays, the grand manipulator and celebrated/loathed braggart.

As for whether I’ve ever used repeat mention of the word Propaganda to gain any sort of upper hand in discussions with older practitioners…that would be manipulative, wouldn’t it?

Further Reading

There’s a lot out there, but here’s some of the sources I’ve enjoyed and learnt from:

  • Crystallising Public Opinion – Edward Bernays
  • Propaganda – Edward Bernays
  • Public Relations – Edward Bernays
  • Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of a Public Relations Counsel  – Edward Bernays
  • Engineering of Consent – Bernays, Cutlip et al
  • The unseen power: public relations, a history – Scot Cutlip
  • Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry – Stauber & Rampton
  • Mass communication and American social thought: key texts, 1919-1968 – John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson

3 Responses to “Public Relations: Dark Beginnings”

  1. Joe Walton (@babbleoftongues) January 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    I feel a little bit sorry for Bernays at times. He was the first of our breed. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to reclaim the word propaganda as tool for good.

    But you are right, his view of a controlled society through a small group of people is more than a little dangerous with a strong hook for the tin-hat-brigade.

    But if we can move past his politics and personal beliefs and look at his approach to PR (nee Propaganda) there is a lot to learn from.

    I personally think the move away from social (crowd) psychology to management theories, like Grunig and Hunt is shame. In the past 30 years there has been huge research and advanced understanding in the realm of social/group psychology – namely, in the social identity tradition – that PR theories have failed to look at.


  2. paulcoxon81 January 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Yeah I agree the move towards management theories in PR has been a shame and certainly makes the profession a lot less interesting, from an academic point of view, than the social sciences used by Bernays. Unfortunately this shift has likely been a response to the darker elements of Bernays’ PR and its legacy. Hopefully if the industry overcomes those hangups we’ll see much more research getting done in the terms of psychology and other social sciences that, as you correctly state, have advanced massively over the last 30 years.



  1. CIPR Strike an important blow in the battle for UK PR industry credibility and trust. « Paul Coxon's moments - January 20, 2012

    […] tell my mum I worked in PR so I told her I played piano in a brothel! My last post was about the Dark Origins of PR, how that still continues to shape public opinion of the industry and why I felt it was important […]


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