Thursday, 23 October 2014

Bernays did not create public relations

When you spot an error that is so obviously wrong, you assume others will notice it. But when it is repeated and published, unchallenged, in a leading European industry publication, it is time to set aside fears of being perceived as a pedant and respond.

The error in question is a statement by Robert Phillips in the latest Communication Director (03/2014). In his article, Trust me, PR is dead, he wrote that “Public relations was the brainchild of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, created as a means of control over the masses, whose democratic judgement he did not trust” (p.24).

Except that Bernays did not create public relations, which was a term that had been in use for around 40 years and had many other practitioners before Bernays started his business in the early 1920s.

Even Bernays’ biographer, Larry Tye, does not make this claim or did Scott Cutlip in his history of American PR or did Stewart Ewen, whose “PR, the social history of Spin” has an essential first chapter on Bernays.

PR was in use by railway companies and utilities in the US from the final quarter of the 19th century onwards. The first US PR agency was recorded by Cutlip in 1905. It was soon followed by the emergence of Ivy Lee, who was vastly more important as a practitioner, industry influencer and author on PR than Bernays.

In 1938, when Brandon Batchelor listed the 10 most influential PR practitioners in the US in his book, Profitable Public Relations, Bernays was not listed among them. Essentially, he was a self-publicising loner who was avoided by his contemporaries, as several histories and biographies show.

What Bernays was successful at doing later in life was to create his own legend as ‘the great influencer’ which he did through books published through the University of Oklahoma and then giving his archive to the Library of Congress. He assiduously courted the image after his consulting career was over.

Ewen captured the self-aggrandisement of Bernays when he visited him as an elderly man at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and found that the visit had been an artifice developed to show how important he was. It is well worth reading.

As for Bernays, it has to be admitted that his books from the 1920s - Crystallising Public Opinion, and Propaganda - are still in current print which is an enduring legacy. But this is largely because they are used by critical scholars and media studies academics to show the evils of PR to students. They, too, have been taken in by Bernays’s claims of thought leadership. At the time of their publication, it was Ivy Lee’s books and his ‘Declaration of Principles’ that were widely read and influential, not Eddie’s tomes.

Bernays neither had the power nor the clients to shape PR as “a means of control over the masses”, as Robert Phillips claims. However, he was following the concerns of Walter Lippmann and others about the impact of democracy when looking at the revolution in the new Soviet Union and the breakdown of order in Germany in the early 1920s. It was a common attitude.

PR has a rich history, but it wasn’t invented by Edward Bernays as cursory reading would have demonstrated.

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