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Bernays’ rhetoric: Origins of modern PR industry


Propaganda (1928)
Edward Bernays
86 pages

New York
Horace Liveright


Bernays’ rhetoric: Origins of modern PR industry

“…to know where you are going, you’ve got to know where you’re coming from…”
– Will Smith, in American sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air

Public relations as a system of regimented dissemination of ideas to the masses may have been practiced as far as the early Roman Empire, Egyptian pharaohs and the Indus valley emperors to inform its “subjects” of new developments with a view to achieve better governance.


The modern public relations industry is shaped by the philosophies and practices of noted American propagandists Ivy Lee, Chester Burger and Edward Bernays. Its roots can be traced to the “Committee on Public Information” or better known as the “Creel commission” set up by American President Woodrow Wilson to influence public opinion in order to garner their support for World War I. The learning’s from this largely successful campaign prompted Edward Bernays to apply the tools thus devised in aiding American corporates to communicate with their environment.


The book Propaganda (1928) followed Bernays’ seminal work Crystallizing public opinion and is largely considered to be the ‘bible’ of Public relations industry. Although the term ‘propaganda’ may have a negative connotation to it today, largely due to its association with the Nazi’s communication machinery during World War II, it was largely accepted as a term which best defined the concerted and deliberate act of regimenting mass opinion. By his own admission, Bernays’, a Jew himself, resented the fact that Goebbels used his books as a reference guide to engineer the murderous assault on Jews during the heyday of Nazi regime.


Its illustrious author was the nephew of the renowned psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, and was deeply influenced by his theories. Also, he was said to be highly influenced by the work of French philosopher Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology. He perceived himself as a psychoanalyst to modern corporates who were bemused as to how they should interact with the public and its various stakeholders.


Bernays defined the profession of “counsel on public relations” as a “practicing social scientist” whose “competence is like that of the industrial engineer, the management engineer, or the investment counselor in their respective fields.


In this book, Bernays argues that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy.


The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.


His writings delve in what could be called as the initial steps towards the pillars of modern PR practice, namely media relations, identifying influencers, mapping the relevant media and utilizing the same for pre-determined results. He had a knack for what was later termed as ‘ballyhoo’ and implementing big ideas for his clients.


Bernays identified a vacuum in communication from big corporations to the masses and the need to “resolve conflict” inherent to the system due to the diverging interests and opinions in a society. His communication strategies were often a product of a deeper understanding of mass psychology and sociology which were successful due to the immediate ‘connect’ with issues that mattered to the publics.


His most successful, probably the most controversial campaign, was devised for the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s wherein he engineered a ‘March of the liberty brigade’ parade in Times Square, New York City which was meant to promote smoking amongst women who were projected as being liberated and free ‘Torches of freedom’. It is a notion which still prevails in certain societies. His attempts to undo his own work in the early 1960s earned him praise later on. He writes, “…had I known in 1928 what I know today I would have refused Hill’s offer.” referring to his client, American Tobacco Company.


Bernays’ detractors have often criticized him and the public relations industry thereafter, for abusing the knowledge he grasped for “ill doings” which harm rather than help the society. But, from the onset he perceived a need to protect the masses from their own limitations and the ‘manipulations of the masses’ as a prerequisite for a functional democracy.


It is evident from his great caveat which is reiterated by his pronouncement 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.”


The initial quote in this piece represents the far reaching effects of American media on the psyche of a Mumbai lad exposed to satellite television. An export of an entire culture which enjoys a significant mindshare in modern urban
India, a feat achieved with the deeper understanding of human needs and values as understood, influenced by Bernays.


A study of history of modern mass communication and practices can not be complete without understanding Edward Bernays or his influence on modern PR techniques. The tools of PR may have evolved over the years along with the rapidly changing media landscape, but Bernays provides the elusive meaning, a rationalization in terms of philosophy and larger social perspective, which is the modern PR industry’s legacy inherited from him.