Edward Bernays Foresaw Our Fakery. That’s Why PR Throws Him Under the Bus.

December 15, 2018

An excited member of the PR trade recently tweeted, “Strategic Communications and #PR is an ethical practice. We’ve come a long way from Edward Bernays.”

She was referring to the publication of 16 new principles of ethical practice by Global Alliance, a collective of PR practitioners, academics and associations. And she was throwing the father of her industry, Edward L. Bernays, who died in 1995 at the age of 103, under the proverbial bus.

I replied: “No, you have not. @Nike and @Dove are as ethically finessed as any Bernays campaign. And, btw, Eddie tried twice to make it a profession. When has any modern PR leader called for that?”

The answer is never. Now approaching worldwide revenues of $20 billion, business is too good and PR has no natural predator to curb its excesses and frequent fakery. Bernays saw it coming. I know first-hand.

In 1983, a mentor and tech PR pioneer Robert Strayton arranged for me and two staffers to visit Bernays, then 92, at his fabled home in Cambridge, MA. A few years earlier, I had served as the national president of the Public Relations Student Society of America so this was a pilgrimage.

We were greeted by a housekeeper who escorted us to Bernays’ study, more of a library ringed with books, newspapers and magazines. Soon enough Uncle Eddie, friends called him, shuffled in, somehow resplendent in a well-worn housecoat and slippers.

He circled his desk, stopping at a stack of oak cabinets with small labeled drawers. He slid one open and flicked through its contents of typed index cards. These he explained were the latest additions to the U.S. Library of Congress, available to every citizen. He claimed to have read each one, which fit with so many lessons that PR practitioners are curious and always well-informed.

Bernays’ birthday had just passed so congratulations were in order. Perhaps to prove his currency, he pointed to a stack of Mother Jones issues, the first I’d heard of the progressive magazine. Next and perhaps to prove his virility he volunteered this cringe-worthy quip: “My chronological age is 90. My intellectual age is 70.” Then, with a wink, he added, “And my sexual age is 50.” As though on cue, his housekeeper drifted by. We were instantly tongue-tied, teased by Bernays’ towel snap and forced to wonder if the perfect idol was a perfect gentleman.

License to Shill

I moved to a safer subject, asking about the age-old conflict between PR counselors and lawyers. Bernays puffed, “The difference between a lawyer and a public relations practitioner is that lawyers defend precedent. I set it.” Then as I was warned it would our visit veered toward licensure, which the living legend, a nephew of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, reflected on at length and with obvious regret. Often, he had tried to make his budding industry listen. And always failed. It was otherwise left to “any nincompoop” to do, Bernays groused. “Any nut, weirdo, kook or dope can call themselves a public relations practitioner.”

PR is an industry with a profound identify crisis, caught between what it knows it should be but isn’t and what it shouldn’t be but is.

Indeed, the business Bernays helped birth is largely free of legal oversight. Doctors, lawyers and architects are bound by far higher standards. And that would be fine except for the observable fact that most communicators are all too savvy to operate as mere public information officers. This is how they might like to be regarded; it’s good for their self-image and it placates news media that demand such portrayals. But communications, the controlling discipline of PR, has access to and expertise over many more means and modes than the simple distribution of information.

Evidence can be found in the taxonomy of influence strategies, which identifies and organizes 23 fundamental elements of persuasion and rhetoric. Many of these describe what PR practitioners do but won’t talk about much less measure. Take for example, the framing devices filter (def., the selective use of data, facts, figures and other information) and recast (def., the reinterpretation or repositioning of information, players and platforms). Like hydrogen and helium they are the most abundant plays of influence and nearly ever-present in the calculations and communications of PR people.

The Bravery of Soap, The Courage of Sneakers

Two cases suggest that PR’s salute to honesty and purpose is more of a ruse than a requirement. Dove soap, whose promoters have positioned the commodity as a partner for and promise of their customers’ beauty, is quick to claim a social transcendence of a crafted brand. But which came first? The commodity that competes on razor thin margins or the oval bar that champions imperfection and age? Obviously, the former.

The strategies or plays that Dove’s PR agency, Edelman, employs are many. What stands out is its liberal use of equate, the influence strategy of association, which in this case connects its client’s soap to symbols of self-respect and self-determination. Also in the mix is preempt, the play of presumption, which positions Dove as superior and uniquely virtuous. Says Richard Edelman of his firm’s handiwork, “We’re saying you’ve got to take a stand. You need to find areas in which there’s a need in society [you can fill]. And be brave. Go for it, because the customer will respond [and] buy the product on that basis.”

We’re talking about soap. This is today what PR people cheer as doing good.

How long will Dove’s promise of self-actualization last against the actual needs of real consumers? And will the measured trust in Dove’s brand sustain? Trust Edelman, they’ve got a barometer.

Nike’s decision to partner with the shunned NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and by association his #TakeAKnee movement is also celebrated as the good work. With the weight of one whole week of sales returns, respected practitioners gushed over Nike’s guts and good sense, calling the move a “spectacular success.” Except, of course, that what Nike embraced in Kaepernick amounts to the absorption of a naturally-occurring cause by a synthetically-created brand.

By its actions, Nike has baited bigots and white supremacists and for its ostensible courage on behalf of the black community and the systematic violence it endures Nike controls the terms and tenor of a deeply complex issue. For how long can a sports gear maker, which has no organic connection to, say, Black Lives Matter, prove that its base interests are aligned with the cause it just acquired? Can it be anything more than a cheerleader? Can it or should it influence public policy? Can it or should it inspire change without inciting incivility? Nike will kill the baby it covets, I predict. Or vice versa.

Candy in Front, Drugs Out Back

The PR industry is filled with false purpose and false idols. One egregious example is the legacy of Mr. Arthur W. Page, whose namesake society of corporate communications chiefs lauds this early-era PR man for things he neither said nor wrote, like Tell the Truth, and ignores his central role in the public navigation and promotion of his career employer, AT&T, the suffocating and illegal monopoly. That his acolytes now admit to the fabrication but still enshrine so-called Page Principles is further proof that in PR attribution is flexible and flaws are suppressed.

PR is also engaged in new explorations, and with dangerous haste. Despite pledges of ethics and shared public interest, it is embracing behavioral theory and AI-based analytics to move its programs past messages and into minds. But little has been said about the permission or disclosure these new techniques should require. Little has been said about the oversight of their uses much less the adoption of human subjects protocols.

How this work coexists with so many claims of public symmetry is mind boggling. The reality for PR is of an industry that sells candy through the front door and, soon, social opioids through the back.

The easy explanation, advanced by one major association head, is that every industry has a few bad actors. Donald Trump, today’s most notorious abuser of public relations practice, is surely the most rotten. So, too, are the consultancies Bell Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica and of course Facebook’s PR machine. Each deserve their excommunications or censure, no doubt, but these are decoys to cloak the bigger problem. It is not the bad apples that are doing the damage. It is the orchards and farmers that grow them. It is the system invented by the likes of Bernays and perfected by the likes of Edelman that is causing harm, not only to the vocation but to its principle wellspring and the precious natural resource we call the Fourth Estate.

As I argued last year the PR industry is fake news. Through 70 years of steady growth, normalized hyperbole and hedged attribution, PR has incrementally co-opted the newsrooms of yesterday and the newsfeeds of today – a phenomenon well-described by the British educator Richard Bailey in his recent PR Place blog Fakers Gonna Fake.

Consider the 2018 keynote of a PR executive who before students of an elite American communication program talked of the hits and clicks his team procured for a top client. It wasn’t to take a stand or cure a social ill. It was to promote a popular brand of oven-baked turkey stuffing. Multiply this and a thousand similar campaigns over a thousand news outlets and you have what amounts to the swamping of journalism. You have by accident (not just bad actors) the systematic use and abuse of the free press. You have news that is vapid and invented commingled and confused with news that is real and relevant.

Whatever it is that PR does do, it is the strict fashion of PR educators and associations to champion ethical standards and fact-based communications. The aforementioned Global Alliance declarations are only the most recent example. But consider the spin behind them: Principle #1, Working in the public interest, ignores the raw reality of competition in a capitalist system. And principle #6, Honesty, truth and fact-based information, forgets that facts are subject to context and that PR people as advocates must and will interpret them.

Has anything changed since Edward Bernays? Any nut, weirdo, kook or dope can still call themselves a PR practitioner. However intellectually or (now you know) sexually capable Bernays claimed to be, what can be said of PR’s pop is that he knew something of his talents and did little to hide his flaws. That he wrote openly about the practice and potentials of propaganda was an act of self-outing, and that he tried to license the craft he helped define is testament to his clarity that PR is a conflicted, naturally self-interested trade that without toothy regulation will have no nobility. Or credibility.

PR is an industry with a profound identify crisis, caught between what it knows it should be but isn’t and what it shouldn’t be but is. Some serve the role of dutiful communicators and suffer for their strategic under-performance. Some see the real picture and for their advice they are sought, but quietly. Bernays saw it coming. But he didn’t see the bus.

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Alan Kelly is the creator and curator of the above-referenced taxonomy of influence strategies. From 2001 to 2013, he was a member of The Arthur W. Page Society and from 2003 to 2008 he served on the board of the Institute for Public Relations.

This op-ed appears in Medium. Related op-eds include: Fake News: PR’s Little MonsterProtecting Our Fourth Estate: The Plunder of Politics and PRWe Need a Language for Spin, Believe MeTrust Me, I’ve Got a Barometer, and Honestly, PR is Dishonest.

Photo and graphics credits: Bernays: Corporate Communication International/Barry Spector, Taxonomy: Playmaker Systems, Nike and Trump/Rembrandt: Open source