The Rise and Fall of PR in 100 Short Years

Edward Bernays, PR

The following is an excerpt from our new book, The TV Guide to Telling your Organization's Story--Insights and tools to help you navigate the Interactive Age.

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“Ours must be a leadership democracy, administered by the “intelligent minority” who know how to regiment and guide the masses. The common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.” –Edward Bernays

The 20th century was the Golden Age of managed messaging. Media moguls, corporate titans, and government agencies controlled virtually every aspect of mass communication. This “intelligent minority” were literally the “they” in any statement that began with “They say…” The blueprints for this power paradigm were drawn up in the wee hours of the 20th century by Edward Bernays, the man who would be crowned “the father of public relations.”

In his aptly named essay, Propaganda, Bernays asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Turns out it was possible … and very profitable. (A small example: It was Bernays who convinced America that women had the right to smoke in public with his “Torches of Freedom” campaign.)

Bernays—who was related to Sigmund Freud through both his mother (Freud’s sister) and his father (whose sister married Freud)—knew a few things about crowd psychology and other psychoanalytic approaches to public relations, which he called “the engineering of consent.”

He was also keenly aware that the burgeoning mass media infrastructure of 20th century America—“this web of communications” he presciently called it—was ideal for the “manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” This was critical, he wrote, because “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

America’s mass media infrastructure was critical to Bernays’ success in developing “technique[s] for the mass distribution of ideas.” These techniques, which he collectively dubbed “public relations,” were amazingly effective because they were based on the belief that “the United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

But the Internet destroyed that small room a few years back and countless communities have popped up in its place. The people in those communities aren’t buying the linear monologues spouted by corporations, media conglomerates, and political leaders. They are putting their faith in their friends and their communities, with astounding results.

Social media has brought us full circle to what Bernays described as “an earlier age … [where] a leader was usually known to his followers personally [and] communication was accomplished principally by personal announcement to an audience.”

This has up sides for organizations of all sizes, but our new reality requires that you make a few adjustments to your communications program if you want to be heard in the Interactive Age.