News & Insights

11/10/2018

PR principles are evergreenby Eric Robledo



Over the past century, an infinite number of things have changed in the communications and media industries. Even today, business models continue to evolve as the technology of media and news consumption change. But public relations, I realise now, hasn’t changed that much after all. I wasn’t around a century ago, of course, but Edward Bernays, regarded as the father of the PR counsel profession, was. It’s from him that I’m getting these ideas.

Published in 1923, Bernays’ book Crystallizing Public Opinion has been an academic and almost revered reference for many PR practitioners around the world. His book focuses on principles of persuasion as well as the role and scope of the PR counsel. It was based on his profound study of a range of social sciences (his uncle Sigmund Freud had a big influence on him) and his relentless application of many theories to the real world.

The following list is a personal selection of seven ideas that caught my eye for their relevance in the field today. I found that some of these concepts could have been written yesterday, as they continue to explain much of our whats, whys and hows of the PR profession.

1. PR is a battle of different points of view

Public opinion, the focus of PR, is a malleable thing, said Bernays. But any PR actions must be carried out considering their specific context. They should, for example, be mindful of the established points of views, which always have an advantage over the new ones. According to Bernays, the explanation of this advantage has to do with a biological reticence to accept other people’s truths or views that do not align with our own version of the world. So, PR is, by necessity, a long-term battle for the dominance of new versus established ideas, depending on who the PR counsel is representing.

2. We deal in realities

The concept of ‘reality’ is key to the role of PR, wrote Stuart Ewen, a media theorist that studied Bernays all his life and wrote the introduction to the 2011 edition. This is because everybody needs to have a version of the things that surround us. To supersede that version of reality, effective PR actions must provide an alternative version, or at least a contrast to the established one.

3. Creating news, not just communicating it

Bernays championed the idea that PR is not just about communicating news, but also about creating it. Some of the most effective actions described in Crystalizing Public Opinion are, in fact, real world actions that went beyond exalting the characteristics and benefits of a brand or a product – although these do have a central place in advertising.

4. Adhering to popular social causes and building social goodwill

In the 1920s, Bernays was allegedly the first person to consciously link corporate sales and popular social causes. While working for the American Tobacco Company, he persuaded women’s rights marchers in New York City to hold up Lucky Strike cigarettes as symbolic ‘Torches of Freedom’. (This was many decades before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established and widely accepted). Needless to say, Lucky Strike got all the attention in the world and prominent news coverage in all the major newspapers in the United States.

Bernays also advocated for American companies at the time to align themselves with the public in order to build social goodwill that could be then leveraged to successfully combat more contentious scenarios. Although the idea of private businesses joining social causes or acting in the interest of the general public was new then, this symbiotic relationship is still as important a century later.

5. Making truth articulate

Throughout his book, Bernays refers to the idea of making truth articulate through credible representatives of society—people with specific credentials or ordinary people representing certain archetypes that could attest that the story that’s been crafted is real and it’s affecting their lives or the lives of others. This could be done through the provision of either individual testimony—we call them case studies these days—or aggregate views of a specific group captured by tailor-made surveys.

6. Media, first and foremost

According to Bernays, the press “unifies and invigorates conversations... every morning the papers give the public the conversations of the day". The format of news has changed, of course, but the conversations of the day are still based on news regardless of the way they are delivered. In short, if companies want to be talked about (or tweeted about, if you like), they must take part in the creation of news.

7. PR is multichannel, it’s always been

It may seem that the multi-channel approach is a new idea for the scope of PR but apparently it is not. Almost a century ago, Bernays wrote that the PR counsel provides advice “on all occasions on which his client appears before the public.” Digital channels are relatively new but given the role that PR counsels have taken in advising on digital communications (content for website or blogs and their distribution through social media) or even running these social media channels, the PR presence has only expanded. Honner’s recent appointment of Craig Morris is proof of the ever-expanding role of PR and the convergence of the communications industries that’s happening globally.


If you want to learn how PR services can add value to your business today, contact us on honner@honner.com.au or call us on +61 2 8248 3700

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