It’s difficult to understand modern media, and modern public relations, without examining the life and work of Edward Bernays, who died at age 103 in 1995. He believed that individuals in “free societies” are not really free thinkers. They do not have the time to be scholars, to think critically for themselves — their minds are molded, their tastes formed, their ideas are suggested, by the media (ie, propaganda), by education (ie, indoctrination), by their psychological needs for systematic thinking, by a desire for order, by the language used to describe things in either an appealing or pejorative way. Without such conscious or unconscious manipulation, societies fall into eternal conflict, chaos and anarchy, he contended.
A public relations practitioner is a social scientist, an advisor to organizations, who helps to educate and win over the public, to accept social goods or concepts. He wrote:
“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.”
Bernays’ views were controversial, in direct opposition to the ideology of many journalists, who saw themselves as seekers of facts, objective truths, offering fairness and balance without hidden agendas, and letting the readers decide for themselves what they believe.
- National Public Radio reports on Bernays
- Wikipedia encyclopedia profile of Bernays
- Museum of Public Relations profile of Bernays
- PR!: A Social History of Spin, by Stuart Ewen (1996), especially“Visiting Edward Bernays”
- American Idealism: Bernays, forger of American Public Relations
- “The Century of the Self,” BBC documentary about Bernays and his uncle, Sigmund Freud.
(A tip of the hat to Curt Olsen, whose article, “Bernays Vs. Ellul: Two Views of Propaganda,” in the July 2005 issue of PRSA’s Tactics inspired this post on my old blog, The Buie Knife.)