Public Relations (PR) is a field that is usually lumped in with marketing, for example people usually make the reference to marketing/PR or even one step further use the terms interchangeably. After reading an updated revision of the classic book Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward L. Bernays I have learned that the two are very different and have a much deeper respect for public relations as a profession.
In Crystallizing Public Opinion Edward Bernays describes the function and role of someone involved in the field of public relations. Throughout the book he uses the persistent language of the “public relations counsel” likening the public relations counsel to an attorney, but specifically advising clients (individuals, companies, non-profits, or governments) on how to manage public perception. Similar to legal counsel, the PR counsel operates behind the scenes as an “invisible wire puller.”
The use of the term public relations counsel is not coincidental or self-congratulatory. In fact, the author presents a compelling case as to why those involved in public relations should serve in the role of counsel and why anyone wishing to mold public opinion should seriously consider securing public relations counsel. In fact, Mr. Bernays demonstrates at least a few attributes of legal counsel – mastery of language, mastery of profession, and singular specialized focus. The intellectual focus of Mr. Bernays is summed up well in the impression of interviewer Stuart Ewen regarding the library of Edward Bernays at his private residence:
“As I waited, I inspected the shelves of the spacious, high-ceilinged room in which I stood. It was a remarkable collection of books, thousands of them: about public opinion, individual and social psychology, survey research, propaganda, psychological warfare, and so forth; a comprehensive library spanning matters of human motivation and strategies of influence, scanning a period of more than one hundred years. These were not the bookshelves of some shallow huckster, but the arsenal of an intellectual. The cross hairs of nearly every volume were trained on the target of forging public attitudes. Here – in a large white room in Cambridge, Massachusetts – was the constellation of ideas that had inspired and informed a twentieth century preoccupation: the systematic molding of public opinion.”
Beyond reinforcing the attributes of counsel, the preceding passage illustrates the various components in which he used to formulate his PR strategy – public opinion, individual and social psychology, survey research, propaganda, psychological warfare among others. Beyond a simple PR book, Crystallizing Public Opinion is an investigation of the human psyche – at both the individual and collective level. Individual human behavior is discussed, as well as group behavior, and the impact of multiple groups interacting with one another. This understanding of the human and collective mind(s) allows for the development of effective public relations strategy. PR strategy is a complex machine with many moving parts.
Beyond his in-depth treatment of PR and the application of social and psychological techniques to his profession there were more than a few fascinating aspects concerning the background and personality of Edward Bernays. First, he was the nephew of legendary psychologist Sigmund Freud. Second, he believed that popular opinion could (and should) be manipulated. Mr. Bernays had a number of noteworthy clients to include Lucky Strikes, the Waldorf Astoria, General Motors, General Electric and Ivory Soap. American President Woodrow Wilson even enlisted his aid to promote American efforts in World War I to strengthen public support for the war.
While reading Crystallizing Public Opinion one cannot help but be intrigued by Edward Bernays. One of the more fascinating parts of the book is the introduction by Stuart Ewen. During this portion of the book Stuart Ewen describes an interview he had with Edward Bernays in preparation for the updated revision of Crystallizing Public Opinion. This interview combined with the writing of the author provides for a fascinating character profile of Edward Bernays.
One gets a sense that the portrait of Edward Bernays is that of an elite intellectual. He has made it his purpose to understand the human mind and how it may be swayed by the hidden hand. The author viewed the human being at a base level – that of an animal driven by a combination of instinct, imbalance, and emotion and provides plenty of historical evidence on how the hidden hand has nudged the public towards a desired outcome consistently over time. Notable examples include campaigns in private industry, government swaying popular opinion towards war policy, and CIA orchestrated coups.
It would be easy for some to dismiss Edward Bernays as a master manipulator of public opinion with devious intent. However, when reading Crystallizing Public Opinion in it’s entirety there is an underlying sense of the awareness that the author had concerning the knowledge he possessed and the manner in which it was deployed. This delicate balance between knowledge and responsibility is demonstrated within the following passage:
“The future of public opinion, says Professor Tonnies, is the future of civilization. It is certain that the power of public opinion is constantly increasing and will keep on increasing. It is equally certain that it is more and more being influenced, changed, stirred by impulses from below. The danger which this development contains for a progressive ennobling of human society and a progressive heightening of human culture is apparent. The duty of the higher strata of society – the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual – is therefore clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion. Public opinion must become public conscious.”
Crystallizing Public Opinion is a succinct book that has had an enormous impact on my perception of not only the field of public relations but how the world works. Public opinion is not something best left to chance, but something that should be responsibly tailored.
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