At 100-years-old, Edward Bernays’ Propaganda remains a highly relevant reference for communications professionals, offering standard operating procedures, values and ethics, and influencer organization and tactics still applicable today.
Propaganda positions the function of public relations (or propaganda) as a critical advising role to leadership, establishing functional ethics and values and correlating the function of influence to being an “invisible” arm of government, “which is the true ruling power” of countries.
“Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent [people]must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help bring order out of chaos.”Edward L. Bernays. (1928). Propaganda. Brooklyn, New York: Ig Publishing
In this book from 1928, reprinted in 2005 with introduction by Mark Crispin Miller, Edward Bernays’s makes the case for propaganda, or more appropriately the role of the “public relations counsel”, as a crucial part of today’s professional affairs.
Miller provides a modern introduction and overview to the classic text, dissecting and ultimately rejecting Bernays’s premise that the word propaganda is still benign and urges us all to understand the concepts if we, “want to change the world that Edward Bernays, among others, made for us”.
But the old text is still eerily relevant, and while I agree with Miller that propaganda is a term no longer fit for modern use, Bernays’s description of the “public relations counsel” holds today and the ethics and values he proposes for the profession – something Miller himself agrees as a point to applaud – should still be considered by modern practitioners. The core tactics, the focus on relationship building, and engaging industry expertise to build trust and confidence with audiences is all there, and succinctly represented in a series of chapters that breakdown specific industries. Replace the emerging technology the book speaks to – the arrival of the television – with today’s communications challenges of social media platforms and misinformation and you would have a modern resource for public relations practitioners. There are still valuable insights to be taken from this 100 year-old-book that are relevant in today’s information environment. Which perhaps alludes to a hidden – or perhaps more blatant – point to this book: that regardless of available technology and mediums, the principles of what motivates and influences people, how they organize and lead themselves, and maintaining an open dialogue are fundamental components of effective communication and leading change, and that “the propagandist” is a critical advisor and planner to leadership in this capacity.
Five key take-a-ways
1. Propaganda is still a bad word, and “propagandists” are responsible for that
Bernays clearly had a goal in mind with this book. In addition to raising awareness of the concepts and value public relations activities can add to leadership, be it political or business, a fairly obvious effort is there to reassure people that “propaganda” is not a bad thing – that it and public relations are synonymous (though curiously enough the “propagandist” himself doesn’t use that title past chapter one).
While the literal definition and a tracing of the etymology are used to help rationally position this, when you include Miller’s modern analysis that leads this edition of the book, coupled with Bernays’ own rebranding of himself as a “public relations counsel”, the argument doesn’t stick the landing. By Bernays’ own admission it was Allied Forces propagandists in World War I that started the war on the word, successfully re-branding it as something the enemy did to lie and mislead people – The Huns deceive you with propaganda, the Allied Forces keep you informed through information. Thus necessitating a change by those in the business of “good” propaganda following The Great War – irony at its best.
2. The book itself is an example of Bernays’ own application of the function
Although you wouldn’t have maybe jumped to this conclusion without Miller’s four-part essay, but when presented with the information it’s hard to ignore it: Bernays used this book as part of his own public relations campaign to re-enforce trust in the public relations function and pre-position its importance with potential clients through an “academic” discussion. “Academic”, because by Miller’s research the vast majority of the examples Bernays uses to prove the value of the function come from his own handiwork.
Take Bernays’ own words when describing the goal of the public relations counsel:
By publishing a book on “propaganda” at a time when the profession was in need of a re-brand, Bernays potentially captures both supporters and naysayers through his presentation. Bernays presents a non-bias, academic text that analyzes the function and the word “propaganda” in a way that would potentially both supporters and naysayers to a neutral place. He then re-orients his audience to the term “public relations” and the effective use of the function to influence and change behaviours.
3. To effectively communicate, you must organize your audience
But not necessarily the way your marketing class taught you. The focus here is on influence, on organizing the chaos of the information environment by targeting and leveraging the associations, charities, industry organizations, etc., (i.e. “places” where large groups of people congregate to share informed opinions about a particular topic) to help influence and affect change. We’re not worried about traditional marketing here, but in providing these key audiences with the information needed to affect the change desired. The book’s first chapter, “Organizing Chaos” reads like a phone book of industry and charity organizations, all to prove the point that the public relations counsel is a “special pleader” who helps leadership navigate and leverage this chaos to achieve strategic goals.
4. Effective public relations counsels operate by a mostly standard operating procedure and are guided by common ethics and values
Although broad, Bernays outlines a sort of “standard operating procedure” for the given public relations counsel and provides a succinct list of values and ethics for the professional. He uses this to draw comparison to the more established respected professions of the time like the doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
Standard Operating Procedure of the public relations counsel
- Analyze the problem(s) – ensuring what the business or client is offering is something the public accepts, needs or desires, and can be bought (whether financially or through other means).
- Analyze the public – focusing on key leader engagement and industry organizations through which will help achieve the goal.
- Formulate policies, practice, procedure, and habits for the business or client for all aspects in which they come into contact with the public (in particular those identified above).
- Implement communications activities affecting the public or target audiences.
Values and ethics of the public relations counsel
- Respect and advise on the needs and wants of the public.
- Communicate the objectives and the operations of the business or client to the public.
- Make a case for the business or client – communicate the potential/actual impact of the business or clients activities in an open and transparent way.
- Do not support businesses or clients who they believe to be dishonest, fraudulent, or promote antisocial behaviours.
- Do not work with a client or business whose interest conflict with another of their clients or businesses.
- Do not accept a business or client whose case they believe to be hopeless or unmarketable
- Be candid in their dealings with clients or businesses and the public.
5. Speak to those who should listen
Bernays makes an early point of this when he speaks to the example of buying pianos. Instead of direct appeal (“You, go buy a piano”), which has many layers of conflict with existing societal norms and comes against other expected “needs” and customs, the public relations professional “… works to create circumstances which will modify that custom.”
The example goes on to demonstrate that in order to effectively sell the piano, the public relations professional first creates demand for the music room or nook at home. Using home design influencers, family health experts (i.e. good creative outlet for your child), they position demand for creating a musical, creative space at home. Then they position the piano as the ideal compliment for that space; taking the transaction from “Hey, you want to buy a piano?” to “Hey, can you sell me a piano”.
Bonus take-a-way – Media is a medium through which to reach audiences
As a communications advisor and practitioner myself, this point came across clear to me throughout the chapters breaking down how various industries can leverage the public relations function: the media – be a news outlet, or an industry association and its communication activities – is the medium through which you reach and influence audiences not the audience itself. For a news outlet your effort might be to present your side of a story the audience that watches that news program. For the industry association, it might be to generate more informed opinions of an audience that has more direct influence over public policy makers.
Although the leading essay by Miller brushes the rest of the book with a necessary coat of skepticism, one cannot argue that Bernays believed in the public relations function and its importance in advising leadership.
A succinct example of this is found in Chapter 4’s psychology of public relations. Around the mid-chapter point, Bernays quickly points out how leadership in Great Britain during the First World War was able to adequately manage public expectation after renaming their “evacuation hospitals” to “evacuation posts” – a change that helped reduce the publics expectation of a particular service standard now that the word “hospital” was absent from the name. He summarizes how the PR function helps leadership navigate these types of scenarios, pointing out that in the absence of the leader, groups may make decisions based on cliché or propriety – what is known, understood, or culturally accepted. The PR counsel helps to avoid these pitfalls but understanding cultural norms so as not to come into contrast with what the public has come to accept as “true”.
It’s because of all this Propaganda remains a very relevant book to those practicing in the communications or public relations fields. The fact that it’s about 100 years old fuels that intrigue and perhaps offers a dose of humility to those in the function: regardless of the technology available, true influence is about finding the influencers and empowering them to tell your story.