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Euan Steedman's Reginald Watts Prize entry

Public relations (PR) today is horrible. Any dope any nitwit any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner.” Edward Bernays, 1991. Is he right?

Edward Bernays was the first person to articulate the practice of public relations. With a background in propaganda he took his understanding of public persuasion and applied it to commercial activity. Bernays used his mastery of crowd science and social philosophy to create a blueprint for PR.

With his techniques widely lauded and replicated Bernays spent the remainder of his life cementing the legitimacy of PR practice. ‘The Century of the Self’ credits Bernays for turning PR into one of the major industries of the 20th Century. It’s unsurprising then that Bernays felt so protective of PR.

By the 1990s Bernays believed the practice had become unregulated, susceptible to charlatans and lacking the respect it deserved as a profession. Indeed he felt the new generation of practitioners lacked the education, gravitas or talent to be worthy of sharing his title. And perhaps he was right.

In 1992, aged 100, Bernays submitted to the Courts his solution- a bill calling for the introduction of licencing to PR. He believed this was the only way to protect the reputations of legitimate PRs and the credibility of the industry as a whole. The Courts disagreed however and deemed his request unnecessary. As a result no law currently exists that prevents anyone from calling themselves a PR practitioner.

Alex Singleton, author of ‘The PR Masterclass’ argued that there was no need for licencing as PR was about reputation and if an individual was talented they would succeed and substandard practitioners would be naturally weeded out. I agree and whilst debates on licensing persist I feel that when it comes to the power of persuasion some people have it and others just don’t.

Bernays’ work promoting PR as a profession brought the practice out of the shadows and led to eased industry accessibility. However by flaunting his successful formula Bernays reduced the requirement for new PR approaches.

As a result multiple PR agencies appeared, all offering their clients the same generic services and competing not based on their perceptions of PR but on the size of their budgets. Whilst PR in the 90’s is described as ‘The Golden Age’ this had more to do with the level of industry excess than the standard of talent. On this level one can empathise with Bernays as a lack of innovation and the prevalence of mediocre and frivolous PR practitioners was seriously eroding the scientific underpinning he had worked so hard to attain.

Bernays’ argument was not just that practitioners lacked the natural talent for PR but also that they lacked the academic grounding. He stated that all PRs should hold a general degree and ideally a Masters in PR. Whilst I agree this is ideal, I don’t believe that education should ever be a barrier. Like Reginald Watts, I feel that continual development and on-the-job training are much more valuable.

Alongside the debate on licensing there persists in PR a debate about the definition of the practice itself. Even Bernays ‘the Father of PR’ could not make his definition stick. As a result there were a number of skilled workers in the 1990s doing jobs that Bernays did not classify as PR who were defining themselves as PR practitioners. Bernays’ daughter commented that if someone disagreed with her father he would call them stupid. Perhaps then his criticism of new practitioners had more to do with how their PR definition varied from his own.

Whilst PR in the 90s had reached saturation point, the digital revolution helped create a renaissance in the decades that followed. As the mass media age transitioned to the mass social media age, the days of the single discipline agency were gone and PRs now also had to be good at marketing, advertising and content creation. This fundamentally challenged Bernays’ definition and raised the expectation of what made a good practitioner. Indeed increased competition and the sheer volume of online content available to consumers forced PRs to be innovative in their publicity approaches.

Bernays did not believe in democracy, and yet ironically his work helped make PR one of the most democratic industries. By commercialising our culture Bernays created free-speech and the right of persuasion on a scale like never before. Allowing for the emergence of social influencers and DIY PRs. Stuart Ewen, author of ‘Bernays and the Century of the Selfie’ explains “Ordinary people, employing affordable devices connected to the Internet, have become their own publicists, altering the dynamics of democracy and implicitly challenging Bernays’ bedrock assumptions”. If Bernays was unhappy that workers without degrees were practicing, I wonder how he would feel that anyone who posts on Facebook could now be labelled by some as a PR practitioner.

Whilst these social influencers may not label themselves as PRs the best of them have the innate power of persuasion that it takes to succeed in the industry. Bernays was insulted that anyone could practice without having a degree or his ordained talent, and yet he forgets he was able to completely design the industry to suit himself.

While the 90s was clearly a decade of overindulgence many of Bernays’ grumbles are contradictions, either things he had directly done himself (talking about charlatans when he was known to employ fake surveys and endorsements) or that he had benefitted from (lack of regulation- he for a time had an unethical monopoly in the industry). I believe Bernays disliked no longer having full control over PR but by commercialising the culture he had started something that could never be contained.

Part of the reason PR is undefinable is that it is an evolving concept that is forever undergoing societal and technological change- and that is what makes PR so special. Like Singleton I believe that whatever method or form PR takes, talent will always out. Yes anyone can call themselves a PR practitioner and that includes people with less talent than others but anyone can also call themselves an athlete and in both cases it doesn’t take long to work out if the person’s lying.