In 1991, Edward Bernays, who is referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations”, said “Publicrelationstodayishorrible. Anydope, anynitwit, anyidiotcancallhimorherselfapublicrelationspractitioner,” and thereby cast a very bleak outlook on the industry he pioneered.
A hundred years old at the time of making this statement, it seems at first glance as if Bernays has fallen into the same line of argument that has been used for centuries by the elder members of society when remarking upon younger people taking their place: That nothing is as it used to be, that the young generation shows contempt for the traditions and practices of the old days and worse still, that there seems to be a total decay of manners and morals all round. Most prominently attributed to Socrates around 400 BC, it is suffice to say that Bernays might just be one in a long line of many lamenting the changes in an industry he held dear.
And that there were and are changes cannot be denied: What was a profession for the privileged, educated and well-connected at the time of Bernays’ forays into public relations, is now an industry with hundreds of job-openings every month.
So what has changed? The answer, as to so many questions regarding the 21st century, is “the internet”.
The rise of “citizen journalism”, a phenomenon that has been documented in relation to events such as the Arab spring, where participants of politically volatile or otherwise newsworthy events take to reporting as it happens live from the scene and often make it hard for journalists to offer timely coverage, can to a lesser extent also be observed in public relations.
Technically speaking, anybody who has a substantial following on a social media platform would be in a prime position to be hired by brands and leverage this following in their favour, bringing whatever message a brand deems appropriate to a wide, sometimes tailored audience, even skipping journalists as “the middleman”.
“Influencers”, as they are now often referred to, have been discussed and celebrated intensely over the past few years, and while their work with brands is regarded and regulated as advertising, the communicative nature of their work cannot be denied. This is particularly relevant when imagining what social media will be like in just a few years, and how highly relevant it is going to be to the daily lives of generations emerging into adulthood.
The development of social media has indeed enabled “anybody” to become a public relations, or at least communications, practitioner, but Edward Bernays’ blanket statement does not allow for the nuances in the PR industry that still exist.
It does not give credit, for example, to the fact that the economy Bernays experienced was what is largely described as a ‘production economy’, which has now shifted to a service economy, a development that almost necessitates an increase in PR practice. Whereas goods that are sold in a production economy often have an almost self-explanatory purpose, and require good salesmanship to establish themselves against the competition, brands in a service economy are held to a higher standard by their consumers, who increasingly want their ideals to align with a brand’s or service’s, creating a strong need for a beneficial public presence.
This need is not high enough, however, that “any nitwit” can get a job in PR just yet: The rise in PR degrees and apprenticeships shows that there is a real demand for communications practitioners that have been adequately trained and equipped to fulfil their profession.
Globalisation and an increased complexity of the world’s political and industrial landscape have made it harder to navigate audiences and find the right communications strategy for any given client who wishes to reach the right audiences. While social media, as mentioned above, could be of great help with this quest, the granularity of audiences on different and ever-changing platforms needs to be understood and practised well, which is an almost impossible feat for anyone who wishes to both immerse themselves in a business sector and the intricacy of traditional and digital media production. Even if, as Bernays claimed, anyone could call themselves a PR practitioner, only the ones specialising their skills and gaining an understanding of how audiences can be reached with the right tools will remain with a reputation as such.
But what is most irksome about Bernays’ statement, is the complete disregard for diversity. Claiming that “anyone” can be a PR practitioner ignores the fact that the profession in the UK is still 91% white, and at senior levels 52% male, raising the question why, if anyone can be a practitioner, the field is still so saturated with the demographic profile of privilege.
Especially the communications industry, which actively benefits from a diverse profile that enables them to service a multitude of clients and empathise with and reach a bigger share of audiences, should not fool itself into thinking that there are no accessibility barriers to its profession left and then discredit a large share of the work by claiming an “idiot” could have achieved it.
All considered, Bernays was both right and wrong, but not in the sense that he aimed for: The vast changes of the PR industry in the past decade, brought forward by the advancement of new and social media have enabled a lot of people to communicate with detailed audiences, but the accompanying complexity of these media and the world at large also call for more specialists, limiting the pool of PR practitioners. And last but not least, the industry’s ongoing struggle with diversity needs to be addressed before Bernays can be called right or wrong – anything else could come across as derisive and belittling.