Calling public relations a science doesn't make it one.

Edward Bernays, who is often called the father of public relations, was the first to claim that public relations a science. In a 1935 essay titled "The Engineering of Consent," referred to public relations as "an applied social science" comparable to other applied sciences such as engineering and aeronautics. Then, and throughout his 70-year career as a very high-priced public relations practitioner, Bernays urged practitioners to make public relations work more precise, scientific, statistical, and predictable.

Some practitioners agreed with Bernays, but there were probably far more who didn't. But, at that point in public relations' development, they kept their mouths shut. Bernays was too well-known, respected, and powerful to publicly disagree with him. Consequently, there were few books or articles saying that public relations was not a science until the 1970s and later when authors like Lawrence Nolte, Marvin Olasky, and eventually Michael Levine began speaking up.

In his 1974 book, Fundamentals of Public Relations, Nolte wrote: "In one sense the public relations man is akin to the weatherman who says there is a 60% chance of rain. These odds are not at all unreasonable. They are not, however, reliable enough to put public relations in the same category with engineering or any of the hard sciences."

Levine who wrote almost 20 years later was even more pointed in his book, Guerrilla P.R. He wrote: "In science, two plus two equals four. It will always equal four whether added by a Republican from Iowa, a shaman from New Guinea, or an alien from Planet X. However, in public relations, two plus two may equal four. It may equal five. It may equal zero today and fifty tomorrow."

Sarcastic? -- Perhaps. -- But, there's a lot of validity to Levine's perspective. In a true science, just as in math, performing the same tasks in the same order produces the same results regardless of how many times you perform them. The outcome or answer doesn't change. That's not true in public relations. The outcome you achieve, when you precisely duplicate a set of previous actions, will not necessarily be the same as it was the first time. It could be, or it could be similar, or it could be dramatically different.

This isn't to say public relations doesn't use scientific and statistical techniques. It does. Lots of them. And, they get more numerous, more complex, and more accurate all the time. Public relations also uses computers and high-tech communication systems. In fact, most public relations activities are steadily becoming more technology-based, knowledge-dependent, and measurable. But, despite this, public relations practitioners still have to contend with the unscientific unpredictability and contrariness of human nature and free will. There simply are no guarantees or certainty in predicting public relations outcomes because there are no guarantees or certainty in predicting human behavior.

In some ways, this uncertainty is part of what makes public relations such a fascinating profession in which to work.

Read more:  Is public relations an art or science?     

:  Initially created to support the public relations courses I taught at Northern Kentucky University, it's now used as a supplemental text in scores of university courses worldwide. It's also used as a reference or refresher by PR professionals, especially those preparing for accreditation or certification exams. Since I retired, site updates are no longer on a strict schedule but usually occur every 6-8 weeks.

Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC, Professor Emeritus
Northern Kentucky University

Love him or hate him, Edward Bernays
was a public relations phenomenon.

Writing the article above about Bernays' assertion that public relations is a science brought to mind his many contributions to the profession that some people believe he created.

Personally, I don't give him credit him for creating the field, -- There were countless people engaged in public relations long before he was born. -- but I do believe he was instrumental in bringing the profession into the 20th century and making it widely known.

Larry Tye, who wrote The Father of Spin, a widely acclaimed biography of Bernays, acknowledged that Bernays wasn't the first public relations practitioner, not even the first one in the 20th century. But, "he was the profession's first philosopher and intellectual. He saw the big picture when few others did, and he was the first to appreciate the nexus between theory and practice and between the art of PR and the science."

In addition to advising five U.S. Presidents and one First Lady, his accomplishments during his nearly 80-year career in public relations included:

  • popularizing Ivory soap;
  • making bacon and eggs a popular breakfast;
  • convincing Americans beer is a "beverage of moderation;"
  • making smoking in public socially acceptable for women;
  • promoting the first NAACP convention in Atlanta;
  • directing publicity for the 1939 World's Fair; and
  • persuading Americans that water fluoridation is safe and beneficial to our health.

Other public relations practitioners either loved him or hated him. Even now, more than 20 years after his death, there's little middle ground. People who are old enough to have known or worked with him think of him as either the grand patriarch of public relations or as a pompous, over-bearing braggart.

In either case, he was a key figure in the evolution of public relations and a major contributor to its literature. He is certainly someone whose name and accomplishments should be known to all public relations practitioners.

Read more.     


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News releases may seem old fashioned,
but they're still an effective PR tool.

As noted in my tip sheet on writing news releases, "News releases attempt to gain media coverage for an organization, event, or issue by providing media gatekeepers -- editors and reporters -- with ready-to-use news stories."

So, when social media started becoming more popular than traditional news media, some self-appointed gurus began claiming news releases were dead as a public relations tool. Sadly, some practitioners believed them and stopped issuing releases even though there was little or no evidence that the gurus knew anything about public relations or journalism.

Wiser practitioners carefully analyzed the needs of their clients and of the media before changing their news release practices. In the end, they may have revised how they told their clients' stories, but they didn't quit writing and issuing news releases. They just wrote them a bit differently and transmitted them in different ways. And, inevitably, these releases continued to be accepted and used by the media.

Admittedly, today, in the 21st century, a news release shouldn't be the first or most important response to every public relations issue that arises. Nor should releases be considered the best and most effective way of getting media attention. And, they certainly shouldn't be produced or distributed primarily as hard-copy handouts. But, ...

The basic reason for issuing news releases hasn't changed. It's to get the most-favorable possible news coverage of your client by the media. This usually involves writing, recording, or otherwise preparing a nearly-ready-to-use "news story" that you can distribute to all media outlets which might possibly carry it.

Typically, some media will run your story exactly as you submit it although making it appear to have been be written by their own reporters. More of them will edit it -- maybe shortening it, adding to it, or changing its perspective -- and then run a modified version of it. And, some will just throw it away.

That's the way releases have always been treated.

More about issuing news releases.     

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Updated: 2/08/2019