PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Is the practice of public relations really a science?
© 2009; 2017 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
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The current emphasis on professional accountability and being able to produce measurable results makes the question of public relations' status as an art or a science more important than ever. But, it's not important solely as a matter of status or prestige; it's important because it affects the operating principles we use and the outcomes we can expect.

Edward Bernays, one of the first and most prolific writers about public relations who was often called "the father of modern public relations," was a strong proponent of the notion that public relations should be considered a science. More specifically, he called it “an applied social science” and equated it with other applied sciences in numerous articles as well as in his landmark book The Engineering of Consent.

This is a view that’s been controversial from the very beginning. It prompted mixed responses when it was first proposed, and continues to draw mixed reviews today. It’s worth exploring, however, because of the insight it offers into the nature of public relations and what public relations practitioners can realistically expect to offer their employers and/or their clients.

At the heart of the debate between those who see public relations as an art and those who see it as a science are two key questions:

From the start of his career Bernays tried to present public relations as a scientific discipline.

When he began writing about public relations in the 1920s, it was starting to be recognized as a specialized type of communication -- related to, but distinct from, both journalism and advertising -- but only a few people were trying it out as a possible career path. It certainly wasn't a part of mainstream thinking in business, in journalism, in academe, or in the eyes of the general public. Consequently, there was no way that Bernays could claim that this new field had standardized and widely-accepted practices and procedures. So, relied on descriptions of what he thought might be possible and emphasized idealized views of how he thought the profession should operate.

In this light, he optimistically – His critics would prefer the word "rashly." – called public relations "the engineering of consent” in a very calculated and intentional manner. His first published use of the phrase "the engineering of consent was in a 1935 journal article. He repeated it in numerous other articles and speeches over the years, and finally used it as the title of a book in 1955. His kindest critics considered this term a bit pretentious and felt that applying it to such a young and as-yet untested field as public relations was, at best, "a big leap of faith." His harshest critics said it was just another "manifestation of Bernays' ego."

But, Bernays was not detered. He continued to justify his use of this phrase by citing a dictionary definition of engineering. It said that engineering is the "art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc."

Throughout his 70-year career, in all his writings and his public speeches, Bernays constantly sought to make public relations not only appear, but actually be, more precise, more scientific, and more predictable. He proselytized practitioners, constantly reminding them that these characteristics are the goals to which they should aspire while simultaneously trying to convince the general public and his clients that they were already hallmarks of his profession.

He was truly dedicated to the improvement of public relations, and he did a lot of good. He also did a lot of self-promotion that rubbed many people the wrong way. One of his most annoying quirks was frequently and blatantly reminding people that he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud. It was apparently a not-so-subtle way of implying that, because of this relationship, he had a special understanding of how people think that made him an exceptional public relations practitioner.

Not everyone agreed, but they were reluctant to speak up for a long time.

Looking back at those years, there is little evidence of wide-spread support for these views. Most practitioners seemed to ignore Bernays' "preaching," but they didn't discount him. Nor did they openly contradict him. Even those practitioners who disagreed with him in private were reluctant to disagree with him in public because he was so well-known, respected, and powerful. Consequently, few opposing views publicly surfaced until the 1980s.

In a 1984 article in Public Relations Quarterly, Marvin Olasky somewhat sarcastically quoted some of Bernays own writings, particularly those that he considered more than a bit over-the-top. He apparently expected Bernays' obvious exaggerations to speak for themselves and cause readers to question Bernays’ underlying claims and assertions. He was particularly troubled by Bernays' mechanistic and potentially Machiavellian claim that he could “effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline.”

Most practitioners remained much more modest -- or, perhaps, realistic -- about their ability -- or inability -- to predict the outcome of their public relations efforts.

Once the first shot was fired, others began sniping at the scientific view of public relations.

In his book Fundamentals of Public Relations, Lawrence Nolte said, “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.”

Hollywood publicist Michael Levine took a similar stance. In his first 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."

Personally, I respect Bernays' contributions to the profession but, having lived and worked through a number of public relations situations in which “the math” seemed to change from day to day and where I got widely differing outcomes when I used identical techniques, I have to side with Levine, Nolte, and Olasky. Practicing public relations is not at all like doing science.

This is not to say that public relations cannot and does not use some scientific and statistical techniques. It does. It uses more and more of them all the time, many more of them than Bernays ever dreamed of. And, those of us who do pubic relations are relying more and more on computers, automation, and high-tech communication devices. The key word in everything I've just written is "uses." We use or employ scientific findings and technology; we do not actually do science.

Realistically, can public relations ever be a science?

Admittedly, public relations is becoming more knowledge-based, more measurable, and more accountable all the time. Those are positive developments. But, because public relations deals with people and groups and their relationships with one another, it will always have to contend with the unpredictability and contrariness of human nature. -- That's what makes it interesting. -- And, that alone will forever keep it from becoming consistently and statistically predictable which is a necessary characteristic of science.

Public relations can never become an exact science unless, God forbid, someone/something imposes enough genetic modifications to drastically reshape human nature. So, public relations must forever remain an art, a craft, or a skill. It may develop better rules and guidelines, refine tried and true techniques, and promote higher standards of excellence which would make its practitioners more artistic, elegant, and effective in practicing their profession, but it would not do away with human intuition and feelings. They can never be totally eliminated; neither from the practitioners nor from their target audiences. Thus, public relations, as we now define it, can never be a science.

That's not so bad, is it? As a public relations practitioner, wouldn't you really rather be an artist than a scientist?

Underlying concepts of public relations Acronyms that describe
the public relations process
The changing names of public relations
Online readings table of contents Duties and responsibilities
of public relations practitioners
Practicing Public Relations
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