Business

Public Relations, Professionalism and the Modern Workplace

I originally wrote this piece as an entry for an essay writing competition. It didn’t win so I thought I’d post it here since I’m quite proud of it and might as well get some use out of the damned thing! Let me know what you think in the comments…

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

Bernays had a point; public relations today is indeed horrible but not for the reasons he suggested. He was determined to apply a very specific definition to the term “public relations”. For him, it was a social science, not the province of glorified press agents and advertisers.

In the New York Times interview from which the title quote was taken, Bernays says: “Some people just use public relations as a euphemism for press agentry… A firm sends articles or press releases to newspapers to win favor for a client and it usually ends up in the trash. It’s not only not good P.R.; it intensifies the antagonism toward the product. I’m pleased to be known as the father of public relations when the field is taken seriously, like law or architecture”.

No doubt he would also have objected to the use of “communications” as a euphemism for the practice of PR, preferring to view it as a specific subset of all communications between an individual, business or government and the general public, stakeholders and others.

He described PR as an attempt to “engineer” public support, a term which is widely rejected by current PR practitioners and scholars as it seems to imply intent to manipulate and to deceive. They contend that the bedrock of PR should be ethical communications. Bernays may have used the term “engineer” in a different context, however, applying a more scientific approach to the practice.

His favored method – the two-way asymmetric model – was not concerned with mere press agentry but focused on achieving behavioral change on a more fundamental level. The intention of this model was to improve messaging to bolster sales or foster behavioral change in the relevant publics – the persuasive element is located in the feedback received, which is used to persuade people to support an organization or buy a product (this is the theory behind testimonials and third-party endorsements).

Bernays’ method is known as the two-way communication model because, in theory, companies and individuals who use this method listen to their publics and change according to their needs, desires and criticisms. Thus, communicating solely through the press would have seemed to be little more than subtle marketing or advertising to Bernays. There is, however, far more to modern PR than simple press agentry. It is a complicated industry that has proven to be almost undefinable and any dope, nitwit or idiot can call themselves a PR professional.

There is no law against it – unlike in the case of a doctor or lawyer – and no specific qualifications to guide employers in deciding who is and isn’t a professional communicator. This allows for more flexible working conditions and arguably fosters a “survival of the fittest” environment – just because you can call yourself a PR professional, doesn’t mean that you can actually do the job.

Rigid thinkers such as Bernays reject this mode of practice precisely because it doesn’t allow for certification – but these confining standards are precisely what makes PR horrible today. It is not that it is populated by a vast variety of people, performing a vast variety of jobs under an umbrella term, it is that it is inherently disingenuous and homogenizing as a practice.

Forcing individuals to conform to a set of standards that define them as “professional” has taught us that, for example, those who wear suits are reliable and those who don’t are not, regardless of their actual skill level and track record in the workplace. Furthermore, it is horrible because PR of any kind does in fact do what Bernays wanted it to do. It seeks to persuade public opinion to conform to a specific, powerful actor’s agenda; to manipulate facts, either through selection or fabrication; and to persuade others to pursue agendas that either do not interest them or will do them harm.

It seeks to elevate the voices of clients above those of others and, most problematically, it deliberately chooses to do all of this in secret. But the world of work is changing, to the point at which we need to be asking whether any of the above debate is relevant anymore. Were he alive today, Bernays would be an analogue man in a digital world. As the world around us changes and our society develops, we have to adapt the ways in which we interact with that world and with society.

Bernays was speaking in 1991; this was a time before the internet became commonplace, before Barack Obama and then Donald Trump both changed the way we look at American presidents (in their own, unique ways), before the Brexit vote, before AI became a real possibility. This is the first time in history that our inventions may truly take over the workplace, leaving us to find new ways in which to be productive and to affirm our self-worth. In the 21st century workplace, your ability to adapt and solve problems is more important than existing knowledge or any kind of certification.

Artificial intelligence may render questions about professionalism and qualifications moot in the not-so-distant future. Even now, automation catches up with the development of new technology and new areas of demand so quickly that new jobs may go to robots instead of humans because they work quicker and more accurately.

If scientists can reach a point where AIs can confidently and accurately simulate human speech patterns and behavior, then the work of PR professionals may suffer a similar fate to that of horses and craftsmen. Horses become unemployable due to automation and technological advancement as they were replaced by the automobile – the same thing could potentially happen to humans. In that case, the question is not whether PR is or isn’t horrible.

More pertinent questions are these: Will technology keep on creating jobs? Will a lot of jobs – including those within the communications sector – be automated out of human hands? What things can only be accomplished by humans and will they be enough to mean that everyone of us has a job in the future?

Naomi Smith

Naomi is a freelance writer based in London, UK. She is studying for a Master's degree in Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck College. She can also be found writing about gaming and films at a90skid.com. Her hobbies include media reform, online video, writing short stories and travelling the world.