Book Review: Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward Bernays

The early history of public relations fascinates me. I find that there have been minimal societal and cultural changes, since 1923 when Edward Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion. The principles on which the book is based, human behavior and the needs of organizations to communicate to the public, have largely remained unchanged. Bernays was cognizant of the rapid development of technology to deliver thought communication in a variety of media and methods, such as the printing press, radio, telegraph, and motion picture, to influence public opinion. I found it refreshing to read a book on the public relations discipline without encountering the usual current day business-speak and references to social media, though the striking relevance of the subject matter to the web, email, corporate intranets, 24-hour television news networks, and satellite broadcasting is clear.

Crystallizing Public Opinion reads as both an educational piece on the public relations field and a promotional piece for Bernays’s services as counsel of public relations. I smiled as I read the successful accounts of anonymous public relations counsels who were always referred to in the third-person. I wonder if he really thought he was pulling one over on the readers when he was rightfully boasting of his many historic accomplishments in the field – I doubt it. Among those mentioned I recognized were his physician-endorsed campaign to make bacon a healthy breakfast food staple and his work to promote acceptance of the controversial play Damaged Goods about venereal disease. He knew exactly what he was doing by describing these achievements.

Bernays took great pride in detailing the profession, comparing it to that of Legal Counsel, the court of public opinion equating the court of law, and ethics and integrity being strong drivers in the values of his business. “Popular misunderstanding of the work of the public relations counsel is easily comprehensible because of the short period of his development. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he has become in recent years too important a figure in American life for this ignorance to be safely or profitably continued.” (64) What better way for him to court the interest and new business of prospective employers than to write this book with this level of this seemingly authentic conviction?

The concept of the public relations professional being the news creator caught my attention; I found this topic particularly useful in my corporate communication profession. In the business environment, news is created to drive an idea to win over employees; it needs to surpass their resistance, apathy, or disdain. “The counsel of public relations not only knows what news value is, but knowing it, he is in the position to make news happen. He is a creator of events.” (189) The strength of this role is enormous when wielded correctly because not only is it about influencing public opinion, but also turning the public – or employees – into advocates of the message. This is a necessity in communicating organizational change, for instance, a task I am now taking on.

The symbiotic relationship that the public has with the content provider, or organization, was of particular interest to me. “‘Give the public what they want’ is only half sound. What they want and what they get are fused by some mysterious alchemy. The press, the lecturer, the screen and the public lead and are led by each other.” (105) Public opinion is created by the information the public receives on a particular subject, however, the provider of the information, such as a corporate communication department, focuses on and distributes news that is determined newsworthy by the internal public as well as the senior leadership to push forward a corporate goal.

From my perspective, following this symbiotic relationship in traditional news publishing in Bernays’s time, a vicious cycle is formed that limits the amount of information made available to the public. Varying points of view and diverse subject matter are left out because of a lack of interest or political bias, even though the content might otherwise be deemed newsworthy. Positive stories in today’s news are a casualty of this constrictive cycle, it’s not nearly as attention grabbing as a horrific crime or salacious celebrity scandal. The Internet, and especially social media, may have disrupted that cycle in recent years, especially in an internal business environment where employees have complete access to the outside world. Therefore, as Bernays states, “the public relations counsel must be alive to the events of the day – not only the events that are printed but the events which are forming hour by hour, as reported in the words that are spoken on the street … or expressed in any of the other forms of thought communication that make up public opinion.” (82)

Bernays’s explanations on group psychology shed light on the various nuances that must be considered in communicating organizational change. When employees are faced with change, typically half of the population is averse to the idea, according to a recent human resources led training session on change management at my job. “Intolerance is almost inevitably accompanied by a natural and true inability to comprehend or make allowance for opposite points of view.” (90)

Being the corporate communicator (aka the internal public relations person), I have a massive undertaking to manage. To take on this endeavor, Bernays recommends, “fundamental study of group and individual psychology is required before the public relations counsel can determine how readily individuals or groups will accept modifications of viewpoints or policies.” (112) Basically, I need to survey, listen, observe, anticipate reactions, and proceed with care.

As I had recently noted in my review of Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda, he was far ahead of his time, offering insight and wisdom on a complex discipline that will likely never cease to exist. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, increasing the efficiency, speed, and quantity of communicated information, humans are still human, perceiving and comprehending no differently now than a century ago or a century from now.

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