Doctrine for the Public Relations Professional Remains Unchanged

220px-Edward_BernaysIf you work in marketing, you must have heard of Edward Bernays. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays is known as the leading figure behind the public relations industry and for the use of “propaganda” for demand generation. Focusing on this work in the 1920s, he used the power of psychoanalysis and symbolism to unlock the desires of the masses.

While the world of marketing and PR has drastically changed from the reality in the 1920s, there are some gems in Bernays’s philosophy that deserve to be revisited. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays discusses the origins of the public relations profession along with its responsibilities and rights.
This blog post highlights some of the key characteristics of the PR professional, according to Bernays:

The public relations expert may be known as public relations director or counsel. Often he is called secretary or vice-president or director. Sometimes he is known as cabinet officer or commissioner. By whatever title he may be called, his function is well defined and his advice has definite bearing on the conduct of the group or individual with whom he is working.

    1. “The counsel on public relations must maintain constant vigilance.”
    2. “The counsel on public relations must be in a position to deal effectively with rumors and suspicions.”
    3. “He does not accept a client whose interests conflict with those of another client.”
    4. “He does not accept a client whose case he believes to be hopeless or whose product he believes to be unmarketable.”
    5. “He should be candid in his dealings.”
    6. “He functions primarily as an adviser to his client, very much as a lawyer does.”
    7. “The counsel on public relations is not an advertising man but he advocates advertising where that is indicated.”
    8. “His first efforts are, naturally, devoted to analyzing his client’s problems. His next effort is to analyze his public.”
    9. “He is not dissociated from the client in the public’s mind.”
    10. “His function may include the discovery of new markets, the existence of which had been unsuspected.”

Do you agree or disagree with Bernays’s philosophy on PR? What are some things that you think have drastically changed since the 1920s and some things that have stayed relevant?


This is a blog post by Magdalena Geogreva, an inbound marketing manager at HubSpot, all-in-one marketing software company that helps you get found and convert leads into sales.


DISCLOSURE: SHIFT launched HubSpot back in the day, and still provides occasional counsel to its executives.

Posted on: September 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm By Todd Defren
15 Responses to “Doctrine for the Public Relations Professional Remains Unchanged”


  • Alex McClure says:

    I believe for the most part, the principles laid out here by Bernays are still relavent today. These feel like basic guidelines for how a PR professional should act, almost like ethics or best practices. Bernays touches on the importance of PR with number nine, “He is not dissociated from the client in the public’s mind.” PR is an integral part of a company, regardless of whether it is in house or through an agency. The one part of the list I think has changed the most is number six, “He functions primarily as an adviser to his client, very much as a lawyer does.” I believe today, PR professionals role has become more significant. While they do still advise, I think they have some amount of decision making authority.

  • Jeffrey Pearson says:

    I agree with the arguments presented regarding Bernay’s philosophy. His views are as applicable now as they were in 1928. Names, scenarios, and technology are among a very long list of things that change the context of PR. Although the context changes, the formula for success is constant. Really, I find it interesting how similar his philosophy is to the modern idea of necessary action for PR. One thing that has greatly changed is the way that news is spread and PR is communicated. The rise of social media, the internet, and television has greatly altered the PR environment. If someone is able to effectively apply Bernay’s principles in the context of the modern world then it will result in effective PR.

  • It’s a case of “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” I had flashbacks to PR 101 reading this though – ugh!

  • Thomas says:

    Generally, I would agree with Bernay’s philosophy on PR. The first two items on the list are very important to any PR practitioner. Everyone in the PR field must be vigilant at all times to ensure they are representing their client as best as possible and they must control rumors. In today’s world, rumors can be spread faster than in the 1920s thanks to the internet and social media, so this guideline is even more important.
    There are some things that have changed since these were written, however. First of all, the guidelines refer to the PR practitioner as “he”. In America today, I am pretty sure women outnumber the men in the PR field by a healthy margin.

  • Jen says:

    I have just started learning about PR and it’s refreshing to read about philosophies from almost 100 years ago that are still completely relevant today. Having studied a lot of outdated and incomplete theories (both important in its own right) – it’s something to behold seeing a theory transcend that realm and become practical application. Sadly, that does not happen very often.

    I believe it was his amalgamation of ideas/theories from various disciplines that allow his ideas to pass the test of time. The way you do business evolves as markets and technology do, but the premise of the PR professional remains constant. Completely agree with Nesima – Berneys’s definition leaves no room for ambiguity.

    It is very unfortunate that to this day many associate negative connotations to the profession because of campaigns run almost 100 years ago. Creating the shift in perception is made more difficult by the ‘background’ functions of the profession, along with the difficulty in (I believe) defining it.

    Thank you for sharing this article, it has opened my eyes a bit more to the profession.

  • Christina says:

    I do agree with Bernays’ philosophy. It is interesting to find that many things have changed about company relations and tactics since the 1920s, yet the philosophy of public relations has not truly differed. Many of Bernays’ statements are similar to the PRSA Code of Ethics. It makes me wonder if PRSA referred to the original doctrine while developing its Code. It is an example of the impact Bernays made to the public relations world and that almost a century later, we still follow these words.

    Christina Steward
    Platform Magazine (

  • Sally says:

    I agree with his points. The duties of PR did not change so much in the past several decades.

    The basic function of PR is still like the bridge between companies and consumers, while some more effective tools were adopted by PR people. With the development of advanced technologies, PR people have more tools to get their job done. Internet is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helps PR people keep vigilant, or even discover new market demand. On the other hand, the risk of rumor speading put the companies’ reputation in jepody.

    So, while making full use of the social networking to do PR, PR people may have to increase their vigilance about the virtual world with regards to the target audience.

  • It is funny how the 1920 seems so long ago – and we have come far – but some basic principles have remained the same.

    In the 21st century, I don’t know if the role is “well-defined” as Bernays states. PR professionals have to be ready to adapt, and this sometimes mean the nature of their duties changing.

    He does hit on that with #10:
    “His function may include the discovery of new markets, the existence of which had been unsuspected.”

    His thoughts are refreshing and do seem to still be paramount, even 84 years later.

    Thank you for bringing Bernays words to the forefront of my mind :)

  • Francesco says:

    Brava Magdalena ;) Thank you for sharing.
    Yep, agree with Bernay’s philosophy and, as Nesima said, the rapid explosion/spread of hundreds of new avenues of thought and communication is (probably) the most dramatic change with ref. to communication between humans (over the last years).
    Furthermore, during the “mass media supremacy” there is another aspect to be taken into consideration. Around WW1 the term propaganda got its negative association with the spread of lies and false rumors; whereas, later, public relations started to be somewhat considered as a byword for media relations, or even covert operations (e.g. crisis covert management).
    Totally different meanings if compared to Bernay’s thinking: “modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” (Propaganda) and, to (add a) quote (by) Bernays on PR: “Perhaps the chief contribution of the public relations counsel to the public and to his client is his ability to understand and analyze obscure tendencies of the public mind. It is true that he first analyzes his client’s problems –he then analyzes the public mind; he utilizes the mediums of communication between the two, but before he does this he must use his personal experience and knowledge to bring two factors into alignment. It is his capacity for crystallizing the obscure tendencies of the public mind before they have reached definite expression, which makes him so valuable.” (Crystallizing Public Opinion, 1923, p. 171).
    All the best,

  • Tim Penning says:

    Some of my research has been on media portrayals of PR in the 1920s. It’s fascinating how much has NOT changed, and in particular the notion of Bernays, as well as Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and others of the era, the PR is about counseling management on relationships with publics and not mere publicity.

    Unfortunate that he wrote a book named “Propaganda,” a term that gained negative connotations in WWII and forever tainted the PR profession, however unfairly.

  • Nesima says:

    I agree with Bernays’s philosophy because it’s quite comprehensive yet flexible and defines PR in a reasonable, transparent way.

    I think the only thing that has drastically changed is the explosion of multiple channels of communication that PR professionals have to moderate and manage in order to keep the two-way communication regular (which advice #10 touches upon.) Also there is a shift from public relations to more of public engagement, because the propaganda of the old days is no longer acceptable or relevant for good business.

  • Steve says:

    Love it!

    There’s only one thing in my mind that’s changed:

    “His first efforts are, naturally, devoted to analyzing his client’s problems. His next effort is to analyze his public.”

    I would change that ….

    “His first efforts are devoted to understanding both his public’s and his client’s problems. His next effort is to match them both to his clients’ needs.”

    Now he sounds like a 21st century PR :)

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