Today's emphasis on professional accountability and achieving measurable results makes the question of public relations' status as an art or a science more important than ever. It's not about status or prestige; it's about fundamental operating principles and expectations.
Is the practice of public relations art or science?
Edward Bernays, one of the first and most prolific writers about 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 his landmark book The Engineering of Consent and many other publications.
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 seeing public relations as an art or as a science are two key questions:
- Has public relations as a discipline developed standardized and widely-accepted practices and procedures?
- Do these practices and procedures reliably produce consistent results each time they’re used, and can the outcome of public relations activity be predicted with a reasonable degree of statistical accuracy?
When Bernays began writing in the 1920s public relations was just starting to be recognized as a specialized area within communication and emerging as a distinct career field. So, he could not actually claim that this new field already had standardized and widely-accepted practices and procedures, but he could describe what he thought might be possible and how he thought the profession ought to operate.
In this light, he optimistically – some critics say rashly – called public relations "the engineering of consent,” a term he subsequently used as the title of a book and several other publications. That term alone was either a big leap of faith or a manifestation of Bernays' ego.
Bernays based this view of public relations on a dictionary definition that said engineering is the "art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc." Then, shifting his focus from the natural sciences to the social sciences, he moved into unexplored and questionable territory by making a parallel assertion that public relations is the practical application of the knowledge of the social sciences and, since the ultimate goal of public relations is to gain the consent or cooperation of the public, public relations can, by logical extension, be called the engineering of consent.
He went on to claim that public relations activities are "planned and executed by trained practitioners in accordance with scientific principles, based on the findings of social scientists. Their dispassionate approach and methods may be likened to those of the engineering professions which stem from the physical sciences."
Throughout his 70-year career, in all his writings and his public speeches, Bernays constantly sought to make public relations more precise, more scientific, and more predictable. He told practitioners these characteristics were goals to which they should aspire, but he simultaneously tried to convince the general public and his clients that they were, in fact, already hallmarks of his profession.
Not everyone bought it. Even the practitioners were skeptical.
In a 1984 article in Public Relations Quarterly, Marvin Olasky somewhat sarcastically quoted some of Bernays own writings, expecting the obvious exaggerations to speak for themselves and cause readers to question Bernays’ assertions. Olaksy 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.”
The first problem with this claim was that most public relations practitioners simply didn’t believe public relations was that mechanistic or that it could operate with such certainty and predictability. As much as they might have wanted to guarantee favorable results to their clients, when they were honest with themselves, most practitioners knew they really couldn't do it. There is too much uncertainty in all public relations efforts.
Perhaps even more troubling were the perceptions such assertions could trigger. In an era when propaganda with its underlying notion of manipulating public opinion had become highly suspect in American eyes, this was a claim few public relations practitioners wanted to be associated with. Even if they had believed it, they wouldn't have dared to publicly make or support such a statement.
Most practitioners remained much more modest about their ability to predict the outcome of public relations activities. For instance, 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 would also have agreed. He clearly sees public relations as an art. As he explained in his first book, Guerrilla P.R.: "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, although I respect Bernays contributions to the profession, 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 different outcomes after using identical techniques, I have to agree with Levine and Nolte that practicing public relations is not like doing science.
- This is not to say that public relations cannot and does not use some scientific and statistical techniques, or that its outcomes are totally unpredictable.
- Public relations is becoming more knowledge-based, more measurable, and more accountable all the time, but it will always have to deal with the unpredictability and contrariness of human nature that will forever keep it from being totally predictable.
Because it deals with people and the interactions and relationships they have with one another, public relations will never be an exact science. Its practice will forever remain an art, a craft, or a skill. It will continue to have rules and guidelines, tried and true techniques, and standards of excellence, but they will never be fully codified. Nor will human intuition and feelings ever be totally eliminated from its practice. But, the more sophisticated, more experienced, and more human its practitioners become, the more artistic, elegant, and effective its practice will be
What do you, as a public relations practitioner, strive to be: an artist or a scientist?