PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Is the practice of public relations an art or science?
© 2009 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations main page About the author

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 as a matter of status or prestige; it's important because it affects the fundamental operating principles we use and the outcomes we can realistically expect.

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:

The earliest public relations books sought to establish PR as a scientific discipline.

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. This 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."

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 agreed; even successful 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.

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 side with Nolte. 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 from using identical techniques, I also have to side with Levine and Nolte; practicing public relations is not like doing science.

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?

On-line Readings
Table of contents
Underlying concepts of public relations Acronyms for the public relations process Public relations' changing name Practicing Public Relations
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