CO 350: Contemporary Perspectives in Public Relations: Blog Post 7: Public Relations Ethics Contexts: The Past: Edward Bernays

PR! A Social History of Spin: Chapter 1 (pp. 2-18)

  1. What did Bernays think democracy was all about? Did he have a very high opinion of the average person?

Answer: According to Ewen, Bernays thought that democracy was the path for public relations, especially in a democratic society.  Bernays continued with his definition of democracy as “a highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians that are continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect derives its opinion.” In other words, a democracy allows for people to really analyze and react appropriately to change the environment to appeal to self interests. Bernays also talked about how the majority of people respond instinctively to the environment around them, but there are only a “intelligent few” who have the responsibility of changing the path of history.  In other words, people such as Bernays took advantage of a democratic environment and created public opinion that helped to shift history into another direction with his background in psychology and his role as the main person driving public relations as a profession in the early 20th century.  When looking at the average person, Bernays did not think very highly of the average person’s ability to “think out, understand, or act upon the world in which they live.” In other words, all people have the power and intelligence to change the world as we know, but do not utilize this special power. 


  1. What does public relations have to do with “applied social science”?

Answer: According to Ewen and Bernays, public relations is an applied social science because of public relations uses a mix of psychology, social psychology, economics and sociology that is made to be influential and directed at public attitudes.  When Bernays refers to these different areas that make up the social science of public relations, it makes sense to those in the profession.  A public practitioner must see into the ways of the mind of a person, the ways of society, the economy and other factors to plan for a strategy of communication that will work to get an intentional message across to the public.  This “applied social science” is what influences history in a way because information given to the public which creates reaction and a historical product, much like chemistry and science.


  1. What is the “trans-historic concern” that public relations is a response to?

Answer: According to Ewen and Bernays, the “trans-historic concern” that public relations is a response to is “the requirement, for those people in power, to shape the attitudes of the general population.” In other words, Bernays takes a look at the entire profession of public relations as one that has a big part in shaping the history of the world.  Bernays sees public relations practitioners as the ones with the most power because it is their objective to change the minds, or move the minds of the public into one particular direction.  Bernays feels that the evolution of public relations over his life has not lived up to his expectations in challenging what the world brings to the publics; he feels that public relations practitioners should be making greater changes and be more powerful than they actually live up to be.


  1. How does Bernays define “news”?

Answer: According to Ewen and Bernays, “news is any overt act which juts of the routine of circumstance.” In other words, Bernays sees news as unexpected information that is thrown out to the public, no matter what, to inform the public of something that is happening in hopes that it will stop these publics in their tracks and routines of daily life to react to the stimulus of news. News given to the public wants a response in return, and this can be applied today, especially with the use of news and social media.  People respond and react through social media, stopping their routine of life to look at this new information and react.



Chapter 8 (pp. 159-173) (note: to jump to p. 159, type “cornell” in the search bar on the left)

  1. Was Bernays a “social engineer”? Explain (42,45) 165,168

Answer: Bernays was  “social engineer” especially during his early years in developing the profession of public relations.  Even though these tactics that Bernays used are not looked highly upon in the public relations of today’s world, he used several different sciences to dissect society and build a message to try and alter the course of history through a surprising flow of information into society.  Bernays also takes about the role of a public relations practitioner as one who modifies the public’s own standards, habits and demands, but that these modifications should not turn into counters of society.  Therefore, Bernays used a scientific approach to look over the public engineering new ways to guide the publics desire for information.


  1. What did Bernays consider to be “news”? (47) 170-1

Answer: According to Bernays, “news” is a certain stimulus that is inserted into society in the hope of a response to the public.  News is also considered to be a stimulus that is also appealing to the interests of the publics. In Bernays case, the creation of “news” was the main track for public relations, especially when trying to modify the standards of the public.  For example, in the modern profession of public relations, news releases are the basic standard of created “news” that is sent out to the media outlets and publics to be picked up on and then responded to because of certain appeals.




Overall questions

    • how might Bernays’ views result in what could be called ethically questionable practices?

Answer: Bernays’ views might result in ethically questionable practices because ethics tells an ordinary person that society should not be disrupted in its routines and standards, because a disruption might be ethically wrong.  Another reason why his practices might be called ethically questionable is the reasons of going into true sciences to create strategies of communication to use on the public.  To really dig deep in the minds of the public, and possibly get the public to go against what is ethically right is definitely questionable. 


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