Every summer, as I try to recharge my batteries, I think about where our business is going and what we as a firm have to do to adjust. I always do a lot of reading, and this summer I tackled Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, and Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. You can see that I’m focused on what affects voter and consumer behaviour and how our campaign service and data services can be used to buttress our PR and GR work.

As interesting as these books were, it was an old article by the “father of PR”, Edward Bernays, titled “The Engineering of Consent” that intrigued me the most. Bernays honed his skills during World War I on the Committee of Public Information, which was part of the U.S. War Office. There, he learned to turn ordinary acts of heroism into news stories that helped mobilize support for America’s war effort. After the war, he brought these skills to the private sector where he specialized in what he called “engineering socially constructive actions.” He used the media as an “amplifying system” to promote business interests in a socially acceptable way for the times.

Some of his most celebrated and controversial work was with the tobacco industry. He held an event in New York City that featured hundreds of women lighting up what he called “torches of freedom” to underscore women’s efforts for gender equality. Tobacco sales quickly rose among women, who previously felt that smoking in public was un-lady-like.

What struck me about this article was how little the principles of PR have really changed. Yes, there are many more sources of information these days, but the fundamental idea that any product, service, or reputation ultimately depends on public approval is as relevant today as it was in 1947 when Bernays published this article. The engineering of consent was, according to him, “the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and to suggest.”

I was also struck by the importance that Bernays attached to quality research and a thorough understanding of the various “constituent groups” that comprise public opinion. He divided the public by profession, religion, gender, geography, politics, ethnicity—all of the demographic variables that we consider today in microtargeting. Perhaps his ability to interact with these groups was not as direct or as comprehensive as an internet panel, but he understood that for strategy to be successful, it had to be based on “painstaking research”, not spin. Knowing how various groups would respond was critical in building his strategies.

Strategic planning was, at the end of the day, about creating news—a good story and narrative that research demonstrated was credible. According to Bernays, the engineer of consent had to create an event that deliberately generated news to influence ideas and actions. In his day, these tactics were largely focused on print media. Think of how he would have marvelled today at the use of social media to promote corporate interests!

One of the things that impressed me about the article was that Bernays certainly understood that PR skills could be a potential source for social good or evil. He was strongly of the view that PR counsellors have a professional responsibility to “push only those ideas he can respect and not to promote causes or accept assignments for clients that he considers anti-social.” It’s interesting to note that later in life, Bernays joined the anti-smoking movement after the health implications of cigarettes became better known.

Coming out of the experience of a world war, Bernays was very much of the view that it was up to the nation’s political and educated elite to lead public opinion. In his time, the average education of a North American citizen was six years long. Today, it’s closer to fourteen. We are finding that the public is far more skeptical of what they hear from institutions and the media, and sift through information using their own ethical and educational filters. That’s probably why the “engineering” of consent now seems like a dated concept. It’s not clear that the elite continue to wield the same influence over public opinion these days. One of my colleagues, Joe Peters, has suggested that a more appropriate description of what PR must try to do today is “socialize” consent. That is, engage the public on the merits of a company’s products, services, or ideas in an attempt to educate and, if appropriate, co-create solutions to the issues that a society is facing.

PR practitioners today have a host of new tools that they can use to socialize consent, but understanding the historical context of our profession helps us better grasp the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of our industry. Much of what Bernays had to say more than sixty years ago still has relevance today when designing a PR strategy and campaign.