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The Principle of Social Proof

Edward Bernays (1955) initially posited that persuasion was integral to public relations. Bernays defined the function of public relations in terms of using “information, persuasion, and adjustment to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement, or institution” (1955, pp. 3-4). More recently, James Grunig proposed an alternative vision of the nature of public relations. Grunig maintains that Bernays’ perspective is based on “manipulating publics for the benefit of organizations” (1989b, p. 18), which results in ineffective and/or unethical practices. Grunig led the way for the many public relations scholars, and a more limited number of public relations practitioners, who sought to distance themselves from persuasion. He maintains that a two-way symmetrical approach to public relations, which is grounded more in shared interests and dialogue involving communicator and receiver, is superior to the Bernays persuasion-based model, which Grunig characterized as a “two-way asymmetrical approach.” This chapter argues that, although both “asymmetrical” and “symmetrical” approaches are needed, depending on the circumstances, persuasion continues to be an essential function of contemporary public relations, especially in campaigns designed to establish, change, and/or reinforce an organization’s image and in the role that public relations plays in an organization’s commercial or social marketing efforts. In addition, the chapter maintains that the controversy over whether public relations should operate from an asymmetrical or symmetrical model is misguided; that public relations is best viewed as a form of strategic communication, in which persuasion plays an integral role; and that the controversy over optimal approach has stunted public relations scholarship. Finally, the chapter explores potential applications of select theories of persuasion in public relations, as exemplars of how future scholarship might inform both persuasion theory and public relations practices