What Ed Bernays can Teach us About Modern PR

Ed Bernays. The name is synonymous with the birth of public relations. His work moved the profession from press agentry to a practice supported by science (science that came from the pioneering psychology research done by none other than Sigmund Freud, Bernays’ uncle). Digital communications and social media have changed the landscape of PR, and we wondered what Bernays would think about this new world. To get some insights, we spoke with Larry Tye, author of The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, to get his thoughts.

What drew you to write about Bernays?

I was a journalist for 20 years for various newspapers, and, like many journalists, was dependent on and frustrated by PR professionals. I wanted to explore the profession, and couldn't imagine a better way to do this than to look at the father of PR, a man who thankfully left every piece of paper he generated -- 1,000 boxes of them -- to the Library of Congress.

What did you learn?

I learned what I suspected all along. When done right, PR has the potential to save the world by educating and enlightening the public. In the wrong hands, however, it can be a force of misinformation and misdirection.

Did Bernays’ career reflect this dichotomy?

Yes, he represented the very best and very worst of what PR can do. Consider his work for American Tobacco Company in the early 1900s, when roughly half of the U.S. population -- the male half -- were smokers. He helped convince women that cigarettes were a way to smash gender stereotypes, in this case the taboo that it was “unladylike” to smoke. He did this by staging a march of debutantes down 5th Avenue on Easter Sunday, lighting up what Bernays dubbed their “torches of freedom.” The ladies had no idea that Bernays and American Tobacco were behind the march, which received coverage in newspapers across the country and helped hook a generation of women on deadly cigarettes.

Bernays later said he wouldn’t have advocated smoking if he knew about the dangers, but the papers he left behind show he had known -- and his daughters confirm that, at home, he told them to flush their mother's cigarettes down the toilet.

But if that was an example of PR at its worst, half a century later Bernays showed us how comparable methods could be deployed on the side of the angels. His work for the American Lung Association helped convince American women (and men) that smoking was a deadly habit.

Other beneficiaries of his brilliant blend of PR as art and science included Procter and Gamble (his national soap-sculpting competition helped make Ivory the all-American soap), America's book publishers (he convinced builders to build in bookshelves in every home), and the Multiple Sclerosis Society (he shorted that hard-to-say disease to the easy-to-remember MS).

What would Bernays think about the new tools digital media give PR pros?

He would have loved them. He understood the potential of new technology -- and the nostalgia associated with old. He was an early adopter of everything from teletypes to faxes during his 103-year lifetime. He also was brilliant enough to know when not to rely on technology, sending telegrams when he knew that outmoded mode would stand out. Today, he'd likely pen a hand-written note to ensure it would stand out in an era of overflowing emails and texts.

And, what would he think about our current era of “fake news?”

He would have been dismayed by the way an inept White House is transforming what should be one-day stories into ones that last three or longer.

What can today’s PR pro learn from Bernays?

Done right, Eddie believed, PR starts with the science of psychology -- of understanding why people behave the way they do, as first clarified by Bernays' uncle, Sigmund Freud. Once that's known, he believed in using artistry -- think "Torches of Freedom" march -- to remake those behaviors into ones that benefit your clients. That simple creative approach -- making public relations fun as well as sophisticated -- resonates today at least as much as it did in Bernays' era.