Edward L Bernays


Quick Reference


The founding father of public relations. Lacking his uncle's renown outside the world of business history, this nephew of Sigmund Freud was among the most influential people in the 20th century. Well versed in the then-new science of psychiatry and mass psychology, Bernays, from the 1920s onwards, helped to consolidate a fateful marriage between theories of mass psychology (that had previously been used by government propaganda agencies) and schemes of corporate and political persuasion and the creation of popular consent for causes, products, and ideas. While there had been major press agencies before Bernays, he was the first to adapt the theories of psychology to the formation of mass public opinion. He defined public relations as ‘a vocation applied by a social scientist who advises a client or employer on the social attitudes and actions to take to win the support of the public upon whom the viability of the client or employer depends’. He viewed the public relations professional as one of the intellectual elite shaping the opinions and consent of a democratic society. He founded his own public relations firm in New York in 1919 and he gave the first-ever lectures in public relations in New York University in the 1920s and published the seminal Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923 as well as Propaganda (1928) and The Engineering of Consent (1947). Bernays, in his career, advised US Presidents Coolidge, Wilson, Hoover, and Eisenhower, legendary individuals such as Edison, Henry Ford, Eleanor Roosevelt, Freud, Caruso, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky, as well as large corporations such as General Motors, Procter & Gamble, RH Macy & Company, Cartier, MGM, and heads of government outside the US. His legendary public relations campaigns included creating favourable public opinion to America's entry into World War I, a campaign to get children to like soap, the election of Herbert Hoover, the building of Route 66 across America, the joys of having bacon for breakfast, convincing women to like Lucky Strike cigarettes in the 1930s, then in a famous volte-face, creating anti-smoking campaigns when the link between smoking and cancer was made in the 1960s.

Bernays, who died aged 103 in 1995, became extremely concerned at the ‘monster’ that he had helped to create. ‘Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner. Some people just use public relations as a euphemism for press agentry,’ he declared. ‘A firm sends articles or press releases to newspapers to win favour for a client and it usually ends up in the trash. It's not only not good PR; it intensifies the antagonism toward the product. I'm pleased to be known as the father of public relations when the field is taken seriously, like law or architecture.’ See also public relations.

Subjects: Marketing.

Reference entries