The history of Public Relations cannot be complete without a mention of Edward Bernays, described by most Public Relations scholars as the father of Public Relations; and, at other times, as the father of scientific persuasions. He was a visionary, a creative genius, a scholar of the first waters, a pioneer in the field who taught the first ever course in Public Relations in the New York University as far back as 1922. Edward Bernay’s influence in the Public Relations firmament is larger than life. And the lessons PR professionals can learn from him today are legion.

Credited as being the person who coined the term Public Relations to describe his work, and the first to apply social science to Public Relations and moved it from Press agentry to a full professional practice, Edward Bernays believed that a PR practitioner should be an applied social scientist who advises clients or employers on the social attitudes or actions to take in order to win the support of the publics upon whom the survival of the clients depend.

Edward Bernays was far ahead of his time. He used ideas now canvassed by Behavioural Economics, a new social science that draws inspirations from Psychology, Sociology, Neuroscience and Economics to understand human behaviour and how human beings take decisions. He explained in his books Crystallizing Public Opinions and Propaganda that the masses were irrational and prone to the herd instinct. He described how to use social psychology and psychoanalysis to understand and move them to behave in a desired manner.

He knew back then that humans model themselves around those they consider successful, popular, famous and beautiful or handsome. And he developed his Public Relations campaigns around this idea and other Behavioural Economies principles such as social norm or social acceptance.

His Early Life

Edward Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria on November 22, 1891 to Eli Bernays and Anna Freud Bernays. His parents emigrated to the United States of America when he was a year old. He grew up in New York and graduated from Cornell University. During World War I, he served the US Committee on Public Communication where he developed his abilities in what was then known as propaganda. The agency was responsible for selling World War I to the American Public.

Not much was known about Bernays during his Public service career. However, he became a household name when he went into private practice drumming up attention and buyers for companies from producers of tobacco to food products. He was a courageous professional who would not bath an eyelid in using novel, and sometimes controversial, ideas when designing and implementing his PR campaigns.

Young Bernays’ career and thoughts were greatly influenced by his maternal uncle, Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist and father of psychoanalysis. His knowledge and application of Social Psychology to Public Relations can be traced to this relationship. He died in 1995 at a ripe age of 103 years.

Edward Bernays Intellectual Works

Edward Bernays was not one who would let his ideas and inspirations go to waste. He is reputed to have kept every piece of paper he generated in the course of his intellectual life. So, it is not surprising that he handed over 1,000 boxes of them to the US Library of congress. But his notable books include:

  • Crystallizing Public opinion (published in 1923).
  • Propaganda (published in 1928)
  • Speak up for democracy (published in 1940)    
  • Public Relations: A growing Profession (Published in 1945)
  • Engineering of Consent (published in 1955) and
  • Biography of an idea: Memoirs of a Public Relations Counsel, Edward L. Bernays (published in 1965).

PR Campaigns With A Difference

Edward Bernays PR campaigns were heavy in research, psychology and showmanship. Little wonder they were so effective in changing opinions and behaviors. Let’s look at two of them.

  • Torches of Freedom Campaign

In the 1920s, women in America were not allowed to smoke in Public, but men could smoke anywhere. Doing so meant a jail term for women.

George Washington Hill, the President of American Tobacco Company at the time, thought it would be good business for his company to break the taboo.  So, he hired Edward Bernays to help achieve just that.

After confirming from a psychoanalyst,  Dr. A.A. Brill that it was right for women to smoke, Edward Bernays embarked on one of his most controversial PR campaigns.

Because cigarettes were seen as a symbol of emancipation and equality with men, he enlisted Ruth Hale, a feminist, for the campaign and recruited 10 women to smoke and march on Fifth Avenue in New York on an Easter Sunday in 1929.

This attracted tremendous media attention and coverage, sparked public debates and discussions on the issue. And in the end, it broke the taboo against women smoking in public.

2.       Ivory Soap Campaign

Edward Bernays handled different communication projects for Procter & Gamble. But the most notable one was in 1923 when the company hired him to promote Ivory Soap.

First, he surveyed the consumers and found that most of them preferred a soap that was plain, white and not perfumed. Ivory Soap was the only one in that category in the market at the time. He published the finding in Newspapers and generated a lot of publicity and goodwill for the soap.

To win more media coverage for the soap, he organized a Soap Sculpture Competition for children and inspired millions of children who hitherto had been “enemies of soap” to find creative and artistic expression in carving Ivory Soap. By so doing, they became conditioned to using Ivory Soap. His campaign made Ivory soap the leading brand in America.

Lessons for PR professionals

There are loads of lessons a PR professional can draw from Edward Bernays’ life and works. Here are four of them:

Lesson One: PR succeeds when it is based on research.

Edward Bernays based his PR campaigns on research. He began the Torches of Freedom campaign with research to confirm whether it was normal, or not, for women to smoke. And before the Ivory Soap campaign, he sought to know from consumers what type of soap they liked.

Formative research, research at the outset of a Public Relations initiative, allows you to understand your publics, tailor a PR programme for the publics and develop messages that meet their needs.

Lesson Two: Influencers Matter.

Whether you call them influencers or opinion leaders doesn’t matter, those crops of people who are admired, popular and respected in any society have the uncanny power of making the masses do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. Bernays tapped into that power in most of his PR campaigns as clearly seen in the Torches of Freedom Campaign when he enlisted the services of a known feminist. Influencers can help you build trust and accelerate brand awareness.

Lesson Three: Multi-disciplinary scholarship deepens you and your work

What deepened Edward Bernays PR works was not just his understanding of how the media works. Rather, it was his stretch into Psychology and other disciplines. Today, an understanding of Information and Communication Technology, Behavioural Economics, Business and Public Administration, and a host of other disciplines, is what it takes to do well in PR.

Lesson 4: Leave a legacy

Edward Bernays left his legacy in books and articles. Most of what we know about him is what he told us through his works. His thoughts, mindset and intelligence are laid bare in them for the world to judge. PR professionals who are not doing same are depriving the future generations of their experiences and wisdom. PR is where it is today because Edward Bernays told us what he did in his lifetime through his intellectual works. This should inspire you to do the same. As Ralph Waldo Emerson rightly observed, “The artist always has the masters in his eyes”. Let Edward Bernays guide you to a successful and fulfilling career in Public Relations. He was a master in the field, and he should be in your eyes always.