The PR BlogPublic RelationsThe PR ProfessionEdward Bernays—The Father of PR

Edward Bernays — The Father of PR

A celebrated and criticised propagandist.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Edward Bernays is con­sidered “the fath­er of PR.”

Bernays is cred­ited with pion­eer­ing many tech­niques in the field of pub­lic rela­tions. He was among the first to use psy­cho­logy and oth­er social sci­ences to design and imple­ment pub­lic rela­tions campaigns.

But Bernays was both cel­eb­rated and criticised.

Here we go:

Edward Bernays: The Father of PR

Edward Bernays and Doris E. Fleischman.
Edward Bernays and Doris E. Fleischman. (Credit: Wikipedia.)
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The Father of PR: Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) is con­sidered the fath­er of pub­lic rela­tions (PR). His uncle was the fam­ous psy­cho­lo­gist Sigmund Freud, and Bernays, too, was inter­ested in beha­vi­our­al psy­cho­logy. 1Edward Bernays. (2023, November 13). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​E​d​w​a​r​d​_​B​e​r​n​ays 2Olasky, M. (1984). Retrospective: Bernays’ doc­trine of pub­lic opin­ion. Public Relations Review, 10, 3 – 12. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​S​0​3​6​3​-​8​1​1​1​(​8​4​)​8​0​088 – 0

Edward Bernays’ wife, Doris Fleischmann, was also a PR con­sult­ant who sig­ni­fic­antly con­trib­uted to the PR industry.

Bernays cer­tainly was some­thing of a char­ac­ter: His most fam­ous book is titled “Propaganda” — in which he out­lined how to man­age the per­cep­tions of crowds, much like mod­ern Niccolo Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. 3Propaganda. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​P​r​o​p​a​g​a​n​d​a​_​(​b​ook)

The con­scious and intel­li­gent manip­u­la­tion of the organ­ised habits and opin­ions of the masses is an import­ant ele­ment in demo­crat­ic soci­ety. Those who manip­u­late this unseen mech­an­ism of soci­ety con­sti­tute an invis­ible gov­ern­ment which is the true rul­ing power of our coun­try.”
Source: Propaganda 4Bernays, E. L. (1928). Propaganda. New York, NY: Horace Liveright.

PR Case Study: Torches of Freedom

When help­ing Lucky Strike, Bernays real­ised that cigar­ette smoking was mostly a male habit. From a busi­ness per­spect­ive, there was a golden oppor­tun­ity to add half the pop­u­la­tion to Lucky Strike’s list of poten­tial customers. 

No one had done this suc­cess­fully, not because no one ever had that idea, but because it was a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays suc­ceeded by tap­ping into anoth­er pre­vail­ing trend in soci­ety: The eman­cip­a­tion of women. 

Bernays posi­tioned cigar­ettes for women as “Torches of Freedom.” He placed the idea in art­icles, news­pa­pers, celebrity endorse­ments, and events. He planted the pub­lic per­cep­tion of women smoking not because it was enjoy­able but as a sym­bol of female independence.

PR Case Study: Eggs and Bacon

Have you ever had eggs and bacon for break­fast at a hotel? Well, you can thank Bernays for that idea.

Another PR legend is how Bernays helped the farm­ing industry con­vince people to eat more eggs and bacon. To make this hap­pen, he wanted to change people’s per­cep­tion of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon. 

Bernays cooper­ated with food sci­ent­ists to estab­lish that eggs and bacon should be part of a healthy break­fast for every American. And to mani­fest this, he col­lab­or­ated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for break­fast. 5Later in life, Bernays became a veget­ari­an and advoc­ated for a meat­less diet, which was unusu­al at the time, espe­cially giv­en his work pro­mot­ing products like bacon.

Learn more: Edward Bernays — The Father of PR

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Edward Bernays, Psychological Theories, and Mass Persuasion

Edward Bernays, often called the “fath­er of pub­lic rela­tions,” was highly influ­en­tial in devel­op­ing mod­ern pub­lic rela­tions and pro­pa­ganda tech­niques. Born in 1891 in Vienna, Austria, Bernays was a neph­ew of Sigmund Freud, the fam­ous psy­cho­ana­lyst. His con­nec­tion to Freud sig­ni­fic­antly influ­enced his work in pub­lic rela­tions, as he applied psy­cho­lo­gic­al the­or­ies to the field. 6Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s neph­ew. His moth­er was Freud’s sis­ter, and his fath­er was the broth­er of Freud’s wife. This famili­al con­nec­tion cer­tainly means that Bernays was aware of Freud’s … Continue read­ing

Edward Bernays’ wife, Doris Fleischmann, was also a PR con­sult­ant who sig­ni­fic­antly con­trib­uted to the PR industry. 7Doris Fleischman is not con­nec­ted to the pub­lic rela­tions agency FleishmanHillard. FleishmanHillard is a glob­al PR agency foun­ded in 1946 by Alfred Fleishman and Robert Hillard in St. Louis, … Continue read­ing

Doris Fleischman’s work as a pub­lic rela­tions con­sult­ant has received scant recog­ni­tion, des­pite her sig­ni­fic­ant con­tri­bu­tions to the field and her equal part­ner­ship with her hus­band, Edward L. Bernays.”
Source: Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 8Henry, S. (1997). Anonymous In Her Own Name: Public Relations Pioneer Doris E. Fleischman. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 23, 50 – 62. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​0​9​4​7​6​7​9​.​1​9​9​7​.​1​2​0​6​2​467

Bernays began his career in the U.S. by pro­mot­ing World War I bonds and then worked in the Woodrow Wilson admin­is­tra­tion on the Committee on Public Information, a sig­ni­fic­ant exper­i­ence that shaped his under­stand­ing of mass per­sua­sion. 9During World War I, Bernays worked for the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI), effect­ively serving as a pro­pa­gand­ist. He applied tech­niques he later termed “engin­eer­ing con­sent” to … Continue read­ing

Bernays authored sev­er­al influ­en­tial books, includ­ing “Crystallizing Public Opinion” (1923) and “Propaganda” (1928), in which he laid out his the­or­ies about pub­lic rela­tions and the role of what he called the “engin­eer­ing of con­sent” in a demo­crat­ic soci­ety. 10Bernays, E. L. (1928). Propaganda. New York, NY: Horace Liveright. 11Bernays, E. L. (1923). Crystallizing pub­lic opin­ion. New York, NY: Boni and Liveright.

Bernays: Celebrated and Criticized

His work sig­ni­fic­antly influ­enced how cor­por­a­tions inter­act with the pub­lic, shap­ing mod­ern mar­ket­ing, advert­ising, and pub­lic rela­tions strategies.

While Bernays is cel­eb­rated for his innov­a­tions, he is also cri­ti­cised for manip­u­lat­ing pub­lic opin­ion and pro­mot­ing cor­por­ate and polit­ic­al interests under the guise of object­ive inform­a­tion. His tech­niques have been scru­tin­ized for eth­ic­al implic­a­tions, espe­cially in how they can be used to sway pub­lic opin­ion without the pub­lic’s aware­ness of the manipulation.

One of his most not­able cam­paigns was for the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s, where he helped to break the social taboo against women smoking in pub­lic. This cam­paign, known as the “Torches of Freedom,” is often cited as a clas­sic example of using psy­cho­lo­gic­al prin­ciples in PR. But it’s also dif­fi­cult to dis­cern how suc­cess­ful the cam­paign was:

The 1929 ‘Torches of Freedom’ March was staged, but the news medi­a’s response to it was not nearly as cel­eb­rat­ory as Bernays claimed, and its impact was likely nev­er as extens­ive or per­suas­ive as some have sug­ges­ted.”
Source: American Journalism 12Murphree, V. (2015). Edward Bernays’s 1929 “Torches of Freedom” March: Myths and Historical Significance. American Journalism, 32, 258 – 281. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​8​8​2​1​1​2​7​.​2​0​1​5​.​1​0​6​4​681

Bernays passed away in 1995, but his influ­ence on the fields of advert­ising, mar­ket­ing, and pub­lic rela­tions remains pro­found and rel­ev­ant in the under­stand­ing of media and com­mu­nic­a­tion in soci­ety. 13Bernays lived to be 103 years old, a not­able lifespan that spanned sig­ni­fic­ant his­tor­ic­al peri­ods and saw the evol­u­tion of the fields he influ­enced pro­foundly.


Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Notable PR Professionals

PR Resource: Fundamental Approaches to PR

Three Approaches to Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Three approaches to pub­lic relations.
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Approaches To Public Relations

There are three schol­arly approaches to pub­lic rela­tions (PR):

  • The Excellence Approach
  • The Rhetorical Approach
  • The Critical Approach

The Excellence Approach. A busi­ness-ori­ented approach focused on object­ives and cor­por­ate value cre­ation. The under­ly­ing motiv­a­tion behind the the­ory was that PR was mostly a vari­ety of tac­tic­al tools that des­per­ately needed a man­age­ment the­ory to work well in a soph­ist­ic­ated organisation.

Notable men­tions: James E. Grunig, Larissa A. Grunig

The Rhetorical Approach. A clas­sic­al approach that stems from ideas dat­ing back to ancient Greece. It’s a psy­cho­lo­gic­al the­ory of how com­mu­nic­a­tion struc­tures human cul­ture by shap­ing human minds. An absence of mor­al judg­ment char­ac­ter­ises the rhet­or­ic­al approach and is utilitarian.

Notable men­tions: Edward Bernays, The Toronto School of Communication Theory, Robert Heath

The Critical Approach. A crit­ic­al approach deeply rooted in the­or­ies around soci­et­al power dynam­ics. Power is seen as a means to exert dom­in­ance, manip­u­la­tion, and oppres­sion. The crit­ic­al approach bor­rows many ideas from the rhet­or­ic­al approach by pla­cing them in mor­al frameworks.

Notable men­tions: Walter Lippmann, Noam Chomsky

Read also: 3 PR Approaches: Excellence, Rhetorical, and Critical

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Edward Bernays. (2023, November 13). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​E​d​w​a​r​d​_​B​e​r​n​ays
2 Olasky, M. (1984). Retrospective: Bernays’ doc­trine of pub­lic opin­ion. Public Relations Review, 10, 3 – 12. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​S​0​3​6​3​-​8​1​1​1​(​8​4​)​8​0​088 – 0
3 Propaganda. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​P​r​o​p​a​g​a​n​d​a​_​(​b​ook)
4, 10 Bernays, E. L. (1928). Propaganda. New York, NY: Horace Liveright.
5 Later in life, Bernays became a veget­ari­an and advoc­ated for a meat­less diet, which was unusu­al at the time, espe­cially giv­en his work pro­mot­ing products like bacon.
6 Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s neph­ew. His moth­er was Freud’s sis­ter, and his fath­er was the broth­er of Freud’s wife. This famili­al con­nec­tion cer­tainly means that Bernays was aware of Freud’s work and the­or­ies from an early stage.
7 Doris Fleischman is not con­nec­ted to the pub­lic rela­tions agency FleishmanHillard. FleishmanHillard is a glob­al PR agency foun­ded in 1946 by Alfred Fleishman and Robert Hillard in St. Louis, Missouri. The founders, Alfred Fleishman and Robert Hillard have no known con­nec­tion to Doris Fleischman. The sim­il­ar­ity in names is coincidental.
8 Henry, S. (1997). Anonymous In Her Own Name: Public Relations Pioneer Doris E. Fleischman. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 23, 50 – 62. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​0​9​4​7​6​7​9​.​1​9​9​7​.​1​2​0​6​2​467
9 During World War I, Bernays worked for the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI), effect­ively serving as a pro­pa­gand­ist. He applied tech­niques he later termed “engin­eer­ing con­sent” to pro­mote the war effort, sig­ni­fic­antly influ­en­cing his later PR strategies.
11 Bernays, E. L. (1923). Crystallizing pub­lic opin­ion. New York, NY: Boni and Liveright.
12 Murphree, V. (2015). Edward Bernays’s 1929 “Torches of Freedom” March: Myths and Historical Significance. American Journalism, 32, 258 – 281. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​8​8​2​1​1​2​7​.​2​0​1​5​.​1​0​6​4​681
13 Bernays lived to be 103 years old, a not­able lifespan that spanned sig­ni­fic­ant his­tor­ic­al peri­ods and saw the evol­u­tion of the fields he influ­enced profoundly.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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