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The Father of Public Relations

Updated: Jul 8, 2020



PR or public relations is a well-established and prominent practice. But it wasn’t always like that, it was associated with propaganda and not just associated, PR was thought of as propaganda during the early 20th century. Propaganda at that time had quite a negative rep, that is until the “father of public relations” came along and changed the global perception.


Wait who?


Edward Louis Bernays, born in 1891. in Austria considered by most to be „the father of Public Relations“. Bernays and his family moved to New York just a year after his birth, it was in the US that he graduated Cornell with a degree in agriculture. Agriculture wasn't enough and Bernays found himself chasing journalism. Career in journalism is the one that got him into PR or propaganda which was a more popular term at that time. During his career in journalism Bernays was a theater press agent, this was the profession in which he made strides that would later sharpen his view on public relations.

Edward Bernays
source: thevintagenews.com

What makes Bernays the father of PR are his efforts to rebrand the negative term propaganda into PR and use it not just during the war but in peace time as well. One point worth mentioning was that Bernays had quite a famous uncle, Sigmund Freud, does that ring any bells? Bernays was the first one to try and combine psychoanalysis (which you do when Freud is your uncle), crowd psychology and herd instinct with public relations. He wrote his first book on public relations in 1923. „Crystallizing Public Opinion“ and that was the book that got him some fans in the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels became a fan of Bernays during the 1920's even though Bernays was Jewish. Goebbels went on to exploit the writings of Bernays for the benefit of the Reich.

In 1928. Bernays published his most influential book „Propaganda“, that was the book that combined all the disciplines from which he draw inspiration and combined them with public relations. His incredibly different approach in shaping public opinion led him to a variety of famous and ground breaking campaigns. From popularizing cigarettes to paving a way towards a successful coup of a Guatemalan president in 1954.

Torches of freedom


During the 1920's Bernays was already making huge strides in his attempt to rebrand propaganda and during this time he also bore fruit to one of his most famous campaigns. It was at this time that women smoking cigarettes was considered a taboo, seeing that they were missing a huge part of the market, the president of the American Tobacco Company hired Bernays in an effort to change the taboo and persuade women to start smoking.

Bernays had quite an ingenious idea, he contacted a psychoanalyst Abraham Brill to better understand the societal perceptions of women smoking. Brill told him that cigarettes were like „torches of freedom“ for the women. Symbolizing their freedom from male oppression, and boy did Bernays go with that thought. In collaboration with his female friend they organized a feminist march during the New York City Easter Day parade. Marchers lit their Lucky Strike cigarettes or their „torches of freedom“ in front of a number of photographers showcasing their cause against male oppression and also showcasing women smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. Bernays succeeded in his intentions as „Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of 'Freedom“ was printed in The New York Times.


Lucky Strike vintage ad
source: historytoday.com

But his work with cigarettes wasn’t done there. Lucky Strike and Bernays teamed up once again, women hated the green color of the cigarette packs but it was too expensive to change the packaging. Bernays said ok, we can’t change the packaging but we can change the fashion. He wrote letters to interior designers, department stores, prominent women in fashion and fashion designers. The request was simple, use green and by green he meant Lucky Strike shade of green in their designs. Slowly changing the public’s perception of the color he organized a Green Ball in the Waldorf Astoria. The ball was filled with intellectuals, prominent women and famous people, all sporting the color green.


Bernays, bananas and CIA


Chiquita, a well-known business who we all recognize by their cheerful sticker a top a banana. Despite the colorful stickers they have quite a dark past. Chiquita was a business known as United Fruit and they had quite a foothold in South America. The business was so powerful that they effortlessly influenced local government. During the 1950’s when Guatemalan government tried to take back control, United Fruit were having none of it and hired Bernays.

United Fruit Co
source: nytimes.com

Bernays at first hired experts to publicly talk about health benefits that bananas bring and later teamed with the CIA to overthrow the Guatemalan president, quite a jump right? When Guatemalan government decided to take action and push United Fruit influence out of South America, Bernays, CIA and UF set in motion a plan to deny them. Bernays began a massive effort to label the Guatemalan government communist, and being a communist is a big NONO. In combined efforts Bernays and his associates flew journalist to Guatemala to show them just how communist they were.

Journalists were carefully controlled where they go and what they see, what they saw was what Bernays wanted them to see. That Guatemala was a commie tyrant, tyrant who oppresses their people and is opposed by a valiant knight the United Fruit company. Once again Bernays was successful in his attempts. The New York Times wrote of Guatemalan oppression exposing their supposed communism and in contrast showed United Fruit as a crusader against communism. He managed to change public’s opinion which eventually led to a staged coup that would overthrow the democratically elected Guatemalan president.


In conclusion


Bernays managed to combine different disciplines into the one we call PR, he was also successful in rebranding propaganda into public relations that we know today. Thanks to him the entire field of communications managed to strive forward and evolve. On the other hand he did promote smoking and argued for the "health benefits" of cigarettes but he wasn't the only one. Let's just say that ethics in business weren't a thing back then. So he participated in overthrowing a democratically elected leader but he also wrote some great books!


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