Love him or hate him, Edward Bernays was a key figure
in the development of public relations as a profession.
After posting articles about Arthur Page and Paul Garrett's roles in developing in-house, corporate public relations -- which differs markedly from agency work or external consulting -- it occurred to me that it might be useful to review some of the other founders of our profession.
Edward Bernays, a long-time contender for the title "Father of Public Relations," is probably the best known and most contentious of them. After all, he was a grand self-promoter who lived to be 103 and was working until two days before his death. Both during his lifetime and today, people either loved him or were intensely annoyed by him.
Personally, I don't give him full credit for making public relations a profession. Regardless of what they called it, there were countless other people engaging in various forms of "public relations" long before he was born. I do, however, believe he was instrumental in clarifying and defining these practices, bringing them into the 20th century, and promoting them as a new profession.
Larry Tye who wrote The Father of Spin, a widely acclaimed biography of Bernays, felt the same way. "He was the profession's first philosopher and intellectual," Tye wrote. "He saw the big picture when few others did, and he was the first to appreciate the nexus between theory and practice and between the art of PR and the science."
In addition to being a personal advisor to five U.S. Presidents and one First Lady, Bernays' accomplishments during his almost 80-year career included:
- making bacon and eggs a popular breakfast;
- making smoking in public socially acceptable for women;
- convincing Americans that beer is a "beverage of moderation;"
- promoting the first NAACP convention in Atlanta;
- directing publicity for the 1939 World's Fair; and
- persuading Americans that water fluoridation is safe and beneficial to our health.
That's quite a list of accomplishments, and it only scratches the surface of how well and widely Bernays used public relations. He was indisputably a key figure in the evolving profession and a major contributor to its literature. But, it's up to you whether you see him as the grand patriarch of the profession or as a pompous, over-bearing braggart. Nevertheless, you really should know about him if you're going to practice public relations.
Read more about Edward Bernays.
This site was initially created to support public relations courses I taught at Northern Kentucky University.
Now it's used as a supplemental text for scores of university courses worldwide. It's also frequently used as a reference/refresher by PR professionals, especially those preparing for accreditation or certification exams.