PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Quirky, but decades ahead of most other thinkers about public relations.
Edward Bernays: Father and Philosopher of Public Relations
© 2015 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Edward L. Bernays was 103 when he died in March 1995. At that time, he was still in demand as a $1,000-per-hour public relations counselor, and he reportedly met with his last client just two days before he passed away.

He provoked intense reactions throughout his career. People either loved him or hated him. Even today, people who knew him describe him as either the grand patriarch of public relations or as a pompous, over-bearing braggart. But, no one denies his importance to the evolution of public relations and his authorship of some of its most important literature.

One of Bernays' most annoying yet recognizable quirks throughout his life was how frequently and how blatantly he reminded people that he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud. -- To his credit, Bernays rarely if ever claimed to be responsible for Freud's popularity although he did, in fact, translate his Uncle Sigmund's early books and made the arrangements with the publisher who first issued them in English. Bernays may have even edited some of them. -- Commentators at the time and those looking back now often assert that Bernays' constant reminders of his relationship with Freud were a not-so-subtle way of implying that, because of it, he had a special understanding of how people think. That was certainly the public persona he tried to project.

World War I and its aftermath sparked Bernays' role in the evolution of public relations.

By the time he graduated from the Cornell University College of Agriculture in February 1912, Bernays had already decided that he didn't want anything further to do with plants or animals. However, he thought he might be able to fall back on the journalism skills he had acquired while working on the college newspaper and before that on his high school, grammar school, and summer camp papers. Within a year, he was working as a theatrical press agent in New York City. This was shortly before World War I broke out in Europe, and Bernays seemed to handle this new venture fairly well, even when he was challenged by a couple of particularly controversial and unusual productions.

But, when the U.S. entered the war a few years later, Bernays decided to give up press agentry and tried to enlist. He was turned down for military service for medical reasons but was so intent on contributing to the war effort, that he accepted a position working for the U.S. Committee on Public Information which was popularly-known as the Creel Committee. It was the federal agency responsible for all propaganda and what is now called "public relations" for the U.S. government at home and abroad during and immediately after the war.

There are few official records or third-person reports of exactly what Bernays did for the Creel Committee, just enough to confirm that he did work for that agency and that he was sent to Paris after the fighting ended to help promote the post-war peace talks and President Wilson's desire to establish a League of Nations. However, to hear Bernays tell it decades later, you might think he ran the entire operation virtually by himself.

Regardless of Bernays' involvement, the idea of a League of Nations became a political hot potato in the U.S. and led to an intense political struggle between President Wilson and the U.S. Senate. It divided the nation for years, and the U.S. decision not to join the League Nations was ultimately regarded as a huge failure for the President. It also spoiled things for Bernays who self-importantly claimed that he personally had been made a scapegoat for the U.S. failure to join the League of Nations. Angry and disillusioned, he left government service and opened a private consulting firm that he said would offer "publicity direction" to its clients.

The firm, known as Edward L. Bernays, Counsel on Public Relations, was actually an equal partnership between Bernays and his wife, Doris L. Fleischman, a former newspaper editor, writer, and feminist. She remained is matrimonial and business partner until her death in 1980. In its early years, the firm made a point of avoiding government-related clients and preferred big-name, commercial clients such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the American Tobacco Company. In time, Bernays softened this position, or perhaps the money or the requests became too much to ignore. He eventually added at least four more U.S. Presidents and one first lady to his list of clients.

Bernays' accomplishments for his clients were numerous and legendary ...

As impressive as these accomplishments are in their own right, an even better sense of Bernays' significance was evident in a special edition of Life Magazine published by Time, Inc. in 1990. It was devoted entirely to mini-biographies of the people included on Life's list of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century. Edward L. Bernays was one of them.

Not the first. Maybe not even the best. But, incredibly influential.

Obviously Bernays wasn't the first well-known modern public relations practitioner. Ivy Lee and others had been on the scene and operating their own agencies more than a decade earlier. However, as Larry Tye explained in The Father of Spin, his 1998 biography of Bernays. "Bernays was the profession's first philosopher and intellectual. He saw the big picture when few others did, and he was the first to appreciate the nexus between theory and practice or, as he would have said, between the art of PR and the science. And, in doing so, he was the first to demonstrate for future generations of PR people how powerful their profession could be in shaping America's economic, political, and cultural life." (p. 264)

Unlike other publicists who stressed "getting the word out," Bernays saw public relations as a two-way street. This meant public relations practitioners and their clients should listen to their publics at least as much as they spoke to them. It was more modern, more scientific, and more effective than all of the earlier one-way approaches to publicity and public relations that were solely based on issuing press releases and transmitting message.

That made Bernays uniquely influential is that in addition to practicing public relations, he published his thinking about it. Crystallizing Public Opinion, published in 1923, was not only his first book, it was the first-known book focused on public relations. In time, it became THE de facto public relations textbook and was repeatedly reprinted and remained in use well into the 1960s.

As a sidelight to this book's eventual recognition as a textbook, it's relevant to note that Bernays was the first person to ever teach a college course in public relations. He did so at the invitation of New York University.

Ironically, instead of creating a universally more favorable perception of public relations, Bernays' books often triggered suspicion of the field and outrage over some of its methods. The problem with Crystallizing Public Opinion wasn't Bernays' notion of a two-way street. It was how he defined public relations. The catchphrase he developed in that book, and never gave up despite recurring criticism, was: "Public relations is the engineering of consent." Yes, it's catchy and easy to remember, but, as authors David Haberman and Harry Dolphin pointed out in their 1988 textbook Public Relations: The Necessary Art, Bernays' "choice of words in defining public relations as the engineering of consent was an easy target for critics" because it sounded so manipulative, mechanical, and ominous. (p. 4)

So, instead of creating a more favorable public perception of the field, Bernays' first book sparked suspicion and fear of manipulation. In reality, it was probably more widely talked about than it was actually read but, either way, it prompted a lot of discussion, both within and outside of the public relations community.

Bernays' next book, Propaganda in 1928, brought even more and worse backlash. It continued to use the phrase "engineering of consent" and, even worse, used the terms "propaganda" and "public relations" almost interchangeably. That, according to PR scholar Scott Cutlip's The Unseen Power: Public Relations A History , "set back his (Bernays') effort to clarify the function of public relations and ... handed the infant field's critics a club with which to bludgeon it." (p. 182) And, bludgeon the profession they did.

At least part of the reason for such negative reactions was bad timing. Before World War I, the term and concepts of "propaganda" had had widespread and honorable usage in European and English-speaking countries for centuries. They were used in both religious and civic contexts, for example: the Roman Catholic Church's Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the common political use of "propaganda" as a synonym for "patriotic messages" in the political arena. But, the war changed all that, especially in the United States. People who had opposed U.S. entry into the war, claimed that U.S. and British propagandists had dragged America into the war against the wishes of most Americans. And, once we were in it, many other people were appalled by the extreme, sometimes gross and racist, and definitely hard-core and aggressive propaganda they saw issued by both sides during the war. The term "propaganda" itself took on incredibly negative connotations that only grew worse in later decades with increased exposure to the propaganda of Russian Communists and, still later, of the Nazi Party. Bernays had simply picked the wrong time to use the word "propaganda" as the title of a book.

Not learning from these early mistakes, Bernays repeated them and once again waved a red flag in front of his critics by publishing a 1955 book titled The Engineering of Consent. Beyond its really troublesome title, a lot of this book and some of his others, including Public Relations (1952) and The Later Years: Public Relations Insights, 1956-1968 (1986) presented old and recycled material rather than fresh ideas.

Assessing Bernays' legacy is complicated by his own personality.

News of Bernays' death, like that of most centenarians, prompted hushed awe and muted sadness. Most eulogies lauded him as "the father of public relations," although a few of the more cynical ones phrased it as "the self-proclaimed father of public relations." Others chose to refer to him as "the father of spin," the term Larry Tye coined and used as the title of his biography of Bernays. Many eulogies also cited Bernays' inclusion in Life Magazine's list of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century.

However, Bernays hadn't always been seen in such a positive light and still isn't by many people, especially some who knew him and worked with or for him. Like John D. Rockefeller and a number of other successful businessmen, Bernays only came to be seen as a lovable and paternal figure in his old age. In his younger days, he was more often seen as brash, arrogant, over-bearing, and sometimes hypocritical in promoting ideas or products (e.g., cigarettes) that he personally disapproved of or believed to be harmful.

Regardless of whether they loved or hated Edward Bernays, people acknowledge him as a pioneer of the public relations profession and one of its mainstays throughout the 20th century. The practices he introduced and promoted in his writing helped shape the field through all three phases of its evolution from emphasizing publicity to promoting explanations to encouraging mutual satisfaction.

Online Readings Table of contents Ivy Ledbetter Lee, another pioneer of public relations Practicing Public Relations home page
Publicity phase of public relations Explanatory phase of public relations Mutual satisfaction phase