Edward Bernays: The Father of Public Relations

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Edward Bernays was a pioneer in the field of public relations. Public relations uses the media to create a public image for businesses, organisations and high-profile people. Public relations is halfway between advertising and propaganda: like advertising

Edward Bernays was a pioneer in the field of public relations. Public relations uses the media to create a public image for businesses, organisations and high-profile people. Public relations is halfway between advertising and propaganda: like advertising it can be used to sell an idea or product commercially, but like propaganda it involves a complex manipulation of the media.

Edward Bernays pioneered the techniques and theory of this new field and is regarded as ‘the father of public relations’. A less complimentary epithet would be ‘the father of spin’, because Bernays was the first and greatest spin doctor. Within public relations, spin is a pejorative term for deceptive or manipulative tactics used to influence public opinion. Politicians are often accused of using spin to win support. Skilled practitioners are known as ‘spin doctors’. The best-known spin doctor in Britain was Alastair Campbell, who was involved with Tony Blair's public relations between 1994 and 2003. Peter Mandelson is a notorious Labour spin doctor.

Bernays was one of the first people to manipulate public opinion using the subconscious. He was uniquely qualified to do this because he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psychoanalysis. His use of PR was based on social scientific theories, including Gustave Le Bon’s ideas on crowd psychology. Crucially, he felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the 'herd instinct'.

Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891 to Jewish parents. His uncle Sigmund Freud was practicing in the city at this time. In 1892, Bernays’s family moved to New York. Growing up in Europe, he had witnessed the crucial role propaganda had played in creating anti-German sentiment in Britain prior to World War I. As a Jew, he was acutely aware how successful Nazi propaganda had been in demonising the Jewish community in Germany. Bernays felt that the same eruption hatred could happen in any democratic society.


Bernays pioneered the use of psychology in the PR industry. He was influenced by a French writer called Gustave LeBon, who originated the theory of crowd psychology. The main idea of crowd psychology is that people in a crowd act differently from individuals: the minds of people in a crowd can merge to form a single way of thinking. How does this happen? Crowds foster anonymity, so individuals become less conscious of their actions. At the same time, crowds can intensify emotion because people get caught up in the overall mood. As a result, each member's enthusiasm is increased and they become less aware of the true nature of their actions. So a crowd can develop a mind of its own and this can be dangerous because. There’s plenty of evidence for this: large crowds at football matches or concerts can seem to develop a collective mind and get out of control easily.

Bernays also drew upon his uncle Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic ideas. Sigmund Freud was the pioneer of pschoanalysis. He developed a technique to probe into the murky world of the subconscious mind, where all of our deepest fears and desires are suppressed. In doing so, Freud provided tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Bernays was the first person to use Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by manipulating their subconscious desires.


The big question about Bernays is whether or not he was undemocratic. He actually believed in democracy, but he felt that the public's democratic judgment was ‘not to be relied upon.’ The masses were inherently irrational and driven by desire. This made them dangerous, so he felt the masses had to be controlled. The good news was that, according to crowd psychology, the masses were relatively easy to control. In his famous book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.

He believed that if you could understand crowd psychology, you could manipulate it. He called this scientific technique of opinion-moulding the 'engineering of consent'. Bernays declared that a major feature of democracy was the manipulation of the mass mind by media and advertising. Bernays believed that good PR was necessary in democratic society – to show people the correct cause of action. In this sense, he was socially-responsible, but there is a problem with this attitude. It’s very paternalistic: he saw himself as an enlightened father figure and the masses as children. The assumption is ‘we know best’. This is apparent in Propaganda (1928):

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized 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 . . . We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society . . . In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

To summarise, the masses could always be swayed, as they had in Nazi Germany. He feared that the American public ‘could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing.’ For this reason, he felt that the masses had to be guided from above. Essentially, Bernays believed in a sort of enlightened despotism.


Bernays was a pivotal figure in the orchestration of elaborate advertising campaigns and multi-media spectacles. One of his favourite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of ‘third party authorities’ or experts who could support his clients' causes. He wrote: ‘If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.’ For example, in order to promote sales of bacon, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat hearty breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a heavy breakfast.

He had very pronounced views on the differences between what he did and what people in advertising did. He regarded advertising men as pleaders, paid to persuade people to consume a product or service. On the other hand, he saw the public relations counsel as an Emersonian creator of events that dramatized new concepts and perceptions.

He believed that propaganda and news were legitimate tools of his business. This parallels the work of Joseph Goebbels, who ruthlessly used the media to influence thought in Nazi Germany. However, Bernays was able to offer philosophical justifications for his tactics. Bernays' vision was that the dangerous libidinal energies that lurked just below the surface of every individual could be harnessed and channelled by a corporate elite for economic benefit. In this way, big business could fulfil the constant cravings of the inherently irrational masses and satiate the dangerous animal urges that threatened to tear society apart.

Bernays' magisterial approach is apparent in Manipulating Public Opinion (1928) when he writes: ‘This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas.’ Yet he recognized the potential danger in so grand a scheme. In This Business of Propaganda (1928) he sounded the caveat that a public relations counsel ‘must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society.’ In other words, he must not become a corporate stooge. However, it can be argued that in practice Bernays was a mercenary.


Bernays believed that socially-responsible public relations was a necessary component of democracy, and he did work on some progressive campaigns. In 1920, he organised the first convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights movement, in Atlanta, Georgia. His campaign focused on the important contributions African-Americans had made to Southern society. His campaign was considered successful because there was no violence at the convention and he later received an award from the NAACP.

Bernays helped the Aluminum Company of America to convince the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health. This was achieved by using the American Dental Association as a third-party endorsement. In 1939, he served as the publicity director for the New York World's Fair, a public relations extravaganza.

Nevertheless, he worked for famous corporate clients, including Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, Cartier, Best Foods, CBS, the United Fruit Company, General Electric and Dodge Motors. He worked for commercial clients selling harmful products. In the 1920s, he worked for the American Tobacco Company, which decided that not enough women were smoking. Bernays sent a group of models to march in the New York City parade. He told the press that a group of women's rights activists would light ‘Torches of Freedom’. On his signal, the models lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the photographers. The New York Times printed: ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of “Freedom”’. This helped to break the taboo against women smoking in public. This was clearly not in the public interest.

In the 1930’s, Lucky Strike was mostly recognized for its forest green pack. Instead of trying to convince people that Lucky Strike was the best brand, Bernays focused on the colour. He contacted prominent fashion designers, interior designers and socialites and suggested that green should be the colour for 1934. It worked: balls, window displays, clothing and gallery exhibitions all over America in that year emphasized green. As a result, sales of Lucky Strike went up. Once women realized that Luckies would match everything, they had to have them.

Bernays worked for Procter & Gamble to sell Ivory soap. The campaign convinced people that Ivory soap was medically superior to others. He also promoted soap through sculpting contests and floating contests because the soap floated better than its competitors.

He worked in the political sphere. US President Calvin Coolidge was a client. Bernays was hired to improve Coolidge's image before the 1924 presidential election. Some of his tactics subverted the democratic process. Bernays' most extreme propaganda campaign was conducted on behalf of the United Fruit Company and the U.S. government. It brought about the overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Bernays' propaganda branded Arbenz as a Communist, a concept that was anathema to mainstream Americans. The company brutally exploited slave labour in order to produce cheap bananas for the U.S. market. The term 'banana republic' originated in reference to United Fruit's domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

In 2002, Adam Curtis made an award-winning documentary for the BBC, entitled The Century of the Self. It pinpoints Bernays as the originator of public relations. I want to show you the first episode, which examines Bernays’s philosophy and analyses some of his major campaigns.


Almost any organization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the public arena employs some level of public relations. The techniques and theory of public relations were devised by Edward Bernays. Bernays is a very problematic figure. He believed in democracy, but thought that democracy was too important to leave to the public. In the age of mass media, the danger is that the public can easily be persuaded. Therefore, he felt there needed to be someone at the top of society who could co-ordinate media in a socially-responsible way. This attitude is inherently was paternalistic.


Edward Bernays, A Public Relations Counsel States His Views (1927).

Edward Bernays, This Business of Propaganda (1928).

Marlen Pew, Edward L. Bernays Critiqued as Young Machiavelli of Our Time.

Tye, Larry, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of PR.


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