Happy Birthday Eddie Bernays

Nearly 30 years ago, I had the great privilege to spend the weekend at the home of Edward (Eddie to friends) Bernays, the man who is widely considered the father of the modern practice of public relations. A friend and colleague had moved into a private floor of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to help with caretaking duties, although these mainly consisted of providing intelligent conversation at the dinner table because, at age 91, Eddie was still sharp as a tack. And this friend had invited me to visit.

Kathy Hyett and Eddie Bernays

Most public relations students today continue to study Bernays and his nearly century-long influence on the profession. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays was a strong believer in the application of psychology and social sciences to what he called “the engineering of consent.”

Over the course of a career that spanned some eight decades, Bernays crafted dozens of great campaigns, using his finely honed beliefs in the power of persuasion to crystallize public opinion. In fact, in his seminal book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, published in 1923, he advocated that public relations has three basic elements: informing people, persuading people, and integrating people with people. Bernays implemented dozens of public relations campaigns using these principles.

For one, he persuaded people that bacon was good for you. This was, of course, before we knew too much about the artery-clogging damage of saturated fats. To do this, Bernays conducted a survey (sound familiar?) of some 5,000 physicians and reported that they recommended a hearty breakfast, which, of course, included bacon.

Bernays was also a big believer in the power of promotion – the proverbial publicity stunt. One of his most famous was his work for the American Tobacco Company. In the 1930s, he sent a group of young models to march in a New York parade, carrying “freedom torches” – or cigarettes. However, once the dangers of smoking became apparent, he later worked for the anti-tobacco cause.

As for integrating people with people, Bernays helped the Aluminum Company of America (AlCOA) align with special interest groups in order to convince the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health.

And fascinating as it may be to our younger colleagues, he did all this without digital or online communications tools. But, had he had the technology, I am sure he would have embraced digital communications. Because he also believed that the means and methods of informing, persuading and integrating would change with society.

November 22 is Edward Bernays’ birthday (he died in 1995 at the age of 104) and I, for one, want to take the opportunity to pay a small tribute to the man whose work set the stage for the evolution of the professional practice of public relations. So happy birthday, Eddie.

By the way, another feature of that memorable weekend was accompanying Betty Friedan – a friend of Bernays’ – to brunch. But that is a whole other story about the power of persuasion.