The Father of Spin""
Many of today's major PR firms were founded in the period directly following the war, and the basic groundwork of the industry was laid by the founders of those firms. The business as we know it was largely the brainchild of Edward Bernays, the fabled "Father of Spin." The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays is said to have inherited the famed psychoanalyst's knack for understanding human behavior. He also possessed a trait critical to the PR business -- the ability to anticipate changes in public opinion. Early in his career, he worked as a press agent for the theatre. As a member of the CPI, he helped sell the war as an effort to "Make the World Safe for Democracy." In 1919, Bernays set up shop in New York, calling himself a "public relations counselor," and handled communications and marketing-related "persuasion projects" for clients including the U.S. War Department and the American Tobacco Company. For the former, he convinced businesses to hire returning war veterans. For the latter, he created a campaign to convince women that smoking helped them to stay slim. He claimed smoking also disinfected the mouth, and went on to paint cigarettes as figurative "torches of freedom" for women, encouraging them to contest the taboo against female smoking in public by marching down Fifth Avenue on Easter Day in 1929, cigarettes in hand.
Bernays published the first book on the PR profession, Crystallizing Public Opinion, in 1922. He felt that the average man is an intellectually limited, conformist creature, so it was up to the intellectual elite to mold public opinion. He felt that the so-called "intelligent few" were essentially social scientists who could guide the masses and influence history by applying the theories of mass psychology to corporate and political agendas. Not surprisingly, Bernays was approached for counsel by both Adolf Hitler and Spain's Francisco Franco (he turned both down). An Austrian-born Jew, Bernays reportedly lamented the fact that Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi, kept a copy of Crystallizing Public Opinion on his desk.
Bernays pioneered the practice of promoting corporate agendas through social causes. In his own words, he helped his clients "create events and circumstances from which favorable publicity would stem." To that end, he developed "public service" agendas for unnamed corporate sponsors. After WWI, for example, he was called upon to help an ailing hair net company. Bernays urged labor commissioners to require women who worked with machinery to wear hair nets for their safety and waitresses to wear them in the interests of hygiene. He never named the hair net company, but sales improved. To help sell one client's bacon, he published a survey of 5,000 doctors who agreed that Americans should eat big breakfasts. He later orchestrated "Light's Golden Jubilee," a global media event in celebration of the invention of the light bulb, which was ghost-sponsored by General Electric.
After WWI and throughout the Depression, the PR industry continued to grow. The National Association of Public Relations Counsel was founded in 1936, and the American Council on Public Relations formed in 1939. In 1948, the NAPC and ACPR were merged to form the Public Relations Society of America, which still exists today. Just as it did during WWI, PR grew considerably during WWII. The federal government created the Office of War Information in 1942 and used PR to develop support and distribute information. The division was later renamed the United States Information Agency and continues to disseminate news across the globe.
In the 1940s and '50s, Bernays continued to help political leaders use mass persuasion to their advantage. During this period he wrote the famous "Engineering of Consent" in which he explained, among other things, the particular usefulness of visual symbols to influence the masses. And while universities and journalism schools had been offering PR courses since 1920 (the first to offer a PR curriculum was the University of Illinois), Boston University created the first school wholly dedicated to public relations in 1947.
Few people outside the industry have every heard of Bernays, largely because he was a staunch believer in the hidden yet omnipresent PR professional. For him, the PR counselor is ever the strategist, never the voice. This attitude underlies another of Bernays' innovations -- the front organization. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a newly elected government in Guatemala threatened to take over some of the plantations owned by the United Fruit Company and divide them among the peasants. When Bernays was called in, he set up the Middle America Information Bureau, which was financed by -- you guessed it -- United Fruit. The Bureau disseminated information to American newspapers about communist influences in Guatemala, and soon the Guatemalan government was overthrown in a CIA-backed rebellion. If you think that such tactics are a thing of the past, think again. In the early 1990s, several PR firms became embroiled in ethics controversies for taking on questionable accounts. For example, Hill and Knowlton drummed up support for the war against Iraq by creating a group called "Citizens for a Free Kuwait." What became clear later was that the $11 million account was more than 99 percent funded by the exiled Kuwaiti Government. Another classic example is Burson-Marsteller's work to develop a National Smokers Alliance, funded by members of the tobacco industry.