Saturday, 8 August 2009

The Unseen Power: Edward Bernays

Quotes from Scott M. Cutlip, The Unseen Power: Public Relations, a History (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ., 1994)

Edward L. Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 22, 1891, the son of Eli Bernays and Anna Freud Bernays. The Bernays family had lived in Hamburg, Germany, for centuries after Bernays’s forebears had fled Spain during the Inquisition. Eli Bernays had moved to Vienna at an early age where he found a job as a secretary to an economics professor. There he met Anna Freud, sister of Sigmund Freud, the pioneering psychoanalyst. Freud in turn married Martha Bernays, Eli’s sister, that making young Edward a double-nephew of the famous man -- a fact that was an over arching presence in Bernays’s mind-set and practice. In 1890, Eli Bernays came to America to find a better opportunity for himself and his growing family. The elder Bernays found a place for himself on New York’s Produce Exchange and in 1892, brought his family to New York. His brother-in-law, Sigmund Freud, helped with the financial expenses of the move even though the brothers-in-law were not on the best of terms. Young Edward celebrated his first birthday aboard ship.

In an interview with me on March 12, 1959, Bernays recalled, “My earliest recollection is attending kindergarten in New York. Then I attended private and public schools. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in 1908 and took a classical course, Greek, Latin, and the like.” In the fall of 1908, Bernays enrolled in the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. His high school grades had earned him a state scholarship that would have permitted him to enroll in any college at Cornell. But his parents insisted that he enroll in agriculture -- a field for which the young man was totally unsuited. Bernays told me, “My father had been influenced by Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘back to the land movement’ and my mother was a lover of nature, so I went to the Cornell University College of Agriculture.” This, as Bernays acknowledged, was a day when parents generally dictated a child’s choice of college. Bernays rebuffed my question as to whether the free tuition in a state school was a factor, saying, “My father was a well-to-do Produce Exchange member when I went to college.”

Bernays continued, “When I was graduated from Cornell, I knew I would not become a farmer and went to work on the Produce Exchange with a young former associate of my father’s. Office work, copying letters, stamping bills of lading, soon bored me, and I went off to Europe for the rest of the summer.” [pp.160-161]

After his return from Europe, young Bernays was at loose ends until one December morning he met up with a former schoolmate, Fred Robinson, when they were traveling on the recently electrified Ninth Avenue elevated. Fred was then helping his father, a physician, publish books, booklets, and a journal, Critic and Guide, that campaigned against the prevailing prudery of the time. Fred’s father had just given him two monthly medical magazines, Medical Review of Reviews and Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette. On the spur of the moment, Robinson asked, “Ed, how’d you like to help me run the Review and the Gazette?” Bernays’s response was quick and spontaneous, “Sure.” Bernays as a school pupil and high school student had found pleasure in working on his school papers. At Cornell, he had worked on the Countryman. When the son proudly announced to his parents that evening that he was going to work on medical journals the next morning, the Victorian father asked, “How can you be a competent editor of a medical journal when Cornell University prepared you for an agricultural career?” Little did the father know that his son’s job would lead him to his natural mètier, press gentry, and promotion. Bernays told me, “I had always liked communications and journalism.”

Bernays continued in our interview:

In 1913 I read a manuscript submitted to us about Damaged Goods, a propaganda play that fought for sex education. We published the manuscript. Within several weeks I heard that Richard Bennett [then a famous actor] wanted to produce the play. He was unable to because of its strong content for the period, an era Comstockery. I suggested to him and to Fred Robinson that we organize the “Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund,” selling memberships in the fund. As a result we produced the play.

Bernays expanded on this landmark event in his career in his memoirs:

Suddenly an idea came to me. Damaged Goods could be produced by Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund Committee. We would organize the fund and the committee, made up of distinguished men and women. This would raise the funds necessary for the production. Our office would be headquarters for both. . . . Fund membership of four dollars would entitle a person to a ticket to Damaged Goods. This would defray production costs, which were negligible because Bennett's actors were donating their services. . . . My salary would be twenty-five dollars a week. The Medical Review of Reviews would make no profit.

This was a pioneering move that is common today in the promotion of public causes -- a prestigious sponsoring committee. In retrospect, given the history of public relations, it might be termed the first effort to use the front or third party technique. Bernays was “careful to invite men and women whose good faith was beyond question and who would be responsive to our cause.” “Hundreds of checks poured in after our first public announcement.” Bernays also solicited testimonials from prominent people and got John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to comment for publication, “The evils springing from prostitution cannot be understood until frank discussion of them has been made possible.” The play was presented to a full house on the afternoon of March 14, 1913. Among those in the audience were Mr. and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Next morning’s papers gave the sensational play full coverage. With the play’s success, Richard Bennett took his rights to Damaged Goods and ran, telling Bernays and Robinson, “I don’t need you or your damned sociological fund any more. I’ll start my own fund.”

Questioned about this innovation in our 1959 interview, Bernays expanded:

We used it (the idea of a prestigious sponsoring committee) many times since then because I think it is still the most useful method in a multiple society like ours to indicate the support of an idea of the many varied elements that make up our society. Opinion molders and group leaders have an effect in a democracy and stand as symbols to their constituency. . . . I might add, however, that when this was done, we did it in an open or overt way.

Bernays emphasized the last point because by 1959 use of fronts or third party techniques had come under heavy fire from the critics of public relations and issues in landmark lawsuits.

Building the public opinion that had permitted and funded this then sensational play had been a heady experience for young Bernays, then 22 years old. He found return to the routines of magazine editing boring. Once again bored, he took off for Europe with the money he had saved while working on the magazine and tutoring on the side. His time in Europe included a good visit with his Uncle Sigmund. In the fall of 1913, when Bernays returned to the United States, he decided “to become a newspaperman.” But it was to press agentry that he gravitated -- an art for which he was a natural talent. He told me, “I decided that I liked the theater, wrote to Klaw and Erlanger for a job, and that started my career in publicity. I became the publicity man for a whole string of actors and plays that kept me busy from 1913 to 1915. Then I was offered a partnership in the Metropolitan Musical Bureau and remained there to handle a concert tour of Caruso and Nijinsky and the Russian Ballet.”

The dull blanket of war and turmoil fell across this happy existence when President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany and the Central Powers in April 1917. “Immediately in 1917 when war broke out, I tried every possible way to get into war service, but my eyesight was poor. It was not until 1918 that I went to work with the United States Committee on Public Information (CPI).” Finally a friend, George Cosgrove, introduced Bernays to Ernest Poole, head of the Committee on Public Information's Foreign Press Bureau, and in 1918, after getting military clearance, Bernays went to work in the bureau's New York office. In his autobiography, The Bridge, Ernest Poole, praised Bernays as “one of the ablest and most devoted younger workers on our staff.” In their Words That Won the War, Mock and Larson wrote, “The two most important figures in the CPI invasion of Latin America were Lieutenant F. E. Ackerman and Edward L. Bernays,” adding, “Creel was not uniformly pleased with the post-Armstice work of Bernays, but everyone granted the importance of his contributions while we were still at war.” [pp.162-163]

George Creel, director of the CPI, included Bernays in the official party to accompany President Wilson to the Versailles Peace Conference where the CPI, according to early plans, would provide “technical assistance” to the press covering the conference. The party left from New York on the Baltic on November 10, 1918. According to Bernays, Poole instructed him to issue a release prior to the CPI party’s departure. As would happen on later occasions, Bernays’s penchant for publicity got him in hot water. Bernays’s release announced that the Official Press Mission to the Peace Conference was leaving the next day for Paris and instead of the narrow technical press support mission Creel had defined for the group, Bernays inserted this sentence: “The announced object of the expedition is to interpret the work of the Peace Conference by keeping up a worldwide propaganda to disseminate American accomplishments and ideals.” Two days later, the New York World headlined the story: “TO INTERPRET AMERICAN IDEALS.” George Creel was furious; already in a battle with Congress, Creel knew that this would add fat to the fire. He disavowed the story. Nonetheless, it hastened the demise of the CPI.

Mock and Larson reported more blandly that Creel was displeased at the “way Bernays was handling publicity for the group towards the end.” Creel’s ire was brought about because Republican Senators, already antagonistic toward him, attacked him for this presumptuous release. The upshot of this that the CPI never functioned at the Paris Conference as had been planned. Bernays related, “We never did what it was intended to do. My speculation is that if Creel had insisted on carrying out his original intention, world history might have been different because America would have been informed of the activities at the conference,” Bernays insisted to me that “Mock and Larson’s conclusion relative to Creel’s attitude toward me, was not based on true fact.”

Bernays told me in the 1959 interview:

The work I did for the C. P. I., based upon my publicity experience, aroused some interest at the time. It gave me the first real understanding of the power of ideas as weapons and words as bullets. When I came back from the war, I recognized consciously what we had done to make “the world safe for democracy” in intensifying the attitude of our own people in support of our war aims and ideals, in winning over the neutrals and in deflating enemy morale. [p.165]


Bernays and Carl Byoir, who starting in 1930 built the most successful public relations agency of its time, had a somewhat distant relationship during their days in CPI. Byoir was in Washington managing the agency as Creel’s deputy, while Bernays was in the New York office in a lesser role. They were together in the CPI delegation Creel selected to go to Paris. Immediately after World War I, Byoir and Bernays came together in a brief association to promote recognition of Lithuania’s independence. In that brief time, Bernays envisioned the opportunity to use public relations as a lucrative vocation; Byoir wouldn’t. Ultimately, Byoir came back to public relations in 1930 and made his mark as well as millions. His story is told in chapters 17 and 18. The Bernays-Byoir story goes this way.

Shortly after his return from Paris, Bernays was having lunch with Byoir, who suddenly asked him, “Would you like to do publicity on a free lance basis for the (Lithuanian National) Council trying to win support of the American people for Lithuanian recognition?” The next day Byoir, on behalf of the Council, contracted with Bernays to advise the Council on how to meet their objective and write six short articles a week about Lithuania for newspapers.

Aided by Bernays, Byoir’s task was to mobilize public opinion that would assure affirmative action by the U. S. Senate on a resolution extending such recognition. They waged a successful campaign, using techniques developed in the Creel Committee. They spread their message through chosen spokesmen in the nation’s large cities and the newspapers. They were successful in eliciting editorials and telegrams to U. S. Senators supporting the Lithuanian cause.

In 1919, The Senate duly recognized Lithuania as an independent nation, but formal U. S. recognition did not come until July 1922. Bernays recorded in his 1965 memoirs that this campaign was “the prototype of modern-day public relations techniques.” He described it as a “pioneering effort to mobilize public opinion.”

To spread these targeted messages, Bernays distributed the articles to newspapers, syndicated feature services, and trade papers. His clipping bureau returned hundreds of stories from newspapers across the country. In a victorious America that had successfully fought a war to make the world safe for democracy, Bernays found a favorable public opinion climate for his propaganda efforts.

The Lithuania National Council paid Byoir $23,000 to defray the costs of the campaign. Byoir paid Bernays a $150 weekly salary but took no salary himself. The success of the Lithuanian campaign persuaded the perceptive Bernays there was money to be made on this new vocation, then burgeoning in the wake of World War I. [pp.165-166]

Bernays’s thinking at this crucial juncture in his career had been heavily influenced by his work for the CPI. In our interview, he said, “There was one basic lesson I learned in the CPI -- that efforts comparable to those applied by the CPI to affect the attitudes of the enemy, of neutrals, and people of this country could be applied with equal facility to peacetime pursuits. In other words, what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace.” [p.168]

Bernays’s relationship as a double nephew of the famous Sigmund Freud exerted a profound influence on Bernays’s public relations concepts and was a central theme in his indefatigable self-promotion over his long career. More importantly, Bernays’s early publicizing of his uncle’s revolutionary theories of psychoanalysis in the United States in 1920 had profound impact on American thought. Once again there is the significant impact of public relations practice on American society. Thus, this relationship merits an accounting.

When a person would first meet Bernays, it would not be long until Uncle Sigmund would be brought into the conversation. His relationship to Freud was always in the forefront of his thinking and his counseling. In his profile of Bernays, Irwin Ross caught this quickly when he interviewed him in the 1960s: “Addressing a client or a reporter, he displays the tolerant, unruffled manner of a psychoanalyst-an appropriate resemblance for Bernays’ proudest family connection was the late Sigmund Freud, his uncle, and Bernays liked to think of himself as a kind of psychoanalyst to troubled corporations.”

The Freudian influence is first clearly evident in Bernays’s seminal book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, published in 1923 shortly after he had arranged for and publicized Freud’s book, Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis in the United States. For example, in his chapter “The Group and the Herd,” Bernays wrote, “We have gone somewhat elaborately into the fundamental equipment of the mind and its relation to the group mind because the public relations counsel in his work in these fields must constantly call upon his knowledge of individual and group psychology.”

When I asked if Freud’s theories had influenced him, Bernays replied, “I would say very definitely yes to this question. Although I do not qualify as a psychoanalyst, because I was brought up in a background of psychology and my uncle’s methods, I have undoubtedly gotten a lot of it by osmosis, and what I didn’t get by osmosis, I got from reading his works. As a matter-of-fact, as far back as 1923, in Crystallizing Public Opinion, I urged the study of social sciences as underlying a sound approach to public relations.”

Little wonder that Henry F. Pringle, writing in the February 1930 issue of The American Mercury tagged Bernays with the title “Mass Psychologist.” Pringie wrote, “Nephew Eddie can foretell the future. He makes no claim to crystal gazing, as such. He would modestly deny that he is clairvoyant. His science, once understood, is really very simple. What he does is to create a demand by molding the public mind. He creates a desire for specified goods or services. It is not often that mass psychology fails to find a solution.” [pp.170-171]

Even though he never profited monetarily from his efforts to promote the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, Bernays gained favorable public attention through this association. More importantly, he publicized and popularized the new science of psychoanalysis in the United States with a profound effect on American mores.

The Bernays-managed publication of his uncle’s book and his ceaseless publicizing of Freudian theories had a far-reaching influence on American thought then and to this day. It fully illustrates a basic theme of this volume - the unseen power of the public relations specialist on American political, social, and cultural thoughts. Publication of Freud’s lectures was indeed timely - his theories of sexual freedom fit neatly into the context of the Roaring Twenties of post-World War I. Freud’s name in the 1920s became inextricably linked with the idea of social reform as well as sexual freedom. Ultimately, it became more. As Dr. E. Fuller Torrey wrote in a harsh book, The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture, “The name Freud, once merely a euphemism for sex with overtones of social reform and liberal political belief, slowly became reified into a broader symbol of nongenetic approaches to human behavior, liberalism, and humanism.” [pp.175-176]

Bernays’s most enduring contribution to the development of public relations was his landmark book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, first published in 1923 and then republished in 1961 on the occasion of his 70th birthday. In this book, Bernays was the first to set down the rationale for public relations as a function in management, introduce the two-way concept of public relations in contra-distinction to one-way publicity, and introduce the term public relations counsel in the American lexicon. In this book, Bernays developed the theory of public relations as a two-way mediating-interpretation liaison between an organization and its constituent publics, a theory that has stood the test of 70 years, though it did not gain the acceptance of management until years later. In this landmark work, Bernays stressed that public relations theory and practice must be based on a full knowledge of the social sciences, another concept new for that time. [p.176]

A British government public information office, J. A. R. Pimlott, gave an outsider’s view of American public relations in 1951 in his book, Public Relations and American Democracy. He said, “Bernays’s book . . . though published as long ago as 1923, stood alone among works dealing specifically with public relations in having exerted any influence outside the narrow public relations world or much influence within it.”

In his little book Two-Way Street, subsidized by Bernays, Eric Goldman wrote:

The book emphatically disassociated public relations from either press agentry or mere publicity work. The public relation man’s primary function, Bernays declared, was “not to bring his clients by chance to the public’s attention, nor to extricate them from difficulties into which they have already drifted …” Developing its fullest kind of thinking toward which men of the Lee school had been tending, Bernays declared the primary function to be both the changing of public policy and public attitudes so as to bring about a rapport between the two. . . . He helps to mold the action of his client as well as to mold public opinion.

Running through Bernays’s discussion was an emphasis on the social role of public relations. He challenged the contention that the public relations man was inevitably, or even primarily, the defender of the status quo. The greatest bulwarks of the status quo were the stereotypes of the public mind that prevented people from seeing in terms of experience and thought and hence impelled them to oppose new points of view. Bernays argued that the social value of the public relations counsel lies in the fact that he brings to the public facts and ideas that would not so readily gain acceptance otherwise. Bernays emphasized in this path-breaking work that the public relations man’s ability to influence public opinion placed upon him an ethical duty above that of his clients to the larger society. Though these seem like platitudes today, they were revolutionary thoughts in the adolescent vocation. [p.177]

There was plenty of adverse reaction to Bernays’s revolutionary concepts of the ways of dealing with public opinion. Using loaded words, the Survey said, “Mr. Bernays writes frankly of the processes by which the herd instincts are exploited in the instincts of a new and far-ranging salesmanship.” Ernest Gruening, a social critic of the period and later a United States Senator from Alaska, wrote in a 1924 review for the Nation:

This new sublimation is in response to an obvious need. Mr. Bernays points out that . . . perhaps the most significant social, political and industrial fact about the present century is the increased attention paid to public opinion, “especially by men and organizations whose attitude not long ago would have been “The public be damned”. . . . Will the final result be greatly different for the public which, while it no longer tolerates being “damned,” guilelessly permits itself to be “bunked”? Is seduction preferable to ravishment?

Further, Gruening pooh-poohed Bernays’s claim that the public relation counsel serves as a conscience for his client, writing, “Not only may one doubt that the glorified press agent will fulfill this destiny, but that a public conscience thus created would be useful or desirable.” There were other voices of concern about the potential power of this new breed. [p.179]


A public relations historian, Marvin N. Olasky, in a Bernays perspective, in Public Relations Review, Fall 1984, described Bernays’s purpose in this book: “Bernays was one of the first to realize fully that American 20th Century liberalism would be increasingly based on social control posing as democracy, and would be desperate to learn all the opportunities for social control that it could. Thus his candor in Propaganda.” Writing in the Independent of September 1, 1928, Bernays gave this defense of his book:

It is altogether fitting and proper . . . to inquire in the light of the last ten years what have been the developments in postwar propaganda, especially as applied to industry -- to Big Business. The World War left business astounded at what the technique of propaganda had accomplished in the conflict. Not only had it raised men and money for individual Governments. There had been propaganda in favor of the love of nations, and other propaganda for the hate of other nations -- all successful. Big Business was not the first force to recognize what it could mean to it. The war had brought about big money deficiencies in the funds of colleges and other . . . social service bodies. The war technique was turned to the solution of these problems. [p.184]

In the Survey of 1929, Leon Whipple wrote of the new Bernays beliefs:

Somebody “who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses” should manipulate these controls so that people can know what to believe or buy. The counsel steps in to help -- at a price. He rides here in a world of “high spotting,” fashion-making window dressing, blind instincts and artificial habits, where events are created to make news, and indirection is the watchword. . . . The book is worth reading, for the Herr Doktor gives an almost metaphysical exposition of his creed. . . . The general idea is to control every approach to the public mind so we get the desired impression, often unconsciously. [p.185]


In 1935, Bernays handed the growing army of critics of the field, now populated in substantial numbers, another weapon to fire at practitioners when he wrote an article, “The Engineering of Consent,” for the Annals of Social and Political Science. His essay was in a special issue, “Pressure Groups and Propaganda.” Bernays explained his purpose, “I first studied books on medicine and law to find whether doctors and lawyers apply a common procedure to every case. I found that they do. I then tried to find a common approach to public affairs -- as well as other public relations problems.” He argued, “An engineering approach is essential because of the myriad choices to be made and interests to be dealt with -- internal and external publics, their group leaders and opinion molders, the broadcast and print media. Engineering of consent deals both with attitudes and actions of the business man, consistent with coincidence of the public and private interest, and their communications to the publics concerned, to inform and persuade.” [p.186]

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