From propaganda to public relations with Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays‘ propaganda techniques made him to one of the most influential people of the 20th century, according to Life Magazine. His works were, and are, used the world over, for example by Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, or public relations managers, in the past and today.

Bernays perspective was shaped by theories of crowd psychology by Gustave Le Bond as well as by his own uncle Sigmund Freud, and others among them. With this knowledge he influenced the perceptions of crowds in terms of what they ate, in which values they believed and even their willingness to enter wars.

To read his writings creates an understanding of the vertical structure of our society and which importance key groups have as opinion makers.

Edward Bernays and his wife Doris E. Fleischman

This article includes following questions:

➤ What is the definition of propaganda, and why is it important?
➤ What did Edward Bernays accomplish?
➤ What can we learn from Edward Bernays?

“Men (people) are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.”
– Edward Louis Bernays

What is the definition of propaganda, and why is it important?

Cambridge Dictionary: Information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.

One of the first times the term propaganda came up officially, was for the congregation of the Vatican called “Sacra congregatio de propaganda fide” which was established in the year 1622 for missionary activities of the catholic church. Back in those days the word wasn’t negatively loaded compared to the times of World War 1 until now.

As an alternative way to describe the field of propaganda, he invented the term public relations. Edward Bernays called it a technique to order the chaos of society by manipulating behavior and attitudes, which is a fundamental part of democracy.

If so many people want to live together without conflicts it takes control processes through leading positions, to guide them through politics, the economy and many other sectors as well as their thoughts and feelings.

“Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda.”
Edward L. Bernays

What did Edward Bernays accomplish?

Edward Bernays was born 1891 in Vienna. His parents moved to the United States the following year where he lived almost his entire life.

One of his first remarkable propaganda achievements was in 1917 for the US-government by changing the anti-war attitude of the US-Americans to enter World War 1 against the Germans.

This achievement should be also applicable for the developing market which saw new mass production, medias and the shrinking rate of illiteracy, which allowed for fresh ways of advertising.

By paying an influential doctor to promote the healthy value of bacon and eggs, giving this report to other doctors with the request to join the survey and spreading the results at the end to the press, the «American Breakfast» was established to the delight of the Beech-Nut company which provided the bacon.

For Procter and Gamble he staged soap carving competitions with prominent juries and millions of participating kids which increased the sales of Ivory Soap immensely.

Opera singers and musicians open the Operatic Liberty Loan Offices at Aeolian Hall, New York City on June 5, 1917

For the American Tobacco Company, for the 1929 Easter Parade, he came up with a group of elegantly dressed ladies, smoking cigarettes on Fifth Avenue in New York. A behaviour of women which was until then frown upon. The picture was printed in the press, which even started a trend for women to smoke in public.

He bolstered the status of President Calvin Coolidge inviting more than thirty broadway stars to a pancake breakfast at the White House, and Coolidge won the next elections.

In year 1951 the government of Guatemala wanted to expropriate through an agricultural reform parts of the US-company United Fruit Company (today Chiquita). To prevent this from happening, Bernays claimed Soviet influence causing these developments and convinced the United Fruit Company to pay trips for journalists, reporting the chaotic situation until the CIA intervened and toppled the government, so United Fruit was able to continue operating.

“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
Edward L. Bernays

What can we learn from Edward Bernays?

Technologies developed further and new medias evolved, which made the information landscape far more diverse compared to the times of Edward Bernays. However, there are many fundamental elements which are still the same today.

  • Our society is shaped in a vertical structure of leaders, and led, mainly based on activities and interests. The leaders are opinion makers and have an impact on their surroundings. With «Third Party Advocacy» these leaders are the targets of the PR campaigners, to be convinced of content, and to spread it to their network. Groups are stronger than individuals. The receivers adopt the content because of their trust in the opinion makers.
  • A list of the «Who is who» is helpful for any PR consultant. For almost every content there are existing organisations, groups, communities, clubs etc., which are listed in registers or easy to find nowadays with search engines.
  • PR-events are an option to network, to raise attention in different ways, to share information and operate the «engineering of consent».
  • PR has to analyse the current und developing desires and needs of society and manifest them.
  • Every topic has supporters and opponents, who are trying with the same forcefulness to convince the others of it.
  • The best PR is the one which isn’t labeled as one.
  • The PR consultant is the contact between the client and the public and should be an expert of all existing communication methods which are used to share thoughts. Also, good social skills are encouraged.
  • The consultant explains to the producer what the public wants and transmits the intentions of the producer to the public. The concept of «engineering of consent» is a good way to think about how to make the interests of the company overlap with the interests of individuals and groups.
  • The PR consultant has to analyse the problems of the client with its potential content to be accepted in public. If the idea or the product is, from the beginning doubtful, leave it.
  • It is important to quickly confront rumours with correct and complete information to win the trust of the public in the company and to not let them develop any further.
  • If a product or a system changes, it is beneficial to change its name, otherwise the customers still expect the same service of the past. Also negatively loaded terms achieve new vigour with a switch as it was with propaganda to public relations.
  • Special days or holidays combined with a specific purpose draw attention: «Dramatization through highlighting».
  • Aesthetics, competition and sociability are good drivers of campaigns.
  • Constant advertising and PR are necessary to stay in touch with the public and to keep awareness of the company.
  • To increase trust of the public in the company it is important to have a transparent profile by formulating own activities and goals. (Especially regarding the stock market) A guided tour through the company is an option to present insights.
  • It is possible to change customs and needs of society but its harmful to operate openly against them.
  • The company director represents the company with its public actions.
  • To expand successfully it needs the goodwill of society.
  • If competitors of the same sector fight against each other with unfair techniques, they might harm the whole sector and lose trust of the public.
  • The content of the campaign should address the target groups, be tailored for the press and be emotionally loaded in a way which matches the whole concept.
  • There are many methods to transmit contents but it should never be only one method used.
  • Change the world of the customer softly by making the product desirable.
  • Propaganda is immoral if the sender spreads lies or anything with a negative impact on the public.


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