As far back as many of us can remember, young girls have dreamed of becoming ballerinas, and a high-class night on the town might include a trip to the ballet. But it hasn’t always been this way. Before the Russian Ballet Russes toured the U.S. in 1915, the American public had almost no interest in the ballet—until Edward Bernays came along.
Bernays used newspaper and magazine coverage to put ballet front-and-center in the eyes of the public. He convinced American manufacturers to create products inspired by the ballet, and then persuaded stores to display and advertise the products. His efforts were so successful that by the time the Ballet Russes reached the U.S., the opening show was sold out. This was the first great achievement of a career that eventually earned Bernays the informal title of the “father of public relations.”
Born in Austria in 1891, Bernays was heavily influenced by the psychoanalytical work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. After moving to New York City and graduating from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture, Bernays quickly entered the world of journalism when an old classmate offered him a job managing the monthly journals Medical Review of Reviews and Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette.
It was while working on these journals that Bernays began to use a “third-party authority” approach, publishing expert medical opinions on health issues to sway public opinion. This technique, used so frequently today that it hardly stands out as unusual, was nearly unheard of before Bernays began to popularize it.
After working for the Woodrow Wilson administration during World War I and witnessing the astounding effectiveness of propaganda aimed at garnering support for the war effort, Bernays and his future wife, Doris Fleischman, opened their own public relations office. Over the years, their accomplishments included a successful campaign to convince Americans to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast rather than the traditional toast and coffee (using the same “third party authority” tactic), as well as the strategic organization of an Easter Sunday parade featuring women smoking Lucky Strikes, calling them “Freedom Torches.” The march was immediately printed as breaking news and ended the cultural taboo on women smoking almost overnight.
While Bernays’ efforts certainly didn’t help the cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health of the American public, he did set the stage for the modern practice of public relations.
Not surprisingly, public relations mediums and techniques have evolved significantly over the years, especially with the Internet. The use of social media, blog content and online press releases has helped to transform public relations from a top-down “broadcast” model into an engagement model that focuses on engaging members of a brand’s target audience.
Despite these changes, many of the techniques popularized by Bernays have carried over into the present day. While modern methods of communication have changed the way we reach out to people, the ultimate goal—to inspire action on the part of the consumer—remains the same.
Kristin P. is a copywriter with ProPRcopy