Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Public Opinion

Public relations guru Edward Bernays was born on this day in 1891 in Vienna, Austria.

The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays' family emigrated to New York City when he was an infant. After graduating from Cornell with a degree in agriculture, Bernays almost immediately abandoned farming to become a theatrical press agent, initially handling publicity for Eugene Brieux's Damaged Goods (1913) and later attracting such clients as Enrico Caruso and Sergey Diaghilev.

After a stint working with George Creel's Committee on War Information, managing Latin American promotion of the Allies' aims in World War I, Bernays saw the possibilities of counseling clients in the management of public opinion. Abandoning the transparent approach advocated by public relations expert Ivy Ledbetter Lee that "full disclosure" was the best policy, Bernays sought to "interpret the client to the public," and vice-versa. Employing theories from his Uncle Sig, Gustave LeBon and Walter Lippmann, Bernays cloaked his interactive approach as "applied social science," a deft use of his own methods to manage the image of his services.

He argued that the mass public was inherently irrational and they frequently relied upon inaccurate stereotypes, and he consciously assisted his clients (which included General Motors, Liggett & Myers, Philco and Procter & Gamble) to benefit from these facts by "engineering consent" for his clients' views or products. Thus, for example, his campaigns for Dixie Cups focused not on the product itself but on "expert views" on health and sanitary issues, with the suggestion that disposable cups could help reduce disease; and for the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s, he rolled out a barrage of news coverage about the health benefits of women staying slender, then suggested cigarettes as a non-fat way of fighting cravings for sweets, thus finding a stereotype that would encourage more women to smoke.

The crowning achievement of his career may have been in the early 1950s, when he designed a public relations campaign on behalf of United Fruit Company -- which was locked in a bitter land disagreement with Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz -- that was calculated to show the American public that Arbenz was a Communist. The campaign apparently helped engender support (or at least a lack of dissent) for the CIA-backed coup against Arbenz in 1954.

While his braggadocio (notably through his books Crystallizing Public Opinion, 1923; Propaganda, 1928) inspired critical hostility for his methods (some comparing him to Nazi PR man Joseph Goebbels), it is a statement of the obvious to say that Bernays' propensity for creating news stories and manipulating stereotypical beliefs has become the stock in trade of public relations, and although he closed his office in 1962, Bernays was still being consulted on public relations strategies at age 100. He died on March 5, 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Categories: Business-&-Finance, Psychology, Freud


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