The Modern History of PR

history public relations

Many decades ago a gentleman by the name of Edward Bernays became familiar with the tactics used by the Nazi Party in Germany convincing their youth and others that they were the superior race. They accomplished that with “propaganda” messages and other methods. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, brought that information with him to the U.S. and softened up the edges, changed the name, and presented the buying public and selling entities with “Public Relations.”

Bernays took on some interesting clients as he began building a new industry. If your favorite breakfast includes bacon and eggs, you can probably thank the genius of Bernays. Before he began that campaign, the usual breakfast in the U.S. was more what we consider a continental one today – hot drink, juice and some kind of pastry or sweet bread.

When Bernays got the bacon job, he spoke with his doctor, told him what he was trying to do and proposed that a heavier breakfast would supply more energy. Allowing Americans to be more productive after having a more substantial beginning to their day. That doctor got the word out to 5,000 of his medical associates, who liked the idea and were willing to put the word out there. From that point on, the meat, egg, toast, etc. breakfast became more and more popular.

And you know that concept of smoking making you cool, or a bit of a rebel … that one goes back to 1929 and Bernays staging several women with placards and a lit cigarette marching in the Easter Parade in New York City. All the while, making a case for women and freedom, calling their cancer sticks, “torches of freedom.” At the time, many states considered women smoking in public to be an offense worthy of arrest.

Much of what the public finds a bit “greasy” about advertising and PR can be linked back to some of Bernays’ applications. Bernays knew enough about his uncle’s beliefs and how propaganda works to combine some elements from each and begin to incorporate those in the business of advertising and PR. Finding the feeling or experience people crave and connect it to a product. The term “sex sells,” could have come directly from him.

But PR has advanced well beyond those days. Though Bernays methods are still used, the PR profession also brings less ego and id to the process. There is a lot of good work done by non-profits sponsored or supported through PR efforts. Making sure the truth is told when sometimes lies seem to be the way to sell a story, that also can fall in the lap of PR specialists.

Bernays brought effective tools, but those in the profession currently get to choose how to use them for good – or otherwise.

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