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What I Learned from Edward L. Bernays - the man who coined the term "Public Relations"

I stumbled into public relations. I ended up at Boston University for three reasons. First, they accepted me. Second, I thought they had a radio curriculum. And lastly, my hero, Fred Allen, was from Boston - so I wanted to study there. Simple logic.

Well, as it tuned out BU’s College of Communication had no real radio program, and the student station was set in an old basement.

So, I tried out public relations. And it ended up being a good idea. In fact, I also ended up joining and running the university PRSSA Chapter. That is; by going to the last meeting of the year – and with the entire board graduating – I got tapped to be the incoming president. And, little did I know that it was the Edward L. Bernays Chapter.

This was about the same time that we were talking about Bernays in class – as he was a framer of modern PR. Turned out he coined the term. Then, I found out that Dr. Bernays was alive and well, a proud 93-year-old living across the river in Cambridge. And as a chapter president, I was going to meet him.

I was a pretty shy 19 year old. I loved history – and certainly had no idea what I was in for.

You see, Dr. Bernays was a little hard to imagine. He had witnessed almost a century of history. He was a small man, and seemingly always wore the same outfit – a blue suit with a tan vest and a tie. He spoke in soft authoritative voice. In a tone that was reminiscent of a 1940’s newsreel.

The stories he told were amazing. The thing was, he told them over and over – the exact same way – all so well rehearsed, well delivered and fascinating. Like an well-played record.

He had a method I came to call it “the big think.” In a sense, he was a consulting detective. Clients came to him with a problem – he through it through and came up with a brilliant, and sometimes unscrupulous plan. He would put his plan to work – and the world would change.

Classic Edward – American tobacco came to him: they had a firm hold on the market for cigarettes, but could not get women to smoke. Women saw it as a dirty male habit. So Bernays gave it the big think… He saw the times around him – women had won the vote, and wanted rights. It was the 1920s. New York was the heart of the fashion industry. What if, he though, he hired leading debutants to march into New York’s famous Easter Parade – but toting cigarettes. The idea would be, he would tell the press, that the smokes were symbolic torches of freedom, much as the Statue of Liberty held high her torch. Brilliant. Unethical… and it worked. The big magazines covered the event, cigarettes were no longer some nasty backroom habit but symbolic of a modern woman. Cigarette sales spiked, and Bernays got a big payday.

Years later he would regret his work for American Tobacco – and launch pro-bono campaign for the American Cancer Society. And that fact made the story even better.

Bernays was one of the first to understand that symbols are powerful – and you can wash aside an old symbol with a new one if you are reaching a new generation. Think of all those smart Buick ads showing young people in natty new Buicks. Or the new-found coolness of Pabst Blue Ribbon, now called PBR.

Bernays knew the trends of his times and what message would be the key to open people’s minds to new thinking And he knew that if he used the big society magazines of the day to carry his message- the first adopters would be the higher levels of society –and then the concept would trickle down.

So that is chapter one of my recollections of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century – more to follow…

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