Edward Louis Bernays was born in 1891 to an Austrian-American family. His parents were Ely Bernays and Anna Freud Bernays – and yes Sigmund Freud was his great uncle.
Edward grew up in New York City, and went on to study at Cornell. He would often form a naughty-but-sweet smile and coyly say that his degree was in agriculture. He went into various forms of editing for medical journals after school, but soon let his love of the theater led him to be a promoter of plays – or - as the title was – a press agent. He spread outrageous tales that filled theatres. Enrico Caruso’s voice, for example, was safeguarded as much as a royal treasury. He also learned to coin phrases that would make for powerful press coverage.
Then, the US entered World War I, and Bernays’ talent landed him on the infamous Committee for Public Information, also know as the Creel Commission. The work of these men was pure and dark propaganda – lies and half-truths designed to motivate a skeptical US public into support for the war effort: The Germans were barbarians, who raped and murdered innocents – this was a war of good versus evil. Bernays would love to say that what he learned on the Creel Commission was “what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace." And it turned out he was right.
After the war, Bernays became a press agent consultant – but the term did not suit him. He authored the first book on theories of public communication called Crystallizing Public Opinion – and he invented a new title for himself, "public relations counsel."
Bernays’ talent came from his never patented big think – where, like Mycroft Holmes, he would run the scenarios in his head until he had a brilliant solution. This soon earned him clients from US presidents to major multi-nationals. Public relations had arrived.
And, he almost never failed to find a solution. With the repeal of Probation, for example, a new client had a serious issue. An American brewer had a soiled product. Years of speakeasies, gang wars and bathtub beer had made beer a drink with a terrible image. Even though it was again legal, no one wanted to be seen drinking it – or much less buying it. But Bernays was always up for a challenge – and he thought of path forward for his brewery clients.
What if, he imagined, we used a third party? One that was trusted and believable? A third party that offered advice, and then helped to reshape how Americans saw beer? The idea was simple – take a poll of leading physicians – and ask them one question: If you were to have an alcoholic drink what was preferable? A strong drink, such as whiskey, or beer – a beverage of moderation.
That was gold – a beverage of moderation! That was what people wanted – something that said: “I am not a gangster or a criminal.” Releasing his “report” beer was rebranded –and the brewers were back in business.
That entry point into the human mind is what Bernays inherited from Freud.