OBITUARY:Edward Bernays

T. Jeff Solender
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:25

Edward Bernays was known as the "Father of Public Relations", and established it as a communications and marketing discipline.

Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891, the son of Ely Bernays and Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud's sister. In later years, Bernays would say that his success was attributable to his having true "Freudian instincts."

The Bernays moved to New York in 1892, and lived in an area of the city near Mount Morris Park (5th Ave & 120th St), now lower Harlem, and it was there that he and my grandfather, Frank E. Karelsen, met and became lifelong friends.

Although Bernays graduated from Cornell University in New York in 1912 with a degree in agriculture, he chose journalism as his first career. During the First World War, he handled a number of "propaganda projects" for the US Government. After the war he established a company to handle "persuasion projects," and began using the term "public relations counsellor". His partner in this venture was Doris Fleischman. They were married in 1922.

Much to the consternation of society at that time, Doris did not take his name. Bernays backed Doris completely on her decision and theirs was a unique professional and personal partnership which lasted more than 60 years. Doris was and still is remembered as a role model for American women.

Bernays had learnt much about moulding public opinion during the war and felt that some of the techniques could be put to use in the consumer market. Soon after its establishment, the Bernays firm became successful and began to take on some very large clients, including the American Tobacco Company.

My grandmother told us that Bernays made smoking acceptable for women. In the 1920s, smoking by women in public was seriously frowned upon, particularly in the street. Bernays convinced "society women" to pose for photographs whilst smoking cigarettes on street corners. The technique worked and smoking habits changed dramatically.

His work for Procter & Gamble is a legend of public relations lore. He promoted "soap carving contests", using Ivory soap, and the influence and popularity of these contests made children more interested in bathing. Other clients of the firm included General Electric, the United Fruit Company (for which Bernays boosted the popularity of bananas), Time Inc, CBS and NBC.

In 1923, Bernays published a book, Crystallising Public Opinion which became one of the most important texts in public relations. He lectured on the subject at New York University, becoming America's first public relations instructor.

In addition to his corporate work, Bernays also served as an adviser to individuals, including Clare Boothe-Luce and Samuel Goldwyn. To illustrate his philosophy on public relations, Bernays often told a story about advice he gave to the Czech leader Tomas Masaryk. When Masaryk told him that he was going to "declare" the independence of his country, Bernays advised him to do it on a Sunday when there was less news and he would get better coverage. Masaryk was astounded and responded: "But that would be making history for headlines." Bernays answered: "Headlines make history."

In 1961, Bernays and Doris Fleischman "retired" from their firm to move to Massachusetts to be closer to their children. They continued to be very active professionally.

During his lifetime, Bernays received many honorary university degrees and was active in numerous volunteer organisations, notably the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. His entry in Who's Who in America measures more than 6in in very small type, one of the longest entries in the book.

T. Jeff Solender

Edward L. Bernays, public relations consultant, writer: born Vienna 22 November 1891; married 1922 Doris Fleischman (died 1980, two daughters); died 9 March 1995.

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