As Father’s Day approaches, it’s a good time to remember the legendary figures who shaped modern public relations. As those of us who work in PR practice the science (and art) of the profession, we rarely think about how it evolved. It’s fascinating to chart the growth of public relations over the last century by looking at those who had the vision to create the industry.
Bernays gets top billing as PR’s “father”
A nephew of Freud, Edward Bernays (1891-1995) “invented” modern PR and coined the term “public relations.” He used a blend of psychology and media savvy to influence public opinion. Like other PR men who would follow, he started by doing propaganda work for the U.S. government, but Bernays’ era was World War I. In addition to the brilliant but now-dubious “torches of freedom” campaign that advanced social acceptance of women smoking in public, his work convinced Americans to eat bacon for breakfast. Bernays surveyed thousands of doctors (the original third-party influencers), and most said that a large breakfast was conducive to good health. The published results trumpeted bacon and eggs as the “All-American breakfast” and bacon sales soared. Today, statistically valid surveys like his are still used to create news and build credibility.
Lee was a leader in media relations
Ivy Ledbetter Lee (1877-1934) is credited with refining the art of media relations, but his most celebrated engagement was a train wreck – literally. He helped Pennsylvania Railroad Company manage the press’s coverage of a fatal 1906 railway accident by using a document called a press release. He invited reporters to the site of the accident rather than trying to cover it up, embracing what was then a very unusual practice of transparency. Lee also proposed to John D. Rockefeller Jr. the concept of two-way internal communications to improve the company’s image after a mine strike massacre. Lee urged Rockefeller to visit aggrieved coal miners and make a public event out of the outreach. In his 1906 manifesto, “Declaration of Principles,” he articulated his recommendation for honest, open, and accurate communications between companies and the public. But his reputation was mixed; despite his introduction of transparency into the practice of PR, Lee, like Herb Schmertz 60 years later, was hailed as an innovator but also criticized for working with the “robber barons” of the time. Some things never change.
Edelman elevates marketing PR
Dan Edelman (1920-2013) brought products to the public’s attention in a way that was new at the time – by getting their stories in newspapers and on television. He started the PR agency that still bears his name in 1952. Like his contemporary Harold Burson, Edelman got his start during World War II, where his job was to document and refute German propaganda. But Edelman really thrived later when his agency built a reputation for creating product marketing events and stunts. As some who worked at Edelman can attest, the agency used to begin every presentation with a slide of a stunt Dan dreamed up in the 1950s. As the story goes, he had haircare client Toni Co. send six sets of twins on a cross-country trip in a “perm box” trailer, inviting the public to guess which twin had the Toni home perm and which the expensive ($15!) salon job. The media tour was born, and the rest is history.
Schmertz created confrontations
Herbert Schmertz (1930-2018) introduced the idea of corporations fighting criticism and espousing principles with his creation of the “advertorial” in the 1970s. As head of corporate communications for oil behemoth Mobil, Schmertz was the most powerful man in PR at the time. But don’t imagine that he was simply a corporate shill for big oil. The enigmatic Schmertz also ran political campaigns with three Kennedys, was a mainstay of the NYC cultural scene, and worked as a labor lawyer. But as VP of public affairs, he fashioned a unique response to mounting criticism of Mobil during the energy crisis. Mobil took out full-page advocacy op-eds in the New York Times to share the company’s viewpoint on public issues like technology, mass transit, and energy independence. He also massaged Mobil’s corporate image by sponsoring PBS programming, which elevated the image of the oil giant. Most of all, Schmertz pioneered “creative confrontation” with media by corporate communicators. His hardball tactics and paid op-eds paved the way for corporate PR officers to influence policy. Today, corporations not only advocate for their own interests through proactive communications, but they’re almost expected to articulate their values by taking a stand on social issues.
Burson nurtures relationships
Living legend Harold Burson (1921- ), co-founder of global PR juggernaut Burson-Marsteller, is perhaps our greatest PR visionary. A one-time journalist in Tennessee, Burson bore witness to history after being assigned by American Forces Network to cover and transcribe the Nuremberg Trials in 1945. He then switched to doing PR for an engineering company and eventually started an agency with his ex-employer as his first client. Burson believes that what a corporation does is more important than what is says. He sees the term “communications” as reductive, implying that the message means more than actions. He pioneered the integration of marketing and B2B PR and was a proponent of nurturing genuine relationships, both with the press and with employees. Burson was the guiding force behind Johnson & Johnson’s historic handling of the Tylenol episode, setting the bar for crisis management for decades to come. Like Ivy Lee, Burson is a man of sturdy principles, known for his conviction that the corporation should be a force for social good.
All the PR “fathers” weathered controversy in their careers, perhaps indicating how complicated and challenging the practice of public relations can be. As in real life, patriarchs are often flawed, but they make an impact. These trailblazers made powerful contributions to the evolution of a field that continues to grow in stature and influence.