5 "Founding Fathers" Of PR

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.

5 who shaped today’s PR business

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.

The Evolution Of Social Marketing In PR: A Snapshot

history of PR

Nearly a decade after winning the vote, American women took to the streets in 1929 to march against the patriarchy in a brilliant New York PR stunt focused around … smoking? That’s right, in the innocent days before the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, public relations industry godfather Edward Bernays hatched an ingenious plan. His goal was to build competitive advantage for the American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike brand. Bernays and his client saw an untapped market. In the 20s, smoking cigarettes was a man’s pastime. (And sadly, the health risks wouldn’t be widely known for another 30 years.)

In the Broadway theaters of New York City, people would smoke during intermissions in special rooms under the orchestra. That is, men would smoke, since the League of Theaters prohibited women from lighting up.

Bernays sought advice from influential psychoanalyst Dr. Abraham Brill, a buddy of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. (Yes, even back then; it was all about who you know.) For the low fee of $125, Brill offered expert  counsel: “They (cigarettes) titillate the erogenous zone of the lips.” Brill suggested that females might want to light up to reject the taboo against the fair sex smoking. He called cigarettes “torches of freedom” for women.

A torch is passed

Bernays knew a good line when he heard it. He enlisted New York debutantes and their boyfriends to march in the Easter parade down Fifth Avenue while smoking. In one of the first ever media stunts, Bernays alerted the press that the protests would be happening and instructed the women to tell their stories to the major outlets of the time: newsreels, newspapers, and the three press associations.

Not only did the demonstration garner a front page story in the New York Times, but a mere three days later, American newspapers were reporting that women were smoking in the public squares in several major cities, including Boston and San Francisco. Weeks later, the ban of women smoking in Broadway theaters was lifted.

Female empowerment or exploitation by men?

Bernays “invented” modern PR by using psychology and media savvy to influence public opinion. He had started his career doing propaganda work for the U.S. government during World War I. Later, he would coin the term “public relations.”

The “torches of freedom” episode is an early example of the co-opting of a social movement for commercial purposes. But was it ethical? Clearly, Bernays used the growing women’s equality movement to sell cigarettes. But if the initiative did in fact promote women’s rights (even the dubious privilege of smoking) by fighting a double standard of behavior, then does it matter if a company profited? If the demonstration had been a true grassroots protest instead of a staged event for cameras, the American Tobacco Company would also have profited. But Bernays’ intent was expressly commercial, and he was a man attempting to dictate the path of women’s issues. The ethics are muddy.

Social marketing in 2018

Today’s PR professionals are a little embarrassed by Edward Bernays and his propaganda stunts, but – aside from the toxic image the cigarette industry later took on – are modern campaigns really that different? For International Women’s Day, it’s instructive to look at the famous Dove-sponsored Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In some ways it is a similar co-opting of a cultural moment. Unilever’s Dove aims to sell beauty products, and it uses a powerful social issue to position its brand. Its PR agency studied women’s self-image and attitudes toward their own bodies to identify a legitimate concern. Perhaps one reason for the campaign’s success and its longevity is the need to broaden our definition of female beauty – a need that persists today.

Today, a company can be acting out of authentic social concern while simultaneously profiting from those concerns. Fast Company’s sixth-ranked World’s Most Innovative Company for 2017,  Patagonia, does exactly that by folding its social responsibility into its mission.

What makes the difference between true social commitment and exploitation? A company’s authentic intentions. An insincere or shallow corporate social responsibility program is usually easy to spot, and the public will call BS. When Pepsi produced an ad that was seemingly about the black lives matter movement it was roundly criticized. The ad, which depicted Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a central-casting police officer, reeked of inauthenticity, and the brand promptly did the right thing in pulling it.

If Edward Bernays were working today, he’d need to grapple with our digital news cycle, consumer skepticism, and our collective craving for true engagement. Today’s corporate communications campaigns are more likely to tilt toward transparency, responsible stewardship, and authenticity. Those have to be counted as steps in the right direction.