One man – Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays[1] was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and in fact played a major part in Freud’s rise to fame and the adoption of Freud’s ideas in psychology and psychoanalysis in the US.

Bernays also understood and adopted some of his uncle’s theories about what motivates people and used these to help his clients – mainly large corporations, industry associations and politicians – achieve their aims.

He described these strategies as ‘propaganda’, in fact he ‘wrote the book’ on it – Propaganda – in 1928 (perhaps unsurprisingly popular in the upper echelons of the Nazi party), a term which later – for ‘public relations reasons’ 😉 – morphed into ‘public relations’. He is thus widely regarded as the father of PR.

What is interesting is his focus on the underlying motivations of people and largely ignoring any pretence of logical reasoning – something which is backed up by more recent research in the field of neuroscience.

Here is a brief overview of some of his achievements using propaganda/PR techniques…


Bacon and eggs

Now regarded as the typical ‘hearty breakfast’, bacon and eggs being synonymous with breakfast only happened thank to Bernays. The pork association in the US approached Bernays asking how he could help increase sales of pork.

His answer was to conduct a survey of physicians in the US asking them one simple question – which is better, a small breakfast or a hearty one? When the answer came back (a hearty one) he used the line ‘doctors recommend a hearty breakfast’ and of course bacon and eggs was a great example of such a breakfast.



Asked by the boss of the American Tobacco Company how they could encourage women to smoke (in the 1920s it was generally not acceptable for women to smoke in public) and conceivably double their sales, Bernays’ answer was to associate smoking as an indication of independence among young women in the early feminist movement.

He encouraged (and also hired) young women marching in the Easter Sunday Parade in 1929 to secretly carry cigarettes with them in the parade and then to light them up at his signal. He called these cigarettes ‘torches of freedom’ and let journalists know in advance that these torches of freedom would be lit at the parade (he didn’t tell them they’d just be cigarettes).

As a result women who sympathised with the idea of feminism were encouraged to smoke in public and lo and behold, cigarette sales increased dramatically.

banana-tree-bananas-food-40982 copy.jpg

Banana republics

Guatemala was the original banana republic[2]. One of its main crops was bananas and most of these plantations were owned by US company United Fruit Company. When a new president was elected there in 1945 in the first democratic elections after the overthrow of military dictator Jorge Ubico, the company didn’t like his proposals for law reforms which would have seen large chunks of their plantations transferred to landless peasants.

The company retained Bernays, who arranged a trip for US journalists to visit Guatemala and introduced them to opponents of the new president, and there was even a suggestion he organised a demonstration to coincide with the visit.

Rumours of Soviet/communist involvement spread and Bernays spoke with senior government figures in the US about the situation. The result was the involvement of the CIA in a plot to overthrow the new president, which eventually happened in 1954. Needless to say the new regime did not threaten United Fruit Company’s business there.

What are the takeaways from these stories? I think the following…

  • public relations is not just about getting stories in the media, but this is of course an important part

  • public relations is not lobbying, but again there is a substantial crossover

  • public relations is quite distinctly different from advertising, but again advertising and PR work well when deployed together

  • public relations is pretty powerful


Once you are aware of the role of PR, you start to see it everywhere. Watching a documentary recently on the McDonald brothers who set up the first McDonalds restaurant before Ray Kroc came along, it turns out their radical approach of getting people to come in to the restaurant to place their orders didn’t go down too well with customers for the first few months and they were close to giving up and becoming a ‘normal restaurant’ again. The turning point for them was featuring on the front cover of the American restaurant industry magazine, which publicised their new approach, if only to people in the industry.

And many business success stories today continue to have similar turning points when they have been picked up by the media.

I originally started out as a specialist PR agent for smaller business to business customers, when PR was largely confined to consumer businesses and large corporates. I coined the term ‘PR marketing‘ which, even though it didn’t become any sort of meme in the marketing world as I’d hoped, still encapsulates an approach to marketing I strongly recommend to clients. In a nutshell, this is…

  1. Imagine you are trying to get a journalist to write a story about you or your business or your product – what is the most interesting or quirky or revolutionary aspect of what you are doing or what your product does? Use that as your news release/conversation starter

  2. If you then play the journalist in this little game, would you write a story on yourself?

  3. If not start again

When you have identified something that passes this test, you have the beginning of your marketing message and your marketing material. And then by all means talk to the media, as you’ve just increased your chances of getting coverage by going through this exercise.

The second component of PR marketing is using any positive media coverage you do get in your marketing and advertising.


[1] Wikipedia

[2] Ultimately the term ‘banana republic’ came to mean ‘a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of a limited-resource product’


This article originally appeared on My Marketing Person.

Posted in PR

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