How to PR: the very smart ways of Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays and his fetching moustache

Edward Bernays and his fetching moustache

The father of PR was born into a world that was changing, a world where people were, for the first time, becoming the public – a public whose thoughts, attitudes and behaviours were identifiable, understandable and, as Bernays soon realised, malleable.

The following is less a list of PR how-tos. Rather it's a selection of examples that show his modus operandi.

These stories, ideas and quotes are from Bernays' autobiography, The Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (which is very hard to get hold of! The British Library edition is missing. I had to visit the Imperial War Museum to read it.)

You may also want to read Bernay's Propaganda and Crystallizing Public Opinion.

How to sell bags of bags

In the 1920s, America's luggage industry was worried that Americans were buying less and smaller luggage. They asked Bernays for help. 

We were thinking of using a still from a James Bond movie, as it's a franchise that loves product placement, but this pic of lots of luggage works.

We were thinking of using a still from a James Bond movie, as it's a franchise that loves product placement, but this pic of lots of luggage works.

In response, Bernays:
1. sent articles to magazines titled What the Well Dressed Woman Wears on a Weekend. These stressed the need for women to travel with a varied wardrobe, advised hostesses to stress in their invitations the different sorts of activities their guests would be involved with – and the need for different clothes for each activity.
2. gave luggage to movies and plays.
3. suggested health officials emphasize the importance that a person should own their own luggage.
4. encouraged stores to put luggage in window displays, and to show the relationship between new clothes styles and new luggage styles.
5. wrote to colleges and universities to send their new intake lists of the clothes and luggage they would need before arriving.
6. created the Luggage Information Service, to be an easy point of call for any journalist or salesperson who wanted to know more about luggage.
7. urged architects to allot suitable space for luggage storage.
8. wrote to 66 railway companies, 10 steamship companies and urged them to make sure their designers left plenty of room for luggage.
9. lobbied foreign embassies to help increase the free weight allowance for those travelling abroad.
10. gave movie luggage, and had them pose with it.

How green became fashionable, and sold cigarettes, in 1934

It wasn't enough for Stetson-wearing George Washington Hill that more women smoked his cigarettes than anyone else. He wanted more, more, more women to smoke his company's Lucky Strikes.

George Washington Hill

George Washington Hill

In 1934, a fascinating piece of research suggested a curious reason why they weren't: the colours of the pack -mostly mossy green with a big red bull's eye in the middle often clashed with their clothes. Washington Hill asked what Bernays just what he suggested they do about it. 

Simple, Bernays said, make the pack neutral so it goes with anything.

Won't do, replied Washington Hill, because he'd spent a lot of money on those colours and that branding.

OK, said Bernays, I'll make green fashionable.

Bernays didn't tell Washington Hill this but his plan was inspired by Alfred Reeves, who managed the American Automobiles Manufacturers' Assocation and had straightened out the problems US carmakers faced when they wanted to sell their cars in Britain: the country's narrow, curved roads. They could have solved this by changing the design of the cars. Or was there another solution?   

“I didn't try to sell automobiles,” Reeves said. “I campaigned for wider and straighter roads. The sale of American cars followed.”

Inspired by this idea, Bernays and his little army of helpers campaigned to make green. The assault began in spring 1934, carried on through summer as “the bureau maintained its barrage”, and continued into 1935. Here are some highlights from the campaign:

1. Bernays drew up a blueprint, strategy document with themes & timing.
2. Research: researched the impact of green on society; what green suggests, what the values of green are, who uses it.
3. Research: he conducted a statistical analysis of the fashions coming from the great French houses (and found that 5-50% of their collections featured green)
4. Research: researched the part played by fashion magazines, socialites, dress houses, manufacturers, newspapers, women's magazines in influencing public opinion
5. Networking: he didn't do this, but no matter. He contacted people on two continents (North America & Europe).
6. He contacted his friend & influential person, Mrs Frank A Vanderlip.
7. He suggested to her that she hold a LIVE (as in Live, Intimate, Visceral, Exclusive) event that the papers would report on – a Green Ball.
8. He enlisted the help of the Onondega Silk Company. Since they would like to be seen as leaders, & it was clear he was out to make green the colour, wouldn't they like to support this green movement? They did.
9. The president of Onondaga Silk Company held a lunch for magazine editors on the colours of the coming seasons, especially green. The menus were green, the food was green (Think broccoli, leeks, pistachios.)
10. He encouraged artists to discuss green, and galleries to host events themed with green.
11. He asked psychologists to publicly debate and discuss the colour green. 
12. He organized a Color Fashion Bureau “which sent authentic data from New York and Paris to editors of feature and women's pages.”
13. In May 1934, 1500 letters, on green letter-headed paper, were sent to interior decorators, home furnishings buyers, art-in-industry groups, clubwomen.
14. Also in May 1934, 5,000 announcements, and also on green letter-headed paper,  were sent to department stores and merchandise managers encouraging them to use green in their window displays.
15. Mrs Vanderlip established an invitation committee.
16. She had lunch with accessory makers to encourage them to make green accessories.
17. The invitation committee created a news bulletin about the ball
18. Mrs Vanderlip went to France to influence the home of fashion. She had tea with 40 French fashion VIPs.
19. Bernays and his team got Bergdorf Goodman on board first – knowing that the rest would follow
20. They prepared lots of press material: pictures, dress photos
21. There were green art exhibtions; at these, “Happy-go-Lucky” dolls dressed in green were handed out with tins of 50 cigarettes. (Note the austere times, this was very early days of the post-Depression, so these plucky, upbeat dolls struck the right note.)

Making women light up

Bernays is often credited with making smoking in public permissible for women. Before cigarette-maker George Washington Hill could worry about whether women would worry about what colour the packs were, first he had to get them to smoke in public. Best person to turn to? Edward L. Bernays.

In truth, the campaign to get women to smoke had begun a few years before, when Bernays & co. stressed the health benefits of cigarettes. Since smoking was considered an appetite suppressant, and thin was fashionable: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” 

So more women were smoking but, as Bernays writes, “a woman seen smoking in public was labeled a hussy or worse”.

Bernays began with research, and visited a psychoanalyst called Dr A A Brill. (Note that Bernays' uncle was Sigmund Freud.) There in Dr Brill's studio, he told Bernays that it is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke too. Because cigarettes are equated with men, they are, for a woman, like “torches of freedom”. So Bernays set about giving women the opportunity to have these torches of freedom.

He enlisted the help of a prominent feminist called Ruth Hale “who was glad to find a platform for her views”.

He gave a friend at Vogue a list of 30 debutantes (this was the 30s remember), and 10 agreed to play along: to light up very publicly, as the Easter Sunday parade on New York's Fifth Avenue, creating one of the most famous PR stunts ever: the "torches of freedom" march.

There was a national outcry, and the result was discussion, debate, newspaper reports of women smoking in public – and from then women smoked in public.

Where it all started: Bernays' first campaign

Bernays stumbled across his role as a press agent. After bumping into an old school friend, he had become co-editor of a medical journal called the Medical Review of Reviews. It was a distant second in the market, so he had to “devise new publicity techniques to keep it alive”: he organised symposia and signed all letters “the Editors”. By writing in the plural, he felt it gave more weight to his correspondence.

This poster is from the 1917 silent film, based on the play. 

This poster is from the 1917 silent film, based on the play. 

Bernays' PR break came in New York in February 1913, when he came across a screenplay, called Damaged Goods, about a man who contracts syphilis but goes right ahead and gets married to another woman anyway. 

1. First, the problems: one was money. The second and potentially fatal issue was whether the show would be allowed to go on. Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (note the use of an important, official, officious sounding name and committee) had closed other shows he thought too daring, such as Mrs Warrens Profession by George Bernard Shaw.

2. Now, the solution: Bernays contacted “distinguished men and women”, such as John D Rockefeller and Mrs William K Vanderbilt, Senior, and appealed to their good natures. As “the editors” of the Medical Review of Reviews he invited them to help prevent the spread of one of the scourges of that era, venereal disease. They could do so, he told them, by joining the (newly minted) Sociological Fund Committee. Which cost $4 to join. That money directly funded the play.

3. Bernays contacted the press while rehearsals went on, with news of the Sociological Fund Committee, and many of its distinguished members made comments to the press when contacted. Did it work? Damaged Goods “became a cause célèbre before the curtain rose”.

4. It wasn't only thanks to his efforts that it all worked but the timing was right: “Public opinion was prepared to accept its thesis. Progressivisim was in the air.”

A few of my other favourite Bernays campaigns

Two examples where Bernays linked the product to something people cared about:

1. To promote a brand of cigar that was made by machine rather than the traditional human way – and therefore hand and the maker's spit – Bernays campaigned against the dangers of spit. He distributed 30,000 anti-spit warnings. (Note: great example of not trying to sell the product, but creating the climate in which the product is the natural choice.)

2. To promote an opera whose composer had drowned after the boat he was sailing in was downed by Nazi U-boats, Bernays turned going to the opera as a political statement. In a letter to the New York Times (which was printed) he urged “Americans to register their protest against submarine warfare by attending”. From this event, “I saw how important timing is in planning such an event”. 

3. To sell Diaghilev's Russian Ballet, Bernays found the things that people cared about (note these are internal to the product), and codified these as four key ways to sell any idea to the public: 
1. Novelty
2. By appealing to special groups
3. He considered how it could & would impact on life in terms of colour, design, products
4. The personalities involved


The ways of Bernays: some final quotes

A few more quotes.

Committees are symbols and show us who is for a cause and willing to stand up for it. Their participation intensifies favorable opinion, sways the undecided and negates the opposition.”

Public opinion is usually latent until it reacts to an issue. The problem often is to find a catalyst to spur interest into activity. Our committee [he's talking about the Damaged Goods committee] was such a catalyst.”

“In drama, as in other undertakings for public consumption, timing is crucial.”
(NB the success of Damaged Goods: “Public opinion was prepared to accept its thesis.”)

I must study and know my public before I could deal with it and affect it.”

“The public should be understood and its needs considered”

“The illusion of success helps bring success.”
(Oops, apologies, bit of a platitude that one.)

Emphasis by repetition gains acceptance for an idea, particularly if the repetition comes from different sources.”

What if not everyone agrees?

After Bernays had had the leader of the B.A. Rolfe orchestra to write a letter to TV, radio et al outlets, he wrote that:

“The replies to Rolfe's letter ran the gamut of the Pareto curve, from praise to disdain, but we didn't mind whether people talked for or against the thesis as long as they talked.”

Is it hard to recruit a committee?

With reference to the psychologist discussion of green, above: “I had wondered at the alacrity with which scientists, academics and professional men participated in events of this kind. I learned they welcomed the opportunity to discuss their favourite subject and enjoyed the resultant publicity.”

And a final six tips…

  1. Before launch, the key is to create a “climate of opinion” that prepares the way for your product.
  2. Link the product to pioneers: to promote car engine oil, he made sure aviation pioneers used it.
  3. Give the impression of a broad base of support, ideally through a committee.
  4. Have at least one newsworthy event that, to use Walter Lippmann's phrase “juts out of the routine of circumstance” each month.
  5. Promoting a play, Bernays learned to give a different exclusive feature story to each paper.
  6. He believed in the importance of symbols, and pictures as symbols.

Have a favourite Bernays quote/story/insight that I've missed? Have an opinion on this piece? I'd love to hear. Send me an email at or tweet me @jameswallman.