If the Father of Public Relations lived in the social media age

One of the biggest influences on my professional career was Edward L. Bernays.  When I mention his name, most people say they never heard of him.  Yet, Life magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century.  And, based on the way he treated friends, clients and associates, he would have been right at home in today’s “social media” world of communications.

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

Upon graduating from college (Cornell, class of 1912), Bernays chose journalism as his first career, and worked in the Woodrow Wilson administration during World War I on the Committee on Public Information, which was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe.”

Following the war, Bernays considered whether the committee’s efforts to “engineer public consent” could be applied in peacetime.  Most significantly, he studied the theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud.  Both of Bernays’ parents were related to Freud, and Bernays eventually determined that he could apply “Uncle Siggy”‘s principles and those of other psychologists to business. In 1923, in the book Crystallizing Public Opinion, Bernays coined a term for how he would make that application: public relations.

I learned this when I had the opportunity to meet Bernays at a two-day, limited-attendance seminar with him in New York several years ago.  At the time, he was in his mid-90s (Bernays died in 1995 at the age of 101), and clearly appeared frail and elderly. But his lively mind recalled many fascinating stories and offered insightful counsel on the various projects and programs we were working on.  As demonstrated in an energetic 16-block walk with our group to dinner, he was in good physical shape.

The stories of his 70-year career as counselor to Presidents, chief executives and world leaders left many strong impressions, but perhaps the most impressive was something that happened to me just a couple of days after returning from the seminar.  I received, in the mail, the copy of an article – I don’t recall what it was about, but what I remember most is that, at the top of the page was stamped “For your possible interest – E.L. Bernays.” To my surprise, he had sent me something he thought I might be interested in reading.

Yes, I know, he probably did that with everyone who came to the class, as well as many others he’d added to what must have been a huge mailing list.  But to a junior PR person early in his career, it was both memorable and encouraging.

So, why would Bernays be at home in today’s world of social media and digital communications?  Take a look through LinkedIn – in particular, at what is posted on the various LinkedIn groups you may belong to.  Yes, job openings, and blog posts, but in many cases, links to interesting articles.  To share insights and build relationships with others on LinkedIn, many post examples of “thought leadership” that may resonate, influence or be relevant to others in similar fields and industries.

It’s a basic, yet powerful, way to display an understanding of a topic or issue, to help inform and enlighten others, and to provide others with information that they can put to use.  In the business of public relations, it’s basic to building relationships with clients.  And if he were alive today, Bernays – the “Father of Public Relations” – would be online doing the same with those on that huge mailing list.