· Education Essays

Historical Figures: Edward Louis Bernays

Edward Bernays is one the most prominent figures in the history of public relations. By many accounts, Bernays was one of the first to define the field, and almost certainly the first to give public lectures on the subject. His influence on the 20th century can only be judged as considerable.


Edward Louis Bernays was born on November 22, 1891 in Vienna to a Jewish family. His parents were Ely Bernays and Anna Freud Bernays. His maternal uncle was the well knows psychologist Sigmund Freud. He was one of five children.

New York City

Bernays was only a year old in 1892 when his parents decided to move to New York City in the United States. There Bernays' father, Ely, became a successful grain merchant. Bernays' parents expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Bernays passed his initial education in New York City. To fulfill his family’s wishes, he went on to study in the Agricultural College of the Cornell University. He graduated in 1912, but then changed his mind, and chose a journalistic career over that of a grain merchant.
Personal Life

Bernays was married to his wife Doris Fleischman, a talented writer, strategist and women rights activist, who he had know since childhood, in 1922. The Economist accounts, that they wished for a modern wedding, “stripped of the pomp and ceremony that symbolized the enslavement of woman to man”.[1] Doris became a long time partner in Bernays’ public relations companies and undertakings.


According to the biographer Larry Tye, as his first employment, Bernays began editing the Medical Review of Reviews in New York City.[2]
UXL Newsmakers research shows, however, that Bernays' job related to public relations, was the play "Damaged Goods" by the actor Richard Bennet. Bennet received Bernays’ help with setting up a Sociological Fund Committee that was able to find finance and public support for the play. Later the play was acclaimed as a critical success and praised for bringing public awareness to venereal disease.[3]
The research by Encyclopedia of World Biography adds that during the years 1913 - 1917 Bernays promoted various theatrical pieces and met famous artists including Enrico Caruso and the actors of the Diaghilev's Ballet Russe company.[4] According to the Museum of Public Relations, to support Diaghilev, Bernays presented the media with provocative publications asking “Are American men ashamed to be graceful?” and created a pamphlet that advised men on issues of dance.[5]
In 1919 Bernays started his own company under the title “Edward L. Bernays, Counsel on Public Relations”. To support and advertized the career he had invented, Edward Bernays taught the first Public Relations class in 1923 in the University's School of Business and Finance in New York City.


Bernays often used public figures of authority for campaigns and publicity, also front organizations and third-party authorities to gain attraction to his clients interests and productions, but mask the direct interest itself. There are many famous examples of this.
Hair nets. When working for Venida in the 1920s, Bernays was successful in changing the beginning trend for shorter hairstyles.[6] He persuaded important women to wear hair nets in public. He also lobbied the government circles and authorities. Eventually legislation was passed, that required women to wear hair nets during work.
Cigarettes. In the 1930s, George Washington Hill of American Tobacco contacted Bernays and worried that he was missing "the other half of his potential market” and he needed Bernays help to ”find a way to change the public’s attitude”.[7] Bernays’ solution to the problem involved changing the color of the pack of the cigarettes to mach ladies’ dresses and associating smoking with sentiments of female emancipation.

During the century Bernays' clients included the U.S. government, the U.S Army, the U.S Navy, the U.S Commerce and Treasury departments, the U.S Public Health Service, U.S. presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower as well as Columbia University, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Tobacco Company, Dodge Motors, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, CBS, Venida and others.


One could argue that Bernays viewed his work as a helpful for the general public. In his mayor work "Propaganda" he makes this clear by saying:
"In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything."[8]

In "Propaganda" it is also argued, that publicity makers tried to force consumers into buying, public relations however creates the needs – consumption is what follows . He thought people could and should be led by influencing the opinion leaders: “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.”[9]
Bernays was deeply influenced by his experiences in World War I where he worked as a war propagandist for the United States Government. During the war he understood that public relations differed from simple publicity and imagined a style of propaganda that would used war-time tactics in peaceful times. He wanted to understand which were the values that the public held and use this knowledge to convey his produce. “If this could be used for war, it can be used for peace,” he said in a 1991 interview with the New York Times upon turning 100.[10]
For such use of propaganda, the Journalist Christopher Bryson, author of the book “The Fluoride Deception” which describes in details how Bernays and others propagated the use of fluoride in toothpaste, has called Bernays in a 2004 interview “a Machiavellian genius”.[11]


The Library of Congress that has subscribed to letters and manuscripts produced by or in relation with people of great importance lists 227, 000 items on Bernays. [12] A good indication of the life of work that Bernays led and amount of work behind Bernays’ use of propaganda, the list includes advice, legal documents, family correspondence and general correspondence as well as other papers.
Later years

Bernays remained active to his old age and never lost his interest in is profession, its development and most of all – changing the way the world works. A New York Times article verily accounts that “Around his 100th birthday, he campaigned unsuccessfully to get legislation passed in Massachusetts and other states that would have required the licensing of public-relations practitioners.”[13]
Bernays lived a famously long and successful professional life and personal life. Edward Louis Bernays died on March 9, 1995, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Such historical facts highlight Edward Bernays among public relations practitioners and theorist of the past century. In addition to being one of the forefathers of public relations, he was also a publicist, a writer, a lecturer, and a man of great dignity and morale. The quality Bernays' understanding of the human being and insight into the human have demonstrated excellence of mind, even when judged by standards of the twenty-first century.

[1] The Economist. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations. October 1998. [2] Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations. 1998. Crown Publishers. [3] UXL Newsmakers. „Edward L. Bernays”. (2005). FindArticles.com. 23 Sep. 2007. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/migx5221/is2005/ain19134958 [4] Encyclopedia of World Biography. „Edward L. Bernays”. 1998. Gale Research. [5] Museum of Public Relations. „Edward L. Bernays”. PRMuseum.com. 23 Sep. 2007. http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays1915.html [6] UXL Newsmakers. „Edward L. Bernays”. (2005). FindArticles.com. 23 Sep. 2007. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/migx5221/is2005/ai_n19134958 [7] Hattal, Alvin M. The father of public relations: Edward L. Bernays. Jan. 1, 1992. Communications World. [8] Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. (p. 10-11). 1928. New York. [9] Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. (p. 43-44). 1928. New York. [10] Edward Bernays, 'Father of Public Relations' And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103. The New York Times. March 10, 1995. [11] Google Video. „Edward Bernays”. 24 September 2007. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4127471896206528068 [12] Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. „Edward L. Bernays”. 1996. 24. September 2007. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/mss/eadxmlmss/eadpdfmss/2003/ms003016.pdf [13] The New York Times. Edward Bernays, 'Father of Public Relations' And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103. March 10, 1995.

Written For Semester 1 Public Relations Class with Kaja Tampere. The Baltic Film & Media School Of Tallinn University

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