Crown Publishers, 1998; 306 pages
is an American non-fiction author and journalist known for his biographies of
notable Americans including Edward Bernays (1999) Satchel Paige (2009), Robert
F. Kennedy (2016) and Joseph McCarthy (2020).
I was particularly interested in this book because I spent much of my
working life doing PR, and Bernays was the father of the trade.
Father of Spin is the
first full-length biography of the legendary Edward L. Bernays, who, beginning
in the 1920s, was one of the first successful practitioners of the art of
In this engrossing biography, Larry Tye uses Bernays’s life as a prism to understand the evolution of the craft of public relations and how it came to play a critical – and sometimes insidious – role in modern life.
Drawing on interviews
with primary sources and voluminous private papers, Tye presents a fascinating
and revealing portrait of the man who, more than anyone else, defined and
personified public relations, a profession that today helps shape our political
discourse and define our commercial choices.
biography of Edward L. Bernays, who, beginning in the 1920s, was an enormously influential
innovator in this field. This engrossing biography shows how the craft of
public relations came to play an important role in modern life.
Drawing on interviews with primary sources and voluminous private papers, Tye portrays the man who defined and personified public relations – a profession that helps shape political discourse and affects many of our commercial choices.
Bernays’ earliest book,
published in 1923, was titled Crystallizing Public Opinion. He published his second book, Propaganda, five years later. A European Jew by birth and the nephew of Sigmund
Freud, he learned in 1933 that Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels was using his
ideas in its early campaigns against Jews.
It was a talent he first learned in
the U.S. Committee on Public Information, whose half-truths, exaggerations and
outright lies sold the American public on the First World War, so the world
would (in President Woodrow Wilson’s words) “be made safe for democracy.”
His methods are still used on the
public today, a fact that might both please and dismay the “father of public
Mr. Bernays was very thorough and
very professional, and eager to distance himself from his predecessors, the
stereotypically sleazy press agents. As a nephew of Sigmund Freud, he loudly
proclaimed the usefulness of his uncle’s theories in manipulating the public.
In many ways, Propaganda is his attempt to garner the same respect accorded
“[He]did a great deal to legitimize
the work of propaganda – first of all by renaming it ‘public relations,’
although he was annoyed that the word ‘propaganda’ had become pejorative,”
Prof. Miller said. “He regarded propaganda as an entirely rational and humane
means of running a society.”
“The conscious and intelligent
manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important
element in democratic society,” Mr. Bernays says in the first sentences of the
book. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism . . . constitute an invisible
government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
“We are governed, our minds
moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never
heard of.” And propaganda is the “executive arm of the invisible government.”
Yet Mr. Bernays’s easy humanism is
somewhat disingenuous, considering that his major work as a “public-relations
counsel” was for high-paying, well-financed corporations with sales or image
problems that could afford his price.
Mr. Bernays brought big-picture
thinking to public relations, the idea of engineering an enormous change in
public behaviour with the help of psychological and sociological insight. “It
was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened
the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities
of regimenting the public mind,” he wrote.
Whereas the press agents before him
thought in terms of individual changes, Mr. Bernays loathed the “hard sell” or
even any connection to selling. He mastered the indirect approach, which went
along with his “invisible masters” conception.
For example, Mr. Bernays was instrumental
in promoting smoking during the 1920s and the 1940s. One of his most famous
coups was his “Torches of Freedom” event in 1929, during which dozens of women
on Fifth Avenue during the Easter parade lighted cigarettes. The press had been
forewarned and were there to cover it.
No one knew Mr. Bernays had
arranged the event, at the behest of a tobacco company, so that women would
associate smoking with progress and freedom, but he helped generations of
female smokers form the habit.
He continued working for tobacco
companies for years, but directed his children to destroy their mother’s
cigarettes any chance they got. Finally, late in life, after becoming convinced
of the dangers of smoking, he would try to dissuade all PR firms from promoting
“He was a bundle of contradictions
in everything he did and even more in terms of ethics,” said Larry Tye, who
wrote the first and only Bernays biography, 1998’s The Father of Spin.
During the last 20 years of his
life, Mr. Bernays strongly advocated a set of ethical guidelines for the
profession, but the effort came late from a man who spent most of his career
pioneering some of the most disreputable methods in the profession.
His work for the United Fruit
Company, for example, helped the Central Intelligence Agency overthrow the
democratically elected Guatemalan government.
“He gave us the contradiction that
PR represents today,” Mr. Tye remarked. “PR can be used for the best and worst
Propaganda is an accessible,
fascinating examination of Mr. Bernays’s concepts and methods, which would
affect world events right into the new millennium.
“George Bush and his spinmeisters
looked as though they’d taken a page from Bernays’s book,” Mr. Tye remarked. “They
really made a case for invading Iraq that pushed all the right buttons.”