Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Book Review: The Father of Spin


The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays 
and The Birth of Public Relations

by Larry Tye,

Crown Publishers, 1998; 306 pages

Larry Tye 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.

The 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 public relations.

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.

This full-length 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 relations.”

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 traditional professions.

“[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 tobacco.

“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 objectives.”

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.”


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