Who is the Father of Modern Public Relations?

Several names usually come up whenever this question is asked. One is P.T. Barnum, best known for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus and coining the phrase: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

A showman by nature, Barnum could always be counted on for coming up with novel, if not startling ways of grabbing people’s attention and interest. And in his spare time, he did pro bono work to change the perception of theatre which was perceived by many in the mid 1800’s as “dens of evil.”

He was credited for introducing theatre matinees as a way of encouraging families to come out.

Ivy Lee is another person whose name is often mentioned as one of the founders of modern public relations and the originator of modern crisis communications. Lee served many highly recognizable clients, the most well-known being John D. Rockefeller.

A couple of his firsts included publication of his “Declaration of Principles,” an important value statement that public relations also has a responsibility that extends past its client.

That was in 1906, the same year of a big train wreck in Atlantic City. Lee persuaded the Pennsylvania Train Company to inform the public of the accident before others began hearing about it in what was said to be the first press release ever.

As a successful PR professional, Lee’s main competitor was Edward Bernays who was four years younger and recognized by most PR professionals today as the father of modern public relations.

Who’s Edward Bernays?

One thing that set Bernays apart from Lee was the fact that Bernays wrote or co-authored 18 books. Half were about public relations or aspects of good communications. “Crystallizing Public Relations” was his first book about the profession. It was released in 1923 and drew praise for pioneering a study on public opinion. That book and his teaching a course on public relations at New York University were firsts. Another was that Life Magazine recognized Bernays as one of the 100 most influential Americans in the 20th century.

Bernays had a theory that the general public was irrational and prone to following what he referred to as a “herd instinct.”

His first book and another, “Propaganda,” which was published in 1928, described ways in which crowd psychology and psychoanalysis could be employed by skilled PR people to control the masses.

The second book drew criticism for advocating mass manipulation.
It’s likely Bernays learned a bit about psychology as a “double nephew” of noted psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Bernay’s mother was Freud’s sister and his father’s sister was married to Freud. Bernays also promoted Freud and leveraged that relationship to establish his own reputation as a theorist.

In the public relations profession, Bernays is known for pioneering the application of psychology to craft campaigns aimed at persuading the public. He referred to his technique of molding opinions as the “engineering of consent.”

His embrace of propaganda and manipulation of the masses for the overall good of business and society in the 1930s resulted in some critics comparing him to fascists like Adolf Hitler.

Bernays’ visibility and reputation earned him some large clients like Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, Best Foods, Cartier, CBS, Dodge Motors, General Electric, the United Fruit Company and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. On the non-profit side, Bernays represented many charities and managed the NAACP’s first convention in Atlanta.

It was considered a big success because of the absence of violence and a tribute to African Americans for their contributions to the south.