He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the 'herd instinct' that Trotter had described. Adam Curtis's award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC, The Century of the Self, pinpoints Bernays as the originator of modern public relations, and Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine.
As well as being influenced by his uncle Sigmund's ideas of the Unconscious, Bernays applied the ideas of the French writer Gustave LeBon, the originator of Crowd psychology, and of Wilfred Trotter, who promoted similar ideas to the English speaking world in his famous book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. Bernays refers to these two names in his writings. Trotter, who was a head and neck surgeon at University College Hospital, London, read Freud's works, and it was he who introduced Wilfred Bion, whom he lived and worked with, to Freud's ideas. When Freud fled Germany for London at the start of World War II, Trotter became his personal Physician, and Wilfred Bion and Ernest Jones became key members of the Freudian Psychoanalysis movement in England, and would go on to develop the field of Group Dynamics, largely associated with the Tavistock Institute where many of Freud's followers worked. Thus ideas of Group Psychology and Psychoanalysis came together in London around World War II
Bernays's public relations efforts helped popularize Freud's theories in the United States. Bernays also pioneered the PR industry's use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." (Propaganda, 2005 ed., p. 71.) He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the "engineering of consent."
In 1913, Bernays started his career as Press Agent, counseling to theaters, concerts and the ballet. In 1917, American President Woodrow Wilson engaged George Creel and realizing one of his ideas, he founded the "Committee on Public Information." Bernays, Carl Byoir and John Price Jones worked together to influence public opinion towards supporting American participation in World War I.
In 1919, he opened an office as Public Relations Counselor in New York. He held the first Public Relations course at the University of New York in 1923, publishing the first groundbreaking book on public relations entitled Crystallizing Public Opinion that same year.
PR industry historian Scott Cutlip describes Bernays as "perhaps public relations' most fabulous and fascinating individual, a man who was bright, articulate to excess, and most of all, an innovative thinker and philosopher of this vocation that was in its infancy when he opened his office in New York in June 1919."
Bernays, who pursued his calling in New York City 1919-1963, styled himself a "public relations counsel." He had very pronounced views on the differences between what he did and what people in advertising did. A pivotal figure in the orchestration of elaborate corporate advertising campaigns and multi-media consumer spectacles, he nevertheless is among those listed in the acknowledgments section of the seminal government social science study Recent Social Trends in the United States (1933).
On a par with Bernays as the most sought-after public relations counsel of the decade was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, among whose chief clients were John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Bethlehem Steel, Armour & Company, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lee is represented in the Coolidge-Consumerism collection by "Publicity: Some of the Things It Is and Is Not" (1925).
Bernays, however, was a philosopher of promotion, and it was probably that philosophical quality, evident in his writings and speeches, as well as the sheer exuberant creativity and intelligence of his publicity blitzes, which enabled him to impart to his own efforts and to the field more generally a sense of stature, scope and profundity.
The belief that propaganda and news were legitimate tools of his business, and his ability to offer philosophical justifications for these beliefs that ultimately embraced the whole democratic way of life, in Bernays' mind set his work in public relations apart from what ad men did. The Bernays essays A Public Relations Counsel States His Views (1927) and This Business of Propaganda (1928) show that Bernays regarded advertising men as special pleaders, merely paid to persuade people to accept an idea or commodity. The public relations counsel, on the other hand, he saw as an Emersonian-like creator of events that dramatized new concepts and perceptions, and even influenced the actions of leaders and groups in society.
Bernays' vision was of a utopian society in which the dangerous libidinal energies that lurked just below the surface of every individual could be harnessed and channeled by a corporate elite for economic benefit. Through the use of mass production, big business could fulfill constant craving of the inherently irrational and desire driven masses, simultaneously securing the niche of a mass production economy (even in peacetime), as well as sating the dangerous animal urges that threatened to tear society apart if left unquelled.
Bernays' magisterial, philosophical touch is in evidence in Manipulating Public Opinion (1928) when he writes: "This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas." Yet he recognized the potential danger in so grand a scheme and in This Business of Propaganda (1928), as elsewhere, sounded the great caveat that adds a grace note to his ambitious vision: a public relations counsel "must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society."
In Propaganda (1928), his most important book, Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy:
Notwithstanding such seeming probity, articles in the journals of opinion, such as the one by Marlen Pew, Edward L. Bernays Critiqued as "Young Machiavelli of Our Time", and the debate between Bernays and Everett Dean Martin in Forum, Are We Victims of Propaganda?, depicted Bernays negatively. He and other publicists were often attacked as propagandists and deceptive manipulators, who represented special interests against the public interest and covertly contrived events that secured coverage as news stories, free of charge, for their clients instead of securing attention for them through paid advertisements.
Bernays' brilliance for promotion in this vein emerges clearly when one reads, in the Bernays Typescript on Publicizing the New Dodge Cars, 1927-1928: "Two Sixes", the story of how he managed to secure newspaper coverage for the radio programs he developed to promote the Dodge Brothers' new six-cylinder cars. The Bernays Typescript on Publicizing the Fashion Industry, 1925-27: "Hats and Stockings" and the Bernays Typescript on Art in the Fashion Industry, 1923-1927, reveal a similar flair for consumer manipulation in the arena of fashion.
In addition to famous corporate clients, such as the Dodge Brothers, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, Cartier, Inc., Best Foods, CBS, the United Fruit Company, General Electric, Dodge Motors, the fluoridationists of the Public Health Service, Knox-Gelatin, and innumerable other big names, Bernays also worked on behalf of many non-profit institutions and organization. These included, to name just a few, the Committee on Publicity Methods in Social Work (1926-1927), the Jewish Mental Health Society (1928), the Book Publishers Research Institute (1930-1931), the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1933), the Committee for Consumer Legislation (1934), the Friends of Danish Freedom and Democracy (1940), the Citywide Citizens' Committee on Harlem (1942), and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (1954-1961). For the U.S. Government, he worked for the President's Emergency Committee on Employment (1930-1932) and President Calvin Coolidge.
The amusing Bernays Typescript on Public Relations Work and Politics, 1924: "Breakfast with Coolidge" shows that President Coolidge too was among his clients. Bernays was hired to improve Coolidge's image before the 1924 presidential election.
Another selection from his papers, the Typescript on Publicizing the Physical Culture Industry, 1927: "Bernarr Macfadden", reveals Bernays' opinion of the leader of the physical culture movement. Yet another client, department store visionary Edward A. Filene, was the subject of the Typescript on a Boston Department Store Magnate. Bernays' Typescript on the Importance of Samuel Strauss: "1924 - Private Life" shows that the public relations counsel and his wife were fans of consumerism critic Samuel Strauss.
Beyond his contributions to these famous and powerful clients, Bernays revolutionized public relations by combining traditional press agentry with the techniques of psychology and sociology to create what one writer has called "the science of ballyhoo."
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda would later denounce the dominance of foreign-owned banana producers in the politics of several Latin American countries in a poem titled "La United Fruit Co."
"When a person would first meet Bernays," says Cutlip, "it would not be long until Uncle Sigmund would be brought into the conversation. His relationship with Freud was always in the forefront of his thinking and his counseling." According to Irwin Ross, another writer, "Bernays liked to think of himself as a kind of psychoanalyst to troubled corporations." In the early 1920s, Bernays arranged an English-language translation of Freud's General Introduction to Psychoanalysis for the US publication. In addition to publicizing Freud's ideas, Bernays used his association with Freud to establish his own reputation as a thinker and theorist—a reputation that was further enhanced when Bernays authored several landmark texts of his own, most notably Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923, ISBN 0-87140-975-5), Propaganda (1928, ISBN 0-8046-1511-X) and "The Engineering of Consent" in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (March 1947).
Bernays defined the profession of "counsel on public relations" as a "practicing social scientist" whose "competence is like that of the industrial engineer, the management engineer, or the investment counselor in their respective fields." To assist clients, PR counselors used "understanding of the behavioral sciences and applying them—sociology, social psychology, anthropology, history, etc." In Propaganda, his most important book, Bernays argued that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society.
Bernays' celebration of propaganda helped define public relations, but it did not win the industry many friends. In a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described Bernays and Ivy Lee as "professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest." And history showed the flaw in Bernays' identification of the "manipulation of the masses" as a natural and necessary feature of a democratic society. The fascist rise to power in Germany demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy as easily as it could be used to "resolve conflict."
In his 1965 autobiography, Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where
It is impossible to fundamentally grasp the social, political, economic and cultural developments of the past 100 years without some understanding of Bernays and his professional heirs in the public relations industry. As a result his legacy remains a highly contested one, as evidenced by the 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self, where he is described as "undemocratic". PR is a 20th-century phenomenon, and Bernays -- widely eulogized as the "father of public relations" at the time of his death in 1995 -- played a major role in defining the industry's philosophy and methods.
In addition to his uncle Freud, Bernays also used the theories of Ivan Pavlov.
The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.
– (Edward L. Bernays, "The Engineering of Consent," 1947)