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PR History 101: Two Eggs, Bacon and a Side of PR

June 28th, 2006

Matthew Moskowitz

The following statements are fact:

1. The top PR companies in the US have seen a skyrocketing increase in earnings during the last decade.

2. More companies are incorporating PR strategies into their business plans.

3. More Public Relations professionals are coming on the scene.

This got me thinking…who was the first PR professional? Who created our industry?

The general consensus is that Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee are our forefathers. Yet the stories of these two men are largely unknown (with the exception of viewers of the superlative BBC documentary Century of the Self). Here is a Cliffs Notes summary about these two to raise your PR IQ!

Edward Bernays, who many call the Father of PR, was the nephew of legendary psychologist Sigmund Freud. After learning the nuances of psychology and social sciences from his uncle, he was the first to incorporate the ideas of the mind into campaigns of public persuasion. He created many of the techniques that we now accept as commonplace in product promotion and politics.

Bernays’ most notorious and perhaps most influential campaign took place in the 1920’s and it still resonates today. In fact, you probably were affected by his work this past weekend.

In 1924 the Beechnut Packing Company tried to revitalize sales of its primary product, bacon. Simple-minded marketers offered their advice: Lower your prices! Increase your advertising!

Bernays had another idea.

He set about changing how Americans viewed breakfast itself. Until then, the average morning meal consisted of a slice of toast, some coffee and maybe a little juice. Bernays saw an opportunity to beef (or should I say pork) it up.

He distributed a survey to 5,000 doctors, with a simple query. “Do you support a hearty breakfast or a light one?” The doctors responded that hearty was best and Bernays took it out to the media with some medical research to back it up. Bacon sales jumped up after Bernays disseminated the information everywhere. He was, then, the first to illustrate that an independent third party could be more influential to sales than direct advertising.

For PR pros specializing in damage control, let’s look back at the varied and questionable practices of Ivy Lee for inspiration. A one-time journalist, Lee gained recognition in 1914 after being hired to spin the story of the Ludlow Massacre. When the workers in a Rockefeller-owned mining town went on strike, our National Guard was called in to settle it; 13 people died and many others were injured. It was a tragedy—and a Public Relations disaster.

Lee quieted that furor by sending bulletins of (untrue) information to the press. He claimed that these deaths resulted from an overturned stove, not from the gunfire as many thought. (Notation: We are not condoning his lies, we’re just reporting here!)

Lee eased tensions in the town by arranging public meetings for John D. Rockefeller to interact with the devastated mining community—shaking stained hands, kissing baby faces. There was the press, too, standing by to cover it all. Crisis management was born.

Since that early experimental era, Public Relations has come a long way, baby (Bernays was Virginia Slims’ PR guy for years!) and yet it all started with seeds of inspiration. These two gentlemen, honored for a century till their respective deaths, haven’t made the grade recently. Bernays, who was, after all, Freud’s nephew, and Lee, who stopped at nothing to make a point, also deserve a little mention every now and then.

Matthew Moskowitz is an Account Executive at RLM and our firm’s designated historian.