A few weeks ago, I had the chance to interview Larry Tye, author of The Father of Spin – Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. Bernays’ work moved the profession from press agentry to a practice supported by science—the pioneering psychology research done by none other than Bernays’ uncle, Sigmund Freud.
Bernays’ campaigns blended the art and science of PR brilliantly and had a tremendous influence on American life. He utilized doctors as influencers to tell Americans that a healthy breakfast should include eggs and bacon; encouraged the home construction industry to add bookcases to homes to encourage people to buy more books; and made smoking a womens’ rights issue. His work is more impressive when you consider he was successful in an era without the digital communications tools we have at our disposal today.
My conversation with Tye got me thinking about what lessons Bernays can provide a modern PR pro. Here are the three that I find most powerful:
1 Get in people’s heads
Today’s PR often skips the crucial step of understanding deeper motivations before crafting messages and tactics to tie into them. Tye notes in his book that Bernays’ believed we have unconscious drives dating to childhood that make us act the way we do. His ability to tap into these instincts and symbols was how he influenced the behavior of the masses.
He also believed in doing the necessary research to frame a good story. When tasked with generating interest in a Russian ballet at a time when Americans had little interest in Russian culture, he talked with several people to find what they thought of the performance and why. He dug into the backstory of the performers to develop a packet of intriguing materials to share with the press. He also wasn’t above a good stunt—he had the principal ballerina in the show photographed with a harmless-but-long snake from the Bronx Zoo draped around her body. The compelling image made page-one of many top newspapers.
2 Think big and bigger
As PR pros, we are sometimes guilty of grabbing the proverbial low-hanging fruit and executing plans that merely tell the news as our client or boss wants it told. Sometimes that is warranted, but Bernays shows us how we can tie what we’re working on into a larger narrative, or create a larger narrative that ties into your news.
Bernays could’ve just churned out news releases and a satellite media tour to encourage people to start their days with bacon and eggs instead of a light breakfast. Instead he tied it to their health and wellbeing—having physicians advocate for eating a heavier breakfast. This tied the news to a compelling motivation that gave the story a longer shelf life, and sold lots of bacon for his client, the Beech-Nut Packing Company.
3 Don’t throw out the old school
One can only imagine what fun Bernays would have had with communication tools like viral videos, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. He’d find a way to make his clients a trending topic. But Bernays also knew the value of using different—and perhaps outdated—channels to tell the story.
“In era of faxes, he’d send a telegram,” Tye says. “Eddie understood the value of new technology and was an early adopter, but was brilliant enough to know that using [older technology] could grab attention.” For today’s PR pro, that might mean moving away from overly crowded digital channels and doing something in print or another medium. It’s all about creating something that strikes people as uncommon, as though it took a little extra time to make it that way, but doing so made it better, more memorable and, ultimately, more buzz-worthy.
Bernays’ strategic tactics are still useful to professional communicators—even those who don’t work in PR. Have you used some Bernays-inspired tactics in your work? Feel free to share in the comments below.