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I’m currently reading Larry Tye’s book “The Father of Spin” about Edward L Bernays, the man who turned public relations from the entertainment industry’s scam to a legitimate business tool.
Bernays was famous for applying behavioural sciences to business, something I greatly admire him for. His list of achievements is enormous. He enticed socialites to adopt green as the colour of a season to make fashion match a client’s packaging; convinced governments to increase funding for roads, effectively decimating the rail goods transportation industry; made ballet popular in the United States; and created an endless market for hairnets once they were no longer a fashion accessory. These are all things that any PR Practitioner love to say they did.
I’m in two minds about him though. Tye reports in his book a couple of things that make me question Bernays’s ethics.
When Bernays passed away, he left boxes of his extensive notes to the Library of Congress. Among these notes was firm evidence from the 30s proving the cigarette smoke was harmful and cancer causing. Cancer Council Victoria reports that 1,790 Victorians died from lung cancer (just one form of cancer cause by smoking) in 2005. If Bernays hadn’t of suppressed that information would smoking have become so popular and all these people die?
Other things that make me question Bernays’s ethics. Tye was unable to verify some of the achievements Bernays claims in his autobiography. Bernays claimed he convinced the Czech nationalist leader, Masaryk, change the date of his country’s declaration of freedom to maximise press coverage. Other reports give varying dates and years for both the declaration and Bernays meeting with Masaryk.
I know not to put anyone on a pedestal and appreciate his work with behavioural studies, but let’s wait for the rest of the book to see if Edward L Bernays was overall a good guy or a bad guy.