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The father of public relations: Edward L. Bernays.

The TV director is having fits in the control booth. In the studio, the floor manager slashes his index finger across his throat in a frantic signal to the talk-show host to end the interview. The three cameramen exchange glances. The interview is already two minutes overtime and the studio crew is coming unglued.

Oblivious to them all, the talk-show host, Maury Povich, calmly asks his guest:

"At 94, Mr. Bernays, what are your plans?" And with actress Liv Ullman good-naturedly waiting her turn to be interviewed about her new book, Edward Bernays replies:

"First of all, Mr. Povich, I'm 95, although my doctor says that, physiologically, I'm only 64. Everyone, you know, has five ages: chronological, physiological, mental ......

That was five years ago. Povich, then running a popular noontime program called Panorama on WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C., was so intrigued by the man whom many call the father of public relations" that he forgot about time.

Outside the public relations field, where Bernays is a legend, people such as Povich who have never heard of him, are fascinated to learn how his radical ideas and brilliant innovations have influenced their lives and behavior. Like how he turned children into soap lovers - specifically, Ivory soap - by setting up a national competition in the 1920s for the best sculptures made from client Procter & Gamble's product. And how he got people to eat more bacon by citing medical research showing that a hearty breakfast was good for them.

In his still very active, 75-year career, he has been intimately involved in countless history-making events with people who have changed the world often with his help and advice.

In 1934, when it was socially taboo for women to smoke in public, George Washington Hill of American Tobacco set his sights on "the other half of his potential market and hired Bernays to find a way to change the public's attitude.

"I rang up a few debutante friends," he says, "and asked them if they would be willing to march down New York's Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday carrying their lighted 'torches of freedom."' They did, and that dramatic event literally lighted the way toward fulfilling Hill's dream. (Years later, when the dangers of smoking become known, Bernays actively campaigned to keep cigarette advertising off television.)

Marketing public relations, however, has been only one of Bernays' interests. His hundreds of clients have included world leaders ranging from U.S. presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, and Eisenhower) and industrialists (Thomas Edison, David Sarnoff and publisher Henry Luce) to international figures (Caruso, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nijinski and the Diaghilev Ballet Russe).

Along the way, he refused to advise Hitler and Franco, who sought his counsel despite the fact that he was a Jew born in Vienna, the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Although he turned 100 on November 22, Bernays continually travels around the world in response to invitations to speak to college students, public relations groups, commercial and nonprofit organizations, and clients. just a year ago he went to Barcelona to help mark Spain's industrialization and its preparation for joining the Economic Community in 1992. The Spanish group lionized him from the moment he arrived and gave three parties to celebrate his 99th birthday.

"When I looked out the window of the limousine that took me into town, I saw that every lamppost had two big posters with my picture and the words: 'Homenaje a Edward L. Bernays.'my hosts in Barcelona had asked me for permission to reprint my first book, "Crystallizing Public Relations," and I signed more than 200 copies." It was in that very book - one of 14 he has written - that Bernays invented the title of "public relations counselor."

In a special issue last fall, Life magazine, in tribute to his part in creating what it called "the industry of public relations," named him one of "the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century," along with such influentials as Henry Ford, Jonas Salk, Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein.

He also is undoubtedly the envy of counselors who have heard that he commands - and gets - $1,000 an hour from his clients, which include the Massachusetts Bar Association, Golden Gate University, Smithsonian Institution, Mortgage Bankers Association, Bureau of Business & Technology, American Insurance Association, Personnel Development Institute, and California State University at Fullerton.

What does a popular icon think of the current state of the industry he helped to create and nourish?

"As far as the public and the media are concerned," he says, "the current status of public relations is dismal. Any dumbbell, nitwit or crook can call himself a public relations practitioner. Many who do so are only press agents, if that."

Bernays stirred up a controversy several years ago by calling for the licensing of public relations practitioners by the government. It would have been the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, he says.

"They would have committed themselves to giving up their title of public relations counsel or adviser if they engaged in any unethical act."

One association's thought leader who disagrees with Bernays on the concept of licensing is Ann Barkelew, who has co-chaired PRSA's Committee on the Future of Public Relations since 1986. Asked what she thinks of licensing, she reflects the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the men and women in the field.

"I don't think it's necessary," says Barkelew, who is vice president for public relations of Dayton Hudson in Minneapolis, Minn. "We ought to be able to do to ourselves what licensing would do to us. And we do now have an adequate body of knowledge.

"There are even a substantial number of accredited courses, according to some leaders of the profession. Except," Barkelew quickly adds, "in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota doesn't recognize public relations as a profession. The professors over there take the attitude that those people who can't be journalists go into public relations."

Bernays, who taught what was probably the first course ever in public relations, in New York University's School of Business and Finance, says: "I purposely didn't give it in the school of journalism. How it got accepted by schools of journalism, I have no idea."

As for licensing, he acknowledges that lack of support made him finally give it up, although he still favors the idea.

"Seventy years ago," Bernays explains, "H.L. Mencken wrote in The American Language that public relations' is a substitute for 'press agent.' I got him to accept my definition when he wrote his supplement to that work. In that supplement, he identifies a public relations practitioner as 'an applied social scientist who gives advice to clients or employers on social attitudes and the actions to take to win the support of the publics on whom the viability of the client or employer depends.'

Unfortunately, Bernays adds, "the status of public relations is not improving, and neither is the teaching of public relations. Some schools of communication have no courses in the social sciences. But a professional has to know psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, and public opinion research to know what to say and what to do that people will accept.

The term professional' is used too loosely, he says, "and it is completely wrong to do so. In 1947 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court defined professional' as someone who has graduated from a university in the field in which he or she is practicing."

Asked how he would consider Abraham Lincoln, who never went to college but became a respected lawyer by "reading law," Bernays, who graduated from Cornell in 1912, replies: "Lincoln was a smart man but not a professional lawyer. To separate the public from some people, I would adhere to that court's decision.

"In fact, I've told Boston University President John Silber that universities that teach public relations ought to have a public relations center and call upon the various departments to add to the course. The student who goes into medical public relations, for example, would get a medical degree as well as a public relations degree."

"Before you can change or influence people's behavior, you first have to know whether they respond to authority, reason, tradition, or persuasion. So I wouldn't call it public relations."

What of the public relations gaffes committed by business - sometimes at the very top levels?

"I have a feeling," says Bernays, "that when you're dealing with a large corporation, it doesn't necessarily mean much; it may just be the stupid action of one man and not have any great significance. Others know that the fellow may be a dope who got his position because his father had money, for example.

"The only way to protect yourself from dumbbells and crooks is to install intellectual and social values that are meaningful and keep out people who only hand out circulars in Harvard Square."

How does he see the future of public relations?

"At the same time, unless something drastic is done, there will always be the fear on the part of the true professional that a few people who know nothing about the work will cause the entire field pain. The public today doesn't know the difference between the legitimate, sound counselor on human behavior and the guy who calls himself a public relations counsel but doesn't know anything."

His plans at 100? Time ran out before Bernays could reply to Povich, but that was five years ago. He has new ones now.

Alvin M. Hattal is principal, The Hattal Communications Group, Potomac, Md. Excerpts of this interview appeared originally in the Ragan Report.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Section 1: Drawing from the Past to Build the Future
Author:Hattal, Alvin M.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Personalized, computerized news via satellite.
Next Article:Communication: the undiscovered country (or is it planet?).

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