PR 'father' says his child needs training
Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations, doesn't like the way his child is growing up. What the errant boy needs, he seems to say, is a better sense of identity and a strong dose of discipline.
During lunch at Boston University recently, Mr. Bernays assessed the field he pioneered 65 years ago. The problem today, he says, is that there is a great ''ignorance'' of what public relations is.
''If you look in the telephone book, and there are 120 people calling themselves public relations practitioners, undoubtedly many of them are good press agents and good publicity people. And if they called themselves that, it would be a fair title. But it has no relationship to public relations,'' the nonagenarian says.
According to Bernays's first book, ''Crystallizing Public Opinion,'' published in 1923, a public relations person is a ''behavioral scientist who carries out applied social research to help his client or employer meet his or her social goals.''
''To me,'' he says, ''public relations is a profession - an art applied to a science - in which the public interest rather than pecuniary interest is the motivation.''
Since 1919, when he first opened shop in New York, Bernays has worked to establish and strengthen relationships between his clients and the public.
Over the years those clients have included Presidents Coolidge, Wilson, Hoover, and Eisenhower; Eleanor Roosevelt; inventor Thomas A. Edison; opera star Enrico Caruso; and dancer Nijinsky. He worked for AT&T and the US Navy, for Time magazine and the State Department.
He advised the Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru on adopting a Bill of Rights for its Constitution.
His commitment to serving the public is reflected in the names of clients he refused to represent - among them, dictators Adolf Hitler, Anastasio Somoza, and Francisco Franco.
Public relations is not a press-release service, he says emphatically. ''I believe that approaching the press is usually competing for the wastebasket.'' If he wants to reach an editor, he says, he creates an event that will draw media attention.
For instance, shortly after moving to the Boston area in the 1960s, Bernays became chairman of a committee to save the sycamore trees lining Memorial Drive in Cambridge, a scenic avenue beside the Charles River. A proposed highway threatened trees and road.
''I was new to Boston and its politics at that time,'' he says. ''And everybody said, 'You can't beat City Hall.' ''
Bernays says he looked for people whose interest in saving Memorial Drive was greater than the interest of the contractors and industrialists who were promoting the highway.
He spoke to several of the mothers in the area and showed them that access to their children's playground would be lost.
He suggested they take their disapproval, and their baby carriages, to the front steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. He also suggested they notify the media. ''Well,'' he says, that night ''they were on every TV and radio (news) program, and in the newspapers the next day.''
''To my surprise,'' he says dryly, ''the sycamores are still there.''
Bernays was at Boston University to help launch the school's new media guidebook, a tool for public relations people in New England. But Eddie, as he's often affectionately called, spoke to a broader topic: what he sees as the need for regulating his profession.
''The words 'public relations' are in the public domain,'' Bernays says. ''And that means any plumber or car salesman can use the name.'' To protect the profession, as well as the public, Bernays advocates licensing and registering public relations people.
Public relations is basic to the life of any institution in this society, he says. But its practitioners must be qualified. ''Public relations men can do serious damage by giving you the wrong advice.''
States should ''recognize public relations practitioners as professionals in the same way that they do doctors and lawyers and architects,'' he says. The legislature should pass a law stating that no one can call himself a public relations practitioner unless he has qualified by passing an examination, he says.
That examination would ask such questions as: What are the ethical principles that should be maintained in any business organization? What are the basic principles by which a corporation should be guided in its advertising? What are the basic principles of polling an audience? What is the basis of truth, accuracy, and fair play of a company in dealing with the public?
Bernays also calls for legal sanctions to ensure that anyone working unethically be permanently expelled from the profession.
The Public Relations Professional Association in Puerto Rico is the first group to be moving forward with such a proposal, Bernays says. The society recently petitioned its legislature for professional registration.
''I'm hopeful, indeed, that this may go through,'' he says. ''And I hope and believe this may well be an example ... for the rest of the country.''
Betsy Kovacs, executive vice-president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), says that among the 12,000 members of that organization there is talk of licensing and registration. But, she says, there is ''not a very strong voice yelling for it.''
The PRSA offers a ''voluntary certification program,'' she says, which includes a comprehensive examination covering many of the themes Bernays suggests.
The Bernays brand of public relations can clearly be applied to almost anything. During lunch he gave examples of how he might work to promote the flowers on the table, as well as the reporter's tie, shirt, and haircut. Yet those are not the things that spotlight the need for ethics in public relations, he says.
''When you deal with fashion, you're not dealing with social values. But when you deal with food, or transportation, or education, or other aspects of life, the things have definite social values.''
Although he no longer runs a public relations company, Bernays is far from retired. ''My big projects now are to try to modify American attitudes towards the elderly,'' he says.
He is the honorary chairman for Careers for Later Years, a nonprofit organization in Boston which has placed more than 1,000 retired workers in jobs in the past year. He is also cochairman of a group working to eliminate mandatory retirement.