Telling Flackery From Fakery: A Spinmeister’s Elusive Career

The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations , by Larry Tye. Crown Books, 320 pages, $27.50.

A publicist I know once compared flackery to tying fishing flies-a delicate, ingenious art charged at every stage with suspense: Will they bite? Public relations also resembles fly fishing in that its practitioners treat it like a science when, more often than not, it seems like voodoo. Edward Bernays-the would-be “Father of Public Relations,” also known as the Prince of Puff and the Baron of Ballyhoo-strove mightily to lay out a systematic approach to his profession. He published 15 books, devised a famous eight-part formula for running a press campaign and agitated (in vain) for the licensing of what he dubbed “public relations counselors.”

In the course of a career spanning more than 50 years, Bernays concocted some of the goofiest schemes ever for advancing his clients’ interests, and got paid some of the most ridiculous sums for doing so. Finally, as a posthumous flourish, he has managed to confound his biographer, Larry Tye, who spends so much of The Father of Spin trying to sort out Bernays’ self-glorifying hype from the simple facts that he never quite manages to get at the inner workings of Bernays’ gift.

Just how significant was Bernays-who opened his first publicity office in 1919-in the founding of P.R. as a (debatably) legitimate profession? Really good question. Eric F. Goldman (a Princeton historian who later went on to become a top aide to President Lyndon Johnson and an L.B.J. biographer) wrote a history of P.R. in 1948, that crowned Bernays as the engineer of P.R.’s sophisticated “third stage,” in which “the public was to be understood” (as opposed to merely “informed”) and “Public relations was to be a two-way street-and a street in a good neighborhood.” The problem is, as Mr. Tye discovered in sorting through the more than 800 boxes of personal and professional papers his subject bequeathed to the Library of Congress, Bernays had come up with the idea for Goldman’s book, found it a publisher, “was deeply involved in the editing and packaging” and wound up purchasing all rights to the title.

Everywhere Mr. Tye turns, he’s got to hack through the spinmeister’s spin. Some P.R. titans insist that Bernays was a secondary influence on the field-maybe they’re just peeved to see the unpopular Bernays overshadow his contemporaries. Without a doubt, he crafted some of the profession’s most legendary early campaigns. Or did he? Well, Bernays can , it seems, take full credit for the 1929 “Torches of Freedom” stunt, which Mr. Tye describes as “a classic in the world of public relations, one still cited in classrooms and boardrooms as an example of ballyhoo at its most brilliant and, more important, of creative analysis of social symbols and how they can be manipulated.” To help the American Tobacco Company in its quest to recruit more female smokers, Bernays wanted to attack the lingering taboo against women smoking in the streets. Using his secretary (posing as a crusader “not connected with any firm”) as a front, he assembled a group of defiant but elegant ladies to march down Fifth Avenue, lit cigarettes in hand, on Easter Sunday.

“Torches of Freedom” was trademark Bernays: It involved enlisting prominent, respected figures (debutantes and the wife of columnist Heywood Broun) in support of a “news event” that showed no traceable connection to Bernays’ client. Before coming up with the idea, Bernays had consulted the psychoanalyst A.A. Brill, who observed that cigarettes, to women, signaled “emancipation.” Bernays carefully orchestrated the march, and even provided his own photographers in case the newspapers failed to get good pictures.

He took credit for another “classic” event, also in 1929: “Light’s Golden Jubilee,” the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light. Bernays, working for General Electric, helped promote a ceremony involving Edison and presided over by Henry Ford. But some historians (including Mr. Tye) tend to think Bernays “embellished” the importance of his role. In fact, he so irritated Ford with his attempts to squeeze his way into group photos that the magnate threatened to have the press agent thrown over a fence.

No one contests that Bernays devised the stupendously daffy “Green Ball” campaign, also for American Tobacco; they just argue about how effective it was. Still trying to up the number of female nicotine fiends, the company found that ladies avoided its Lucky Strike brand because the package color-green-clashed with their clothes. Since the cantankerous head of American Tobacco refused to change the package, Bernays promised to change the clothes. In an effort to install green as fashion’s favorite color, Bernays convinced a socialite to throw a emerald-themed charity ball; he persuaded the president of a fabric company to host a luncheon featuring green food and a talk by an art professor on “Green in the Work of Great Artists.”

Bernays’ most significant propagandizing was for the United Fruit Company during the early 1950’s. United Fruit found Guatemala’s new and uncooperatively leftist government irksome. Bernays was hired to convince Americans that the possibility of a Communist revolution in Guatemala merited U.S. support for the 1954 takeover by a military junta. According to Mr. Tye, Bernays stayed in constant touch with The New York Times (where he was tight with the publisher and several editors) and other major news outlets, feeding them inside information and even flying a passel of journalists down to the Central American nation for a two-week tour, all on United Fruit’s dime. Bernays tirelessly worked to slant coverage of Guatemala’s impending crisis in his client’s favor and, Mr. Tye notes, “a surprising number of respected reporters seemed not to know or care about that orchestration or about the fact that Bernays worked for a firm with huge economic interests at stake. What mattered was that his releases were filled with facts they could quickly transform into stories.”

Bernays’ personal life also proves a head-scratcher, although in many ways he was a typical self-made midcentury man: work-obsessed, dictatorial, emotionally stunted. (After the death of his beloved wife and helpmate of 58 years, Mr. Tye writes, “Bernays read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ book on grief and insisted that he’d passed through all the stages in the course of two days.”) And for a guy notorious for his powers of persuasion, he sure managed to alienate a lot of people in his 103 years. Part of the P.R. man’s grandiose claim to psychological acumen lay in a blood tie so apropos that he couldn’t have rigged it better himself: He was Freud’s nephew. The connection was close, and Bernays actively lobbied to get Freud’s A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis published in the United States. He also dropped Uncle Sigi’s name so often that Variety called him a “professional nephew.”

Mr. Tye writes that Bernays “was as driven as his uncle to know what subconscious forces motivated people, and he used Freud’s writing to help him understand.” But it’s never clear that Bernays relied on anything more developed than gut instinct. The Father of Spin is disappointingly thin when it come to deep thinking. Tantalizing hints include Bernays’ strict instructions that the Torch of Freedom marchers be attractive but “not look too ‘model-y,'” and that at least some of them be accompanied by men. Mr. Tye (and, we can only assume, Bernays) never says why these symbolic details were so crucial.

Bernays wrote: “The public’s ability to create its own heroes from wisps of impressions and its own imagination and to build them almost into flesh-and-blood gods fascinated me.” But he was more than fascinated: He had every intention of harnessing that deifying impulse for his own ends. (Bernays worked on a couple of political campaigns, with mixed results.) If he ever attempted to dissect how the process of myth-making works, Mr. Tye doesn’t let on. Our media-dazed world-where, say, one politician can shrug off scandal after scandal while another can’t survive being videotaped in a tank-feels more and more like a realm of pure totem and taboo. Maybe Bernays knew how to work some powerful juju, but his biographer isn’t giving away any of his tricks.