President of the Nashville office of Dalton Agency, Jeff is a former journalist with 30+ years of experience as a PR professional.
Edward Bernays, the self-proclaimed “Father of Public Relations,” realized a fundamental truth of effective PR: People are more likely to believe your story if it is told by someone else.
Here are lessons for today’s PR pros based on some of Bernays’ successful efforts in having others tell his clients’ stories.
Draft off the power of societal trends.
While many, if not most, men smoked in the early 20th century, it was still taboo for women. The tobacco industry hired Bernays to overcome this restriction of the market for their product.
Because of the suffrage movement then underway, the inequality between men and women was already on the public’s mind. Since smoking in public was taboo for women, breaking this stigma would be making a statement about their desire to be treated equally, Bernays surmised.
The PR pro hired fashionable women to walk in the 1929 New York Easter Parade with a cigarette in their hands. He alerted the press in advance about this scandalous display of feminine independence. It became a national story, and women were soon seen in public openly smoking what Bernays’ parading smokers called “torches of freedom.”
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Lesson for today’s PR pros: If it makes sense for your brand, leverage societal trends that align with your purpose. This can not only raise awareness of your business but also tap into the deep well of emotions surrounding these kinds of issues. But be aware that, because these issues can be contentious, you risk alienating those who think differently, as Nike learned when it partnered with Colin Kaepernick, for example.
Tie into your target consumers’ conception of their ideal self.
Also in the early 20th century, Lucky Strike cigarettes was having a challenging time convincing women to buy Luckys because they were put off by the pack’s forest green color. Lucky Strike hired Bernays to change women’s opinion of the color.
Bernays researched green and learned it is the symbol of “hope, victory and plenty.” Using this information, he wrote to fashion designers and department stores, urging them to promote the color. Soon, store windows and galleries featured “Lucky Strike green.”
He also staged an important fashion event called The Green Ball. An “unnamed sponsor” (Lucky Strike) made a donation in the names of the leading women who came to the ball in green gowns. Bernays made sure major fashion magazines covered the event.
Lesson for today’s PR pros: Find a positive element in the product or service you are promoting and then tie it to your target audience’s ideal self, as Bernays did by tying the color green to such positive attributes as “hope, victory and plenty.”
Partner with experts to tout your message.
When the nation’s biggest producer of bacon called on Bernays to help them sell more pork, Bernays sought out an authoritative outsider to make his client’s case—though, as was the case with most “outsiders” Bernays relied upon, it was actually someone in his employ, a doctor he had on a retainer.
Bernays asked him if a breakfast like bacon and eggs would be healthier than the lighter fare most Americans were consuming at the time. Not surprisingly, the doctor agreed. Bernays asked the doctor to get other health professionals to concur. As a result of this effort, thousands of other doctors agreed that a big breakfast of bacon and eggs was “scientifically desirable.” The results of this survey of bacon-loving doctors were distributed to news media across the nation, who eagerly shared the “news.”
Lesson for today’s PR pros: While Bernays’ approach wasn’t exactly honest, partnering with reliable outside experts, influencers and satisfied customers who legitimately believe in your brand can add credibility to your product or service.
Team up with credibility-enhancing organizations.
When Bernays could not find or buy an existing authoritative source to endorse his clients’ products, he created his own out of thin air, such as the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink, which he created to sell more Dixie cups. This self-created authority spread the message via publicity and advertising that it was more sanitary to drink out of disposable paper cups than reusable cups.
Lesson for today’s PR pros: Because transparency is so important to consumers these days, it’s probably best to not do exactly as Bernays did, creative as it was. If you want your message to have more credibility, partner with a credible organization to communicate the message.
Do in-depth, wide-ranging research to find messages others miss.
In the early 20th century, only women wore wristwatches. Men used pocket watches. Once again, Bernays sought an outside authority who could convincingly communicate the message he wanted to be believed: that “real men” wore wristwatches.
This outside authority found that it was actually dangerous for American soldiers to carry a pocket watch. Soldiers needed to light a match to see the time, which could make them a target for the enemy. This research convinced the U.S. Army that an alternative—wristwatches—could actually save soldiers’ lives. Wristwatches ended up becoming standard in the Army—a very masculine occupation—which wiped out the taboo against men wearing them.
Lesson for today’s PR pros: Look for the unexpected in your product research and talk to the people who are using it to find these real-life stories. No one would have ever connected pocket watches with personal danger if Bernays had not conducted such thorough and wide-ranging research.
Public relations is more effective than advertising because, in the form of publicity, a message about a product appears to come from an independent source: the news media. Bernays discovered that it is even more effective to put another layer of credibility between your product and the news media: an outside authority. Wise marketers will follow this advice of the “Father of Public Relations.”
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Author: Jeff Bradford, Forbes Councils Member