The late king of spin still showing the way Luncheon: A biographer gives a Towson public relations crowd a look at a PR legend.

November 21, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Larry Tye likes to think of his biography of public relations legend Edward L. Bernays as a look behind the curtain of the "Wizard of Oz."

In his book, "The Father of Spin," Tye documents Bernays' classic campaigns including the Torches of Freedom parade of debutantes down Fifth Avenue that he orchestrated in 1929 on behalf of the American Tobacco Co. That campaign forever changed the image of cigarette smoking among women.

Bernays also helped topple the socialist government of Guatemala in the 1950s on behalf of United Fruit Co. and even helped make Ivory the soap of choice for a generation of homemakers. "He represented PR at its best and worst," Tye, a medical reporter at the Boston Globe, said in a recent interview.

"He was setting the model for how PR operates today. And he was doing it 60 years ago."

Tye, 43, was the luncheon keynote speaker for the Public Relations Society of America Maryland Chapter's annual Chesapeake conference yesterday at the Sheraton Baltimore North in Towson. He contends that there is plenty that people outside the industry can learn from Bernays about the power PR wields over American thought.

For the book, Tye read through 800 boxes of Bernays' personal papers and watched 80 hours of film that revealed intimate details of the campaigns that Bernays used to shape the national VTC conscience, beginning in the 1920s.

Those accounts helped Tye come to feel that he knew Bernays like a member of his own family, though they met only once, talking for about an hour and a half, when the PR legend was 102. Bernays died in Cambridge, Mass., the following year, 1995.

Bernays' Guatemalan campaign of 40 years ago has a modern parallel, according to Tye. When America was sold on the Persian Gulf war, complete with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein cast as pure villain, adorned with menacing leer and evil &L mustache, it was a public relations triumph, Tye said. Iraqi

soldiers were shown taking infants from hospital incubators and leaving them on the floor to die, while Iraqi tanks rolled through the streets. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti military was portrayed as eager to fight the invaders.

"One detail was left out of that version of the war, however: the fact that it was crafted by one of America's biggest public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton, in a campaign bought and paid for by rich Kuwaitis who were Hussein's archenemies," Tye wrote in his book.

Yet, the public never knew, until after the war -- if it even knew then.

That was the Bernays style, too. Bernays stealthily did his work without people ever knowing that his client was behind the campaign. Then, for reasons not completely clear, he left behind an incredibly candid paper trail.

"I can't believe this guy let us in on it," Tye said.

Bernays used his understanding of behavior and his power of persuasion to mold the purchasing and voting habits of generations of Americans.

And he likely learned some of his technique from a master -- his uncle, Sigmund Freud.

Tye began working on his book as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University -- developing the idea while taking a creative writing class from Bernays' daughter, Anne Bernays. His book, first published this summer, is in its third printing.

The Maryland Chapter of PRSA, which sponsored the event, was formed in 1961. It serves to bring together public relations professionals in the Central Maryland area. Members include public relations counseling firms, government agencies, educational institutions, trade and professional groups, hospitals and other not-for-profit organizations.

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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