Does Old-Fashioned PR Still Have the Magic in the Digital Era?

You might not know Edward Bernays by his name, but if you have a bookshelf at home – congratulations, you’re a “victim” of the late PR guru’s master spinning skills. A bookshelf is an essential piece in most American homes today, whether realizing its intended function as a mini library or simply used as a room décor or an accent piece. But that was not the norm until late 30s when book publishers commissioned Bernays to boost sales. Instead of marketing books directly to the public, Bernays took a detour and turned to home and garden magazines, asking the editors to feature bookshelves at home in their publications.

Bernays was honored as the Founding Father of PR in the US and occasionally “framed” for re-inventing propaganda. The “big idea” PR strategies he pioneered worked miraculously in the first half of the 20th century with successful campaigns such as “Torches of Freedom” where he expanded the tobacco consumer base into women, riding the wave of the women’s rights movement. But it was all back in the days when media was synonymous to newspapers. Since media has gone through a rigorous paradigm shift in the recent decade, one has to wonder, does old fashion PR still have the magic to swing public opinion? And speaking as PR professionals practicing the art of communications, our answer is YES and here are three things we’ve learned from Edward Bernays’ genius work.

Big picture thinking

The name “public relations” implicates the essence of our business – building relationships with the public. While it’s a solid fact that a straight line is the shortest route between two points, the most effective approach to connect client’s product/service with the target audience often times is a detour. When Bernays took on Lucky Strike as a client, the conundrum he had was the company’s hardheaded CEO who refused to change the unfashionable green and red package color, knowing that was the reason female smokers wouldn’t purchase their cigarettes. Instead of making a direct attempt to the target market, Bernays took a detour organizing a “Green Ball” in celebration of the color of green. The next thing you know, green became the IT color of 1934 and Lucky Strike’s sales took off.

Lesson learned from this fabulous fashion class? At times, the best idea happens when you take a step back and have a better understanding of the big picture.

Well, if you don’t dig fashion or cigarettes, I hope you like bananas. United Fruit Company, known as Chiquita today, had a difficult time promoting banana sales in the US. In addition to linking bananas to health, Bernays proposed a bold idea that the company needed to transcend their focus on bananas to banana-growing countries. He orchestrated a campaign involving political lobbying and media manipulation, and successfully changed the public’s opinion on “banana republics.”

The elements involved in big picture thinking vary from case to case but once you find the key element, make sure you put a positive spin on it.


It’s another story about Lucky Strike but this time we need to go back a few years when smoking was just becoming acceptable among women. To quickly establish presence and boost cigarette sales in this newly opened market, Bernays branded cigarettes as “torches of freedom,” a message that resonated beautifully with women whose feminine desires were increasingly suppressed by their role in the modern world.

In today’s fast-paced digital world, brand competition is more vicious than ever. To help brands stay relevant in this ever-changing world where media interest is influenced, if not determined at times, by a comment from Kanye West or a tweet from President Trump, PR practitioners need to stay on top of news and draw connections between breaking news and brands, all while being smart about it. After all, no one wants to repeat Kenneth Cole’s “boots on the ground” mistake.

Influencer marketing

Recycling the bookshelf example mentioned at the very beginning, Bernays, instead of strategizing around the books and the marketing of books, took a sharp turn and sought help from print media age’s top influencers in home décor – interior magazines.

Influencer marketing is everything in digital media era. How many people today will only buy beauty products after their favorite blogger(s) has given a positive review? And how many people religiously replicate their favorite food bloggers’ recipes on a regular basis? And this holds true beyond the consumer world. In B2B, companies also relentlessly seek key opinion leaders (KOLs) in each field to rally behind their product or service. While a truly outstanding product can speak for itself, influencers, as credible information source, can introduce the product to the target audience.

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