How the Father of Spin Helped the CIA Overthrow Governments: Edward Bernays & Dangerous Precedents

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Edward Louis Bernays (November 22, 1891 − March 9, 1995) was an American theorist, considered as a pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, and referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations”. Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life. He was the subject of a full-length biography by Larry Tye called The Father of Spin (1999) and later an award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC by Adam Curtis called The Century of the Self.

His best-known campaigns include a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist “Torches of Freedom”, and his work for the United Fruit Company in the 1950s, connected with the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954. He worked for dozens of major American corporations including Procter & Gamble and General Electric, and for government agencies, politicians, and non-profit organizations.

Of his many books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928) gained special attention as early efforts to define and theorize the field of public relations. Citing works of writers such as Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Walter Lippmann, and Sigmund Freud (his own double uncle), he described the masses as irrational and subject to herd instinct—and outlined how skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways. Bernays later synthesized many of these ideas in his postwar book, Public Relations (1945), which outlines the science of managing information released to the public by an organization, in a manner most advantageous to the organization. He does this by first providing an overview of the history of public relations, and then provides insight into its application.

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In public relations and politics, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through knowingly providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to influence public opinion about some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations and advertising may manage their presentation of facts, “spin” often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and manipulative tactics.

Because of the frequent association between spin and press conferences (especially government press conferences), the room in which these conferences take place is sometimes described as a “spin room”. Public relations advisors, pollsters and media consultants who develop deceptive or misleading messages may be referred to as “spin doctors” or “spinmeisters”.

A standard tactic used in “spinning” is to reframe or modify the perception of an issue or event to reduce any negative impact it might have on public opinion. For example, a company whose top-selling product is found to have a significant safety problem may “reframe” the issue by criticizing the safety of its main competitor’s products or by highlighting the risk associated with the entire product category. This might be done using a “catchy” slogan or sound bite that can help to persuade the public of the company’s biased point of view. This tactic could enable the company to refocus the public’s attention away from the negative aspects of its product.

Spinning is typically a service provided by paid media advisors and media consultants. The largest and most powerful companies may have in-house employees and sophisticated units with expertise in spinning issues. While spin is often considered to be a private-sector tactic, in the 1990s and 2000s some politicians and political staff were accused of using deceptive “spin” tactics to manipulate or deceive the public.

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Propaganda, an influential book written by Edward L. Bernays in 1928, incorporated the literature from social science and psychological manipulation into an examination of the techniques of public communication. Bernays wrote the book in response to the success of some of his earlier works such as Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and A Public Relations Counsel (1927). Propaganda explored the psychology behind manipulating masses and the ability to use symbolic action and propaganda to influence politics, effect social change, and lobby for gender and racial equality.[1] Walter Lippman was Bernays’ unacknowledged American mentor and his work The Phantom Public greatly influenced the ideas expressed in Propaganda a year later.[2] The work propelled Bernays into media historians’ view of him as the “father of public relations.”

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