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From Ivy and Edward to Herb and Emmett: Meet the Spin Masters

Each generation has brought us a new PR legend who has added new bells and whistles to the disinformation machine.

a year ago

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Each generation has brought us a new PR legend who has added new bells and whistles to the disinformation machine. This is a guide to all those we've profiled so far. If you have a suggestion for someone we're missing, please send a note to amy at criticalfrequency dot org.

**Note: The years listed next to each illustrate the span of their careers, not their lives.

Ivy Lee (1904 - 1933) — The man who started it all. Lee is best known for his work representing the Rockefellers, but he worked for American Tobacco at the same time that he worked for Standard Oil, advised Hitler and Rockefeller at the same time, worked on chemicals, banking, and diplomacy too. His contributions are vast and important, including: the press release, the press conference, the speakers bureau (fake experts), crisis actors, and corporate philanthropy.

Carl Byoir (1911-1957) — Byoir was a really fascinating character. Like Lee and Bernays, and most of the other folks on this list, Byoir started out as a newspaper reporter. In fact he was appointed managing editor of his local newspaper at just 17. Byoir gained infamy during the 1930s for his role in helping Cuba and then Germany build their tourism industries; less well-known is the fact that he brought the Montessori education method to the states, that he helped turn the magazine Cosmopolitan into a major hit for Hearst, and that he created the March of Dimes as part of an effort to burnish the image of one terrible rich guy. Like Bernays, Byoir was asked to join the Committee on Public Information and help George Creel sell Americans on WWI and sell the rest of the world on America. His work with foreign clients was critical in understanding how to sell American ideas and ideals to other parts of the world. Byoir also created the model for PR billing and staffing that still exists today.

Edward Bernays (1920 - 1990) - The self-proclaimed "father of public relations," Bernays was not actually the creator of the industry, but he did coin the name "public relations" after, as he put it in The Century of the Self, the Germans gave propaganda a bad name. Bernays and Lee represent the two archetypes of PR experts—where Lee was quiet and preferred to work behind the scenes, Bernays was flashy and liked to be part of the story himself. He was Sigmund Freud's nephew, and he brought his uncle's understanding of human behavior and psychology into his work in a big way.

Earl Newsom (1927 - 1970) - Newsom is less well-known than many of the folks on this list, but only because he kept so much of his work so quiet. Working for GM, Ford, Standard Oil, Eli Lilly, Kennecott Mines, the International Paper Company, CBS, and the Campbell Soup Company, among others, Newsom kept out of the day-to-day business of sending press releases or handling media relations and focused instead on advising the country's top executives about what sorts of policies they should embrace (both corporate and political) to stay on the public's good side. Newsom was an early proponent of corporate social responsibility and the idea that companies needed to prove their humanness and their virtue to earn the respect of the public and the sort of leeway that comes with.

John Hill (1927-1977) - Like most of the men on this list, Hill started out as a journalist, but he kept at it for a lot longer than the rest, working as a business reporter for 17 years before transitioning into PR and providing advice to many of the same CEOs he had once covered. Hill admired Ivy Lee greatly and modeled himself after Lee; he preferred to be quiet and work behind the scenes. He also borrowed a lot of Lee's tactics, including setting up expert groups for the industries he counseled. Hill's big contribution is really science denial: he created the master plan (Plan White Coat) for the tobacco industry, but what's often left out of that story is that Hill was working for oil companies and chemical companies at the same time and deploying many of the same tactics for them. He also paid freelance journalists to write op-eds in support of his clients' political positions, and opened up a lobbying shop in D.C. before many of his colleagues.

Harold Burson (1946 - 2000) - Burson also started his career as a journalist, working as a stringer for the local paper in Memphis. He made his way into PR after working for the Army radio network during WWII and went on to start not only the world's largest PR agency, but also the first global agency (Burson-Marsteler). Other practitioners had done crisis PR, but Burson really specialized in it, handling the Bhopal disaster for Union Carbide and the Tylenol tampering case that panicked Americans in the 80s, for example. In 1999, PR Week named Burson the "most influential PR person of the 20th century."

Daniel Edelman (1947 - 2000) - Edelman also started as a journalist, and spent time overseas during WWII—his assignment was in psychological warfare, intercepting and counteracting Nazi propaganda. Returning home to New York City after the war, he had a decision to make: Go back to his pre-war journalism career, or use his psy-ops skills to make his way in America’s booming post-war economy? After a brief stint with CBS, he chose the latter, taking a job as a publicist for his brother-in-law’s record label. In 1947 he moved to Chicago to become public relations director for Toni, a hair care company with a popular home permanent kit. Edelman founded his own public relations firm in 1952, with Toni as his first client. By 1960 the firm had 25 clients that included household names like Sara Lee, and a second office in New York. By the late 1960s, it was opening offices in New York and overseas. He worked for tobacco, oil, chemical, and many other industries and grew his firm to global dominance. Considered a legend in the field, he's best known for creating the celebrity endorsement, the press tour, and litigation PR.

Emmett Bruce (E. Bruce) Harrison (1957 - 2020) Yep, E. Bruce also started as a journalist! He covered sports and politics for a time in Alabama before an Alabama Senator convinced him to come to D.C. to be his press officer. Harrison also spent a period of time campaigning for JFK in Alabama, but ultimately it was the industry lobbyists visiting his Alabama senator who impressed him most. He was wooed by the Manufacturing Chemists' Association (today called the American Chemistry Council) and almost immediately met with a monumental challenge: counteracting the impact of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. Harrison lost that battle but he went on to be one of industry's fiercest, smartest, and most successful strategists. His specialty was cross-industry groups that could block regulation. He's also referred to as the "godfather of greenwashing" for coming up with the idea of "sustainable business" and all of its trappings.

Herb Schmertz (1966 - 2005) Like Daniel Edelman, prior to his PR career, Schmertz worked in military intelligence. He also helped run JFK's presidential campaign, and worked as a labor lawyer for a few years. But he's best known for his decades-long stint as VP of Public Affairs for Mobil Oil. In that role, Herb Schmertz brought many new PR tactics to the oil industry and the world: he invented the advertorial, bullied journalists into false equivalence (what he called “creative confrontation”), and pushed for the first big corporate personhood case—long before Citizens United—back in the 1970s. He also coined the term “affinity of purpose” marketing to describe Mobil’s longtime funding of Masterpiece Theatre and various other PBS programming, which helped to establish Mobil as “the thinking man’s oil company.”

Richard "Rick" Berman (1975-present) Berman's tactics have earned him the nickname "Dr. Evil." After working as an anti-union lawyer for steel companies, he got into public affairs and PR with the food and beverage industry in 1975, then started his firm Berman and Co in 1986. In 1991, he created the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research center focused on work...but paid for by the restaurant lobby, which opposes an increase to the minimum wage. In 1995 Philip Morris gave Berman money to start the Center for Consumer Freedom, a front group for front groups. Under the CCF banner, Berman lobbied for Philip Morris, various alcohol clients, plastic manufacturers, the beef industry, and the natural gas industry. In a presentation to the Western States Petroleum Association that was leaked to The New York Times, Berman counseled gas execs that they needed to decide if they wanted to "win ugly, or lose pretty."

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Published a year ago