A private viewing inside the Museum of Public Relations

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Guest interview by Toni Muzi Falconi with founder of the fascinating non-profit venture, the Museum of Public Relations (http://www.prmuseum.com) Shelley Spector.

1. Why did you decide to establish the PR museum?

I had toyed with the idea for some time, but the impetus to set it up was getting to know Eddie Bernays, who offered his full endorsement and sponsorship of the project. We met in the late eighties when we were both lecturing at the NYU/PRSA Professional Development Institute. He was very kind and invited me, my husband and agency partner to dinner at the Waldorf, after which we became close friends.

He was in his 90s then, and we would visit him at least three times a year to record his memories and photograph the historical memorabilia displayed around his house. A few years before he died, he talked about once day turning his house into a PR museum, one which, of course, would feature work of many PR pioneers, including Bernays’ own work.

The Internet wasn’t discussed at that point, as it hadn’t come into its own before Eddie’s death in 1995; but we had promised him that we’d create a museum of public relations, even though we had no idea where to house it at the time. We wanted to make it accessible to the entire PR community, so our New York office was too restrictive. In 1996 we began to upload images on line and discovered that we may have launched the first-ever Internet museum. Later that year, the Museum won a “best of the web” award from USA Today .

Today the site receives 90,000 hits per month, mostly from Europe and Asia. I am positive that if Eddie knew then how the Internet would vastly extend access for the museum, he’d have been all for it, no doubt. Eddie truly was interested in sharing the hundreds of artefacts in his collection with the PR world. If the Internet was available in his lifetime, he would surely have used it to educate businesses and universities the world over on the practice and significance of PR.

Eddie bequeathed us an amazing collection including; posters, invitations and publicity from some of his most famous campaigns, such as the Green Ball; copies of his PR newsletter, called Contact; photos of himself with Sigmund Freud, Enrico Caruso, and President Eisenhower; original editions of his books, including Engineering of Consent and Propaganda, plus books by people who had influenced him, like Walter Lippman and his Uncle “Siggy” in the original German. We also reproduced original letters of thanks from some of the people he worked with throughout the century, including, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, and just about every president in his lifetime.

2. What do you think is the most important aspect of Bernays’ legacy?

His constant search of a big idea that would connect a product to a bigger issue or cause. Any activity he undertook needed to convey an idea of progress – even in the most debatable case, such as the Torches of Freedom smoking campaign.

What made him so effective was his direct access to the CEOs of his client companies. There were not many in-house PR directors at the time, so his clients were all top management. One reason why he was able to influence such huge corporations as American Tobacco and Procter & Gamble is that he dealt with, and had the respect of, corporate leaders. He was really a personal counsellor to them rather than a typical “agency” principal today.

In 1919, he coined the term “public relations counsellor” –and felt strongly that PR professionals should be licensed, like doctors and lawyers. His original definition of public relations was that it was a social science, like psychology and sociology. By no means did Bernays intend PR to be a “communications tool.”

Bernays used this new practice, quite effectively, on behalf of both corporations and governments. As Adam Curtis points out in his famous “Century of the Self” BBC television series, Bernays had as much influence on Western culture as his Uncle Freud had on the practice of psychotherapy.

3. Why did you include Arthur Page and the others who are profiled in the PR Museum?

One of my earliest and longest standing clients was AT&T, where Arthur Page once served as head of corporate communications. He was truly a very prominent part of our professional history and quite different from Bernays. I wanted to balance consultancy with the managerial and corporate side, so Page was the natural choice. The others who are profiled: Carl Byoir, African American Moss Henrix and, more recently, Chet Burger. They are all icons of different areas of public relations.

4. Why are there no profiles of women practitioners in the PR Museum?

Mainly because they were not visible until very recently. Even Doris Fleishmann, who was the source of many of Eddie’s ideas and a fabulous writer, would not go to visit clients with him because, at that time. ‘it was just not done’. Of course, I very much want to include women in the future. I am working on some ideas and would welcome suggestions from PR Conversations readers.

5. What about including more International figures?

This is the weakest point of the Museum, I’m afraid. Basically, you need to identify the individuals, visit them, convince them to support the project and spend a lot of time with them. For an international perspective, I would need to enlist support from others to help research and create the online “exhibits.” PR professionals around the world all have a lot to learn from one another.

Bernays would be thrilled that the museum is gaining visibility around the world. When he went to Barcelona for his 100th birthday, there were posters commemorating his visit on all the lampposts downtown. Many people think he had far more impact in Europe than he did here in the U.S.. Naturally, the Freud connection is better known in Europe than here.

6. Why did you decide to profile individuals rather than themes?

Same reply as for the last question. This needs time, dedication, research and resources.

7. What next for the PR Museum?

You tell me. I have a list of individuals I am working with – and I’m sure you can guess who they are. But I’m certainly open to ideas that may help enrich and expand the museum particularly with women, professionals from other nations, a compendium of the world’s best PR practices, and an internationally recognized source of research for students and practitioners the world over: a visual Wikipedia for PR.

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Shelley Spector is well known around the New York public relations scene where she heads the corporate and b2b PR firm, Spector and Associates which specializes in financial, defense and technology related issues.   The agency has won more than 40 awards and just celebrated its 20th anniversary.  Shelley became adjunct professor at NYU in 2009 and holds two patents in social media and social commerce. You can find Shelley on Twitter, LinkedIn, via her blog or contact by email.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not a PR executive but I understand and appreciate the importance and value of communication. Perhaps the general public would benefit from an interview with Shelley about “What is PR?”and some its best practices- and all PR people know what these are! And when PR goes wrong too.

    • Interesting suggestion, Donna. Do you mean an interview with Shelley Spector here on PR Conversations or on (Barry and) Shelley Spector’s PR Museum site?

      By the way, you may be interested in checking out this resource being built (i.e., constantly updated) by Brian Pittman on ComPRObiz:

      What Is Public Relations? Common Definitions and Resources on PR for Business

      (Of course we are pleased to see PR Conversations featured there!)

      And you might want to suggest, in the comments, that the PR Museum be included and/or that ComPRObiz consider interviewing Shelley.

      • Thanks for responding Judy! Actually I think an interview on both sites would be valuable. I looked at ComPRObiz and I love what it had to say but I’m a great believer in one stop shopping so maybe both places would be valuable. I think EVERYONE would benefit!!! So to recap, the PR Museum should do an interview with both Shelley and Barry and ComPRObiz should post the same interview- not a link! Thanks again Judy.

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