Use PR to Change the Customer

    August 20, 2003

When faced with customers who are either ignoring or abandoning their products, CEOs often choose to alter their products to fit demand. This is usually a path to disaster.

Altering a product is expensive and time-consuming, eating away at precious resources and profits. It also damages the strength of its brand name, confusing the consumer and widening the rift.

The PR Rainmaker understands that there are two ways of doing business. You can compete or you can create.

Most companies compete for the same set of customers. In a growing market, this works just fine. The number of available customers is going up and up, so theres plenty for anyone who is willing to get out there and fight for them.

But what happens when a market refuses to grow? Or worse, what happens when a market actually begins to shrink. Suddenly, you are fighting for fewer and fewer customers. Your pricing power vanishes. So do your profits.

Instead, companies should seek to change the customer by creating new behaviors. The best method for this is public relations.

No one understood this better than Edward L. Bernays, the father of modern PR. Indeed, according to Bernays, it is this principle of changing the public instead of the product that separates PR from advertising and marketing.

Whenever hired to sell a product to the consumer, Bernays always chose to sell a new behavior instead.

He began by quickly analyzing the public behavior that prevented his client from thriving. He then determined how the public would need to think and to act in order to benefit his client.

Finally, Bernays would select the strategy and the tactics that would alter public opinion and consumer behavior to fit his needs.

His methods were indirect, complex and at times inscrutable. They employed front organizations, public demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, expert testimony and other alliances.

But more often than not, they worked:

Assigned to sell books for Simon & Schuster, Bernays enlisted experts to call for great literature in the everyday home, plus he convinced architects to include built-in bookshelves in their home designs.

Called in to bolster the sagging luggage industry, Bernays persuaded colleges to inform their freshman students about the wide array of suitcases they would need on campus. He also hired singer Eddie Cantor to pose for magazine photos while packing a large trunk for a coming tour.

When the hairnet industry found itself threatened by the shorter hairstyles of the 1920s, Bernays convinced health officials to require restaurant employees to wear hairnets. He also urged fashion setters and famous artists to write newspaper articles that proclaimed the beauty of long, flowing hairstyles.

When Proctor & Gamble found that it couldnt get children to use Ivory Soap, Bernays organized national soap-carving contests for kids.

When the bacon industry found itself being shut out of the urban American breakfast during the Roaring Twenties, Bernays found doctors to proclaim that a “hearty breakfast” of bacon and eggs is more healthful than a light breakfast of coffee, fruit and toast.

The key, Bernays said, is to get a credible champion to say what you need to have said or to do what you need to have done in order to alter the public’s opinion. Bernays would build an event around this champion’s words or actions, thus attracting media attention.

In this way, he would change the opinions and behaviors of consumers, and thus grow the overall market for his clients.

Bernays knew what many CEOs forget: It is always better to own a small share of a growing market than a large share of a shrinking market.

The Bernays Formula for employing the news media to
change public behavior is simple, but effective:
1.) Use PR to generate an event.
2.) Use the event to generate news.
3.) Use the news to change opinion or behavior.

Of course, today’s news media are far more skeptical than they were in Bernays’ day. But they are just as easily manipulated by the PR Rainmaker who has the creativity and the moxie to put Bernays’ ideas to work.

Don’t believe it?

Study the media machinations of the Clinton White House.

Observe the techniques of activist groups opposing everything from old-growth forestry to global trade.

Dissect the news in national media and look for the front groups, the third-party experts and the public events that are used to mold public opinion.

You can apply these same techniques today to grow your business.

The PR Rainmaker knows what Bernays knew: If you want to attract more customers or clients, focus on changing their opinions and behaviors, not on changing your product or service.

Or, as Napoleon told his generals, “Circumstance? I make circumstance.”

Rusty Cawley is a 20-year veteran journalist who now coaches executives, professionals and entrepreneurs on news strategy. He is the author of PR Rainmaker: Three Simple Rules for Using the News Media to Attract New Customers and Clients, available at To learn more about PR Rainmaking, visit