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As GM embraced public relations, so did the rest of the country

1932
GENERAL MOTORS: Value and Sales Appeal

Selling cars during the depression was a real challenge. GM's net sales dropped 46.6% in 1932, and they were looking to improve the numbers. GM hired Bernays to promote their cars at the annual automobile show in New York one month later.

Bernays quickly defined his tactics and objectives: "use the show to attract liberal spenders to promote the new line of cars, placing 40%...emphasis on the sales appeal of a window innovation preventing drafts and 35% on more value for less money."

He organized the "Metropolitan Committee on Better Transportation" that issued a report advocating improved transportation ventilation. After Bernays ensured that the report received publicity, GM announced that its 1933 cars assured the ventilation that the committee had advocated.

To emphasize value, he recruited endorsements from engineers for GM's innovative composite steel and wood bodies, and the National Retail Dry Goods Association endorsements on quality maintenance. By pledging a commitment to research and development, Bernays was able to achieve over 150 endorsements for GM from some of America's most famous business leaders -- the presidents of B&O, Standard Oil of N.Y., and Yale University. The overall message: high quality is a better investment than cheap cars.

At Bernays's suggestion, GM president and CEO Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., hosted three luncheons during the auto show. The first emphasized new GM technology and commitment to further innovation. At the second luncheon, diplomatic consuls from more than 40 countries around the world heard GM's perspectives on motoring as a major force in international understanding. The third luncheon, attended by distinguished economists boosted consumer confidence when a Bernays survey revealed a public optimism in business and the stock market. Innovation and GM were now associated in the public eye.

Alfred P. Sloan, satisfied that the luncheons furthered company goals, hired Bernays as GM counsel and endorsed public relations as more effective and cheaper than advertising. He asked Bernays to educate executives of 51 GM subsidiaries and Bernays responded with a package of quotes, "desk presentations," and mimeographed newsletters.

Sloan's conversion to public relations was conveyed in his message in the annual report. He said, "the corporation's most vital relationship is with the public. Its success depends on a current interpretation of the public's needs and viewpoints, as well as on the public's understanding of the corporation's motives in everything it does."

Bernays's relationship with GM continued until he grew the function outside of an external counselor's role. As General Motors embraced public relations, so did the rest of the country. Clearly, the corporate perception of public relations was advanced through Bernays's work.

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