Carl Robert Byoir (June 24, 1888 – February 3, 1957) was one of the "founding fathers" of public relations, together with Ivy Lee and Edward L. Bernays. An early pioneer during and after World War I, he created and organized one of the world's largest public relation firms. Byoir's techniques and skills continue to be used by public relation practitioners. While public relations may be criticized as propaganda on occasion, the role of managing communication between an organization and the public is a necessary one. The quality of public relations material produced, and how much it reflects the truth of the situation, depend on the character and motivations of all involved. In Byoir's case, he was investigated on more than one occasion for violation of antitrust laws as well as the discomfort generated by his association with Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. Possibly because of such detractions, Byoir is rarely given the credit he deserves, but his work should be noted because he helped make public relations an accepted profession, taking it from little more than the work of a press agency to a highly professional craft.
Byoir was born on June 24, 1888 in Des Moines, Iowa to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland. Byoir started his career in public relations as a newspaper boy. Before he was 18 years old, Byoir became the editor of the Waterloo Times-Tribune. He worked his way through the University of Iowa while he was the circulation manager for Hearst Magazine’s publications.
As a college student at the University of Iowa, he learned the dynamics of group motivation. He studied the preachings and teachings of Edward L. Bernays, "the godfather of public relations" and nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Byoir began to emulate and imitate the Bernays' sense of subconscious manipulation of the status quo, and became quite the public relations guru himself. His first effort involved a campaign to win the position of general manager of the school's 1909 yearbook, The Hawkeye. Through clever planning he succeeded in having the alternative candidates elected to other leadership positions, leaving the way clear for his own election. Once in command, Byoir produced the most notable edition ever published and made a handsome profit.
By 1917 Byoir had already became apart of the Committee of Public Information (CPI), which publicly organized the United States objectives for World War I. While a part of the CPI he practiced many techniques to influence public opinion including creating a campaign to increase non-English speaking American participation in the war effort.
Byoir continued to lead several other public relations campaigns. The next notable campaign was with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, planning charity balls for the president and helping establishing the March of Dimes foundation. Byoir continued his work with public relations working with many other companies including the German Tourist Information Office, Freeport Sulphur Company, and The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.
His work was not without controversy, and he was investigated on more than one occasion for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Byoir died in 1957 in New York City.
While returning to pursue his higher education in 1911, Byoir picked up a copy of McClures magazine on a train. This was his first introduction to Maria Montessori and her training teaching methods for kindergarten students. Byoir recognized the significant appeal which these schools would have to both American mothers and teachers, because of the system's complete emphasis on physical and mental stimulation and activities.
After purchasing the American franchise for the Montessori system, Byoir created the "House of Childhood." In fact, Byoir was so intrigued by the Montessori system that he traveled to Italy to study under and visit with Maria Montessori. Under her tutelage, he learned firsthand how the system works so that he would become the leading authority back in the United States.
Byoir began his promising career at only 17 years old, making his mark in the newspaper world as the city editor of the Waterloo Times-Tribune in Iowa. Rising through the corporate ranks quietly, he then became a circulation manager for all of the magazines published by William Randolph Hearst in 1914.
As an accomplished strategist of holding sway over and wielding public opinion, he used information to change the world. By lobbying with small companies, multinational corporations, and the U.S. government, Byoir became a notably influential gatekeeper of the public consensus.
By 1917, Byoir was asked and agreed to be apart of the U.S. Committee on Public Information, a year before Edward L. Bernays entered the organization. There he learned many strategies and techniques to influence public opinion. He used these skills to create a campaign that targeted draft-eligible non-English speaking Americans.
Byoir's first project was to solve CPI's printing problem. The committee had the content for its pamphlets and newsletters, but no method to produce them due to the backlog of wartime print jobs. Byoir drew on his experience at The Hawkeye, remembering that printers whose primary business was mail order catalogs had little work in early spring and fall. Using these printers Byoir saved CPI 40 percent of their normal printing costs. For this and other creative solutions young Byoir became known as "the miracle man."
Byoir realized that foreign-language groups had no knowledge of American institutions and war aims, so therefore they were not particularly sympathetic to the war effort. He developed a campaign that included newspaper advertising campaigns throughout the United States to reach three million estimated non-English speaking draft eligibles, newsreel announcements to inform people of their obligation to the war effort, and notices sent to rural delivery boxes. With this campaign he was able to add an additional 75,000 personnel to the U.S. war effort.
His proudest contribution to the committee was creating the League of Oppressed Nations—a representation of the various ethnic groups in the U.S. who had relatives in Europe under Austrian or German rule. Following the war, President Wilson recognized Byoir's contributions to CPI. Byoir was officially released from active duty with the committee in March 1919, and he relied on his relationships formed there to keep him busy for the next few years.
The Lithuanian National Council in the U.S. hired Byoir to collect support so that the U.S. Senate would recognize Lithuania as a free and independent nation. Byoir used his techniques from CPI such as print media, prominent local speakers, editorials, and telegrams aimed at influential parties to create awareness of the issue. This campaign succeeded in securing Lithuania's future as an ally with the U.S.
In 1921 Byoir started working for Nuxated Iron in advertising and sales, his inherent forte by nature and experience. At first, Byoir worked on an internship basis, agreeing to work without pay in exchange for practical hands-on experience in the industry. Within weeks at the company Byoir was hired as vice president and general manager of the company because sales increased so tremendously so quickly.
In 1930, Byoir leased two Cuban newspapers, the Havana Post and the Havana Telegram. Instead of trying to increase sales through marketing he bargained with the Cuban president, Gerardo Machado. The agreement was to increase American tourism in exchange for which President Machado would sign a five-year contract to hire Carl Byoir and Associates as the public relations office for the Cuban government. It was a $300,000 agreement that many U.S. citizens disapproved of, considering Byoir to be a servant to a dictator's whim.
Leaving Cuba in 1932, Byoir established his own public relations company in New York. Building on the clients he already had, the firm rapidly grew in size and professionalism. Byoir established three basic rules for its operation:
- New accounts would not be solicited directly, that would happen through reputation.
- Each client paid an annual fee, plus expenses for the campaigns.
- There were executive staff and operating staff; each account was served with one executive and as many operating staff deemed necessary.
Byoir's structure became the model for public relations firms.
His projects included working with Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, and the Freeport Sulfur Company. Throughout his various ventures, controversy stirred over his work for which he was accused of violating antitrust laws with the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, for which he was convicted, and the Eastern Railroad, for which he was exonerated.
The Museum of Public Relations states "Carl Byoir may not have moved mountains, but he definitely made a career of motivating people to do it for him." While Byoir is not the most famous of the "founding fathers" of public relations, he certainly belongs in their number.
Byoir lived a full life, rich in knowledge and packed with memorable public service. His company, Carl Byoir & Associates, continued to prosper as the nation's third-largest public relations firm, until in 1986 it was acquired by Hill & Knowlton, the merged companies becoming the largest in the United States.
As a wartime entrepreneur in the budding field of public relations in the early twentieth century, much was learned by the example and doctrines of Carl R. Byoir. Byoir is still a common name brought up while discussing the history of public relations. The Museum of Public Relations states that Byoir "the two things required for a successful practitioner were to have an understanding of what motivates people, and to work for a good firm which stood behind him." Consequently, Byoir's obituary in Time magazine noted his maxim: "If the truth doesn't sound believable, don't tell it."
- Cutlip, Scott. 1990. Fund Raising in the United States. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0887383173
- Cutlip, Scott. 1994. The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History. ISBN 0805814647
- Jones, Jody. "Public Relations Founding Fathers: Carl Byoir." Retrieved September 10, 2007.
- “Died. Carl Byoir.” TIME Magazine (February 11, 1957). Retrieved September 10, 2007.
- Carl R. Byoir - A Retrospective. The Museum of Public Relations. Retrieved September 10, 2007.
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