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Corporate Publicity

Developments in electoral politics illustrate how publicity techniques departed from the original meaning of the term, giving way instead to an orchestrated campaign that used carefully crafted words and images. But the multiple meaning of publicity continued to exist side by side, generating a profound ambiguity that fueled further innovations in communication techniques. With the spread of independent journalism and the growth in print media, publicity experts found that by concealing the source of a newspaper story or its actual purpose, they could artfully present information for the benefit of a particular client. For a public increasingly unable to discern the source of information or its veracity, it became nearly impossible to distinguish the old publicity from the new.

This ambiguity is clearly evident in the area of corporate publicity. In response to the ambitious push by Roosevelt and others for government regulation, corporations abandoned an older policy of secrecy and embraced public relations. These early twentieth-century efforts to improve the public image of the corporation produced important experiments, including primitive forms of public opinion research and grassroots lobbying techniques. More important, through the work of public relations a self-conscious claim of expertise began to emerge, along with an assertion of professional control over publicity methods that would become central to the field of political consulting over the course of the twentieth century.

In 1900, a group of Boston journalists formed the first public relations firm, innocuously named the Publicity Bureau. Their first client was Harvard University president Charles Eliot, who hired the firm to write press releases for the university. Within a few years, relations with Harvard had soured, so the Publicity Bureau moved on to more lucrative corporate clients.103 The firm’s biggest undertaking came in 1905, when it organized an extensive campaign on behalf of several railroads hoping to defeat the proposed Hepburn Act, a bill supported by President Theodore Roosevelt that was designed to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission and regulate railroad rates. In a series of articles for McClures, Ray Stannard Baker described how agents working for the Publicity Bureau designed a rudimentary instrument to track public opinion toward the railroads. Through clippings from local newspapers and extensive interviews with editors on a wide range of subjects, the Publicity Bureau developed a card file that could be used to target press releases, advertisements, and other publicity efforts. As Baker described, the system revealed “how railroad information is running high in one community and low in another.”104 Baker called the card file, which was known as “The Barometer,” “as good an indicator of the atmosphere of railroad opinion in the country as could possibly be devised.”105 Like Pinchot’s efforts to track Forest Service press releases, these early publicity techniques foreshadowed the development of more sophisticated efforts to measure and manage public opinion during the early twentieth century.

Although the Publicity Bureau lost its client with passage of the Hepburn Act in 1906, railroads and other industrial concerns continued to employ people who could generate favorable press coverage and shape public sentiment on behalf of a company or industry. An early innovator was William Wolff Smith, a Washington journalist who established one of the first public affairs shops in the nation’s capital. In some ways, Smith was like other lobbyists whose business before

Congress had grown since the 1870s.106 What distinguished Smith, however, was his technique, specifically a weekly column he wrote that claimed to report the news from Washington. Consisting mostly of innocuous gossip about pedestrian topics, Smith’s column concluded with a paragraph written on behalf of a client that advocated a position on a particular issue or pending piece of legislation. Because few daily newspapers could afford a Washington correspondent, Smith provided a wanted source of national news; by his own account, Smith distributed his column to 300, mostly rural, papers.107

A Collier’s story on “the subsidized Washington correspondent” printed excerpts of a circular Smith distributed to potential clients that advertised his skills as an expert in the effective use of publicity. According to Smith, political reforms had eradicated the more direct, if less savory, methods of influence peddling that used to pass in Washington. “The old type of legislation grafters has vanished,” Smith wrote, and “in their place has risen up a more artistic tribe.”108 Smith offered a glimpse into how this worked:

Suppose, for instance, you are the head of a big concern which will profit largely by the enactment of certain legislation. You arrive in Washington and find the situation adverse. You are seriously disturbed at the outlook. ... At this juncture the press agent appears. You engage him, furnish him with facts and figures, and next morning in various newspapers, you are surprised and delighted to find articles that are bound to help your cause. The day following interviews are published with prominent men favoring your scheme, and the mill of publicity is thus kept going, the people educated to look upon what you propose as a good thing, and the members of Congress soon begin to reflect the sentiment of their constituents. Practically all the varied large interests that received attention at the last session of Congress sought the aid of this new brand of lobbyist.109

A notable example of Smith’s work was his effort on behalf of the seed industry to end the congressional distribution of free seeds. Smith asked agricultural journals and dailies to print editorials denouncing the congressional seed program, and he encouraged state Granges to pass resolutions asking Congress to eliminate the seed appropriation. Smith then transmitted copies of these editorials and resolutions to Congress. Speaking to a House agriculture panel in 1906, Smith boasted that he had organized a broad coalition that included “the farmers, the agriculturalists, the seedsmen, the Department of Agriculture, and the press of the United States,” all opposed to free seeds.110

Smith practiced what is referred to today as “outside” lobbying: using constituency pressure to influence Congress.111 Pendleton Herring described this type of lobbying in his book Group Representation before Congress (1929). According to Herring, efforts to “mold public opinion” proceeded along two fronts. “In the first place, the effort is made to form a general opinion favorable to the group, and then the attempt is made to marshal this sentiment and direct its influence upon ... the members of a legislature from whom favorable action is desired.” In describing this “new lobby,” Herring pointed out that publicity was “the strongest weapon in the arsenal” and that “the bureau of ‘information’ is one of the most active of the departments in most of the national associations” he studied.112 Smith was an important innovator of this technique and a vocal defender of his methods. In 1912, Smith sued Collier’s, unsuccessfully, for defamation of character following an article published about him entitled “Tainted News.”113

Smith’s stridency reflected a growing self-consciousness among publicity experts who faced a skeptical press and a suspecting public about the nature of their work. One of the more articulate spokesmen in this regard was Ivy Leadbetter Lee, a founder of modern public relations. After graduating from Princeton in 1898, Lee moved to New York City to work as a journalist. Finding limited success, in 1903 Lee took a position as press representative of the Citizens Union, the same municipal reform organization that would later establish the Bureau of Municipal Research. Lee’s main function for the union was to direct publicity for the re-election of New York City’s reform mayor, Seth Low. Although Low lost his re-election bid, the experience brought Ivy Lee in contact with George Parker, an experienced campaigner who worked for Grover Cleveland in 1888 and 1892. In 1904, Lee and Parker joined forces designing press releases for Democratic presidential candidate Alton Parker (no relation). After the Roosevelt landslide, Parker and Lee went into business together and parlayed their political skills into publicity services for corporate clients. A key break came in 1906 when Lee issued a press release on behalf of several mining companies in advance of the anthracite coal strike. Abandoning a previous policy of secrecy, the release announced, “The anthracite coal operators, realizing the general public interest in conditions in the mining regions, have arranged to supply the press with all possible information.” Lee’s success during the coal strike earned him a wide reputation in the emerging field of public relations, and the client list of Parker & Lee grew accordingly. Their agency motto was “Accuracy, Authenticity, Interest.”114

As the slogan suggests, Ivy Lee articulated a vision of corporate publicity that echoed a traditional view of objective truth even as he embraced the power of mass communication. For Lee, antipathy toward corporate power was simply the result of “misunderstandings of the public, due generally to lack of information of facts or full information.” Corporate publicity would educate the public and, in so doing, defeat “the demagoguery of politicians” who demanded business regu- lation.115 “We have allowed irresponsible assertions to be made for so long without denial that many people now believe them to be proven facts,” Lee wrote in a press release for Bethlehem Steel. “We shall make the mistake of silence no longer. Henceforth we shall pursue a policy of publicity. Misinformation will not be permitted to go uncorrected.”116 At the same time, Lee was keenly aware of the opportunities of modern publicity, and he readily exploited the ambiguities generated by an independent press. One of Lee’s favored techniques, perfected during his work on political campaigns, was to design and typeset a press release so that it was indistinguishable from a regular newspaper column. Influenced by the later writings of Walter Lippmann on the subjectivity of reporting, Lee told an audience of advertising executives that “the effort to state an absolute fact is ... humanly impossible; all I can do is to give you my interpretation of the facts.”117 As Michael Schudson has written, “While this perception in some hands was ... used as criticism, for Lee it was a cynical [worldview] used to defend business’s use of public relations.”118 Lee turned traditional notions of publicity on their head: “Since all opinions are suspect, all are equally entitled to a place in the democratic forum.”119 In more practical terms, Lee showed how the affirmative powers of publicity could be used for a wide variety of goals and purposes. Just as Roosevelt had toured the country to build public support for conservation policy, Lee argued that corporations must “take their story directly to the people, over the heads of the commissions, legislatures and Congress.”120

Lee’s ability to straddle these multiple meanings made him an articulate spokesperson for the publicity expert and the modern practice of public relations:

Every company ... should employ a publicity engineer ... to advise with its officers and to act with them in all matters of public relationship and in the cultivation of general good will. The publicity man will know what the newspapers would send for if only they had the suggestion. He will write the matter the way the papers want it. This adviser in public relations—for such a man should be far more than a mere publicity agent—should constantly study the temper of the public mind. . his work, in a word, will be to interpret his company to an enlightened public opinion and to interpret an enlightened public opinion to his company.121

In separating himself from the theatrical press agent, Lee staked out an ambitious professional claim. He wrote, “Publicity is not a game; it is a science. The difference between the two is as wide as the discrepancy between a press agent and doctor of publicity.”122 Articulating a progressive faith in the power of expertise, Lee presented his work as part of the inevitable march of progress: “People who attempt to interfere with the progress of advertising in these borderlands of publicity are bound to encounter the same fate as those primeval men who sought to obstruct the progress of civilization in pioneer regions.”123

 
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