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Publicity and the Origins of Political Consulting

The embrace of publicity during the early twentieth century marks the beginning of a modern business of politics. Although a recognizable field of political consulting would still be several decades away, its origins are identifiable among the publicity experts who promoted their skills as a modern way to shape public sentiment in favor of government programs, in support of a candidate, or on behalf of a corporate client. In doing so, publicity contributed to the early expansion of presidential power and the turn to a more personality-driven style of politics.

Publicity helped Theodore Roosevelt forge a more robust form of executive leadership, and it allowed Woodrow Wilson to build a political career as a reform politician amid shifting partisan allegiances.124 Publicity also figured in the emergence of the modern corporation and the recognition that, if left untreated, public opinion posed a threat to private ownership. As Ivy Lee insisted, operating a modern business “without taking the public into one’s confidence, without using every legitimate means of publicity, is about as obsolete as operating street railways with horses and mules.”125 Publicity represented a new kind of political work, one that applied the tools of advertising and early measures of public opinion to address contemporary challenges such as the rise of independent voting or the growth of an activist government. Through the application of modern business methods, publicity experts contributed to the rise of a modern business of politics.

Critics complained about the early twentieth-century growth in publicity, especially journalists who saw the practice of planted news undermining the integrity of their enterprise. In defense, the publicity expert appealed to the progressive notion that an engaged public could improve the operation of government, hold elected officials accountable, and temper the excesses of unbridled capitalism. Through the free flow of information, voters would make reasoned judgments about the issues of the day. Publicity, and by extension the publicity expert, was an essential element of representative government without whom an informed, reasoning citizenry could not participate fully in public affairs.126 However, publicity exploited an inherent ambiguity in the meaning of the term, and its practice operated on the basis of a profound contradiction. Successful publicity depended on the public’s inability to discern the objective reporting of news from the contrived or manipulated event. Publicity experts promised to reveal the truth, but they did so by manipulating the facts.

The term “publicity” has largely disappeared from the political lexicon, yet the central ambiguity in its meaning and use is still evident in a certain ambivalence Americans express about politics today. Publicity was well suited to the political and social context of the Progressive Era as it justified free speech and open debate, ideals that stood in opposition to the secrecy and corruption of the period. Over time, however, the proliferation of techniques designed to attract and shape public attention has contributed to a disillusionment with politics. Political candidates and public figures may aspire to the view that the unhindered flow of information is a requirement for an enlightened public, but for many Americans the endless stream of presidential communications, interest group appeals, and campaign advertisements appear as highly contrived attempts to persuade rather than inform. As one observer lamented more than a century ago, “Truth is as elusive as ever, in spite of the multiplicity of her salaried ministers.”127 In setting the foundation stone for a modern consulting industry, the publicity expert set in motion a profound transformation in the character of American politics.

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