Public Relations and the Press

pieces for books

This is the foreword to Karla Gower’s Public Relations and the Press: The Troubled Embrace, published by Northwestern University Press in 2007.

In New York a century ago, as Professor Karla Gower so ably tells us, a 27twenty-seven-year- old man named Ivy Lee established Parker and Lee, the first firm devoted exclusively to managing spin, and thereby became a founder of the new business of public relations. Yet while tThe term “public relations”public relations (PR) hadn’t been coined in 1904, but “press agents” were already familiar metropolitan figures—and automatically suspect, as they have remained. The muckraking New York reporter and photographer Jacob Riis, in an 1899 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, acidly referred to an employee of the corrupt local political machine as “Tammany’s press agent.”

Indeed, press agentry and ad hocad hoc public relations—the shaping of newspaper and magazine coverage to benefit particular private interests—had been powerfully, increasingly in evidence for most of the 19th nineteenth century. The mass media and mass merchandisers were born in the 1830s and 1840s as cities boomed and high-speed printing presses made newspapers and magazines cheap and plentiful. And peddlers of every sort of peddler saw the burgeoning press as a prime new promotional venue. They could buy official advertisements, but even better, they could wheedle and pressure writers and editors to promote their wares for free—clothes, furniture, gadgets, plays, books, ideas, politicians, whatever.

The embrace was troubling to some of those writers and editors from the get-go. “It is a pity,” wrote one in theThe New England Magazine in 1835, “that some efficient method could not be adopted to do away with the present system of indiscriminate puffery. Little or no reliance can be placed on newspaper opinions about a new book; and we are sorry to add that 2 contemporary periodicals . . . cannot he consulted with a better chance of finding out the truth. The editors of journals seem to conspire with . . . publishers of books to practice the grossest deceptions upon the reading community.” Not coincidentally, the presidential election of 1840 was the first in which candidates were marketed in the modern sense: shrewd public relations spin—a campaign featuring miniature log cabins, raccoon mascots, and whiskey-jug trinkets— refashioned the rich Whig candidate William Henry Harrison as a rustic man of the people, and helped win him the presidency. Newspapers at the time were unabashedly partisan, their news coverage extravagantly opinionated. The great journalist Horace Greeley, before he founded the New York Tribune in 1841, had been editor of an official Whig party organ. Moreover, the distinctions between the emerging forms of mass communication—between journalism and public relations—were blurry or non-nonexistent, and the movement of practitioners moved between the occupations through a revolving door.

Indeed, 70seventy years before Ivy Lee hung his public relations shingle, the first great PR visionary took up the trade—that is, hadwith the crucial insight that stirring up public attention could be the basis of a business. Phineas T. Barnum was a young newspaper publisher and editor—he’d founded a weekly in Connecticut at age 19nineteen—but at 25twenty-five, in 1834, he moved to New York City to become a new species of impresario: as a former newspaperman, he understood that getting the papers to write about his eclectic entertainments, flatteringly or not, would sell tickets. As long as his fabrications were interesting—such as the very elderly black woman he put on display, claiming she had been George Washington’s nursemaid a century earlier—the public debate over their veracity became part of the show business. When Barnum was promoting the first American concert tour of the celebrated Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, he used the newspapers to generate such excitement that whenas 3 her transatlantic ship arrived in New York, fully a tenth of the city’s population thronged the docks to get a glimpse, or in any way join in the PR-induced hysteria.

The propagation of the romantic, archetypal vision of the wild and free American wWest was the great American public relations project of the 19th nineteenth century. One man, Edward Z. C. Judson, a journalist- turned- impresario and New York contemporary of Barnum’s, was its great visionary mastermind. Under the pseudonym Ned Buntline, Judson produced magazines (Western Literary Journal, Ned Buntline’s Own, Ned), plays (Scouts of the Prairie), and numberlessinnumerable pulp novels that essentially invented the mythic popular conception of the “wWild wWest”—and did so in real time, from the 1840s through the 1880s, by recruiting and promoting real emblematic figures such as the 26twenty-six-year-old hunter and Aarmy scout Buffalo Bill Cody to star in literary and theatrical versions of their exploits.
One of those emblematic figures, Bat Masterson, was skillful at public relations on his own behalf: his iconic reputation as a western gunslinger was apparently based on a total of three gunfights, in only one of which, at age 22, he actually killed someone. Contrary to the usual professional route, from journalism to PR, Masterson did the reverse, around age 40 becoming a newspaperman. He spent the last 14 years of his life as a writer, editor and executive for the New York Morning Telegraph.

Some of those emblematic figures, such as the lawman Wyatt Earp, did extravagant and highly effective public relations work on behalf of their own behalfscareers. Bat Masterson, Earp’s lifelong friend and fellow iconic gunslinger, was reputed to have shot and killed dozens of people; in fact, he may have killed no more than one man in a gunfight. After leaving law enforcement, he became a boxing promoter and then a celebrated newspaperman. At age 50fifty, 4 he moved east and spent the last 14fourteen years of his life as a columnist, editor, and executive for the New York New York Morning Telegraph.

Meanwhile, the wWest was being settled once and for all, and corporate public relations was used to tidy up the collateral damage. In the course of a long, violent strike by workers at Rockefeller-owned coal mines in Colorado in 1914, the local militia killed several miners and their families, and a New York public relations counselor was engaged to deal with the bad press attending “the Ludlow massacre.” He spun wildly, putting out the story that the deaths of women and children in Ludlow had been caused by an accidentally overturned stove—the kind of claim that prompted the poet Carl Sandburg to declare him “below the level of the hired gunman.” The Rockefellers’ PR man was Ivy Lee.

Not all journalists are honest, disinterested searchers for the truth, and not all public relations people are fabulists and liars. Some of my best friends work in PR. While I never expect them to tell me the whole truth about the people or products they represent, as far as I know they’ve never lied to me, either. And as schedulers and evangelists, they can be useful. But the basic tension is there: their jobs are to provide positive information about clients (and negative information about those clients’ rivals and enemies), and if that requires dissembling, they dissemble. They are interested in the truth only to the extent it reflects well (or not badly) on the people paying them.

They use journalists, but journalists use them, too. When I was editor- in- cheief of New York magazine in the 1990s, I got a call one day from a big-time PR man who represented the defendant in an infamous multi-multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving various well-known New Yorkers. He said he wanted to send over some information he thought I’d be interested in. That afternoon, I received a thick loose-leaf notebook filled with theretofore confidential documents, neatly tabbed and organized, that portrayed the defendant in a negative light. And one of my writers proceeded to report and write a story based partly on those documents. In the years since, I’ve occasionally run into the PR guy, who’s now a publisher and philanthropist. Each time, I think about our slightly skevey{AU:I’M NOT FAMILIAR WITH THIS WORD AND DON’T FIND IT IN THE DICTIONARY. DO YOU PERHAPS MEAN “SKETCHY”?} professional history, and I wonder how many scores of such transactions he had brokered over the years. I also sometimes run into the man he used me to besmirch, and always feel a frisson of guilt. A troubled embrace indeed. {AU: IT SEEMS TO ME THE PR MAN REPRESENTING THE DEFENDANT WOULD NEVER SEND AN EDITOR A FILE OF NEGATIVE INFO. ON HIS OWN CLIENT. DID HE ACTUALLY SEND A FILE ON ONE OF THE PLAINTIFFS, PERHAPS? (OR, ALTERNATIVELY, WAS THIS FELLOW ACTUALLY REPRESENTING ONE OF THE PLAINTIFFS, NOT THE DEFENDANT, IN THE CASE?) PLEASE CLARIFY.}{DEB:CAN YOU PLEASE CHECK ME ON THIS AND DELETE MY QUERY IF I’M OFF BASE? THAT IS, CAN YOU READ THIS PARAGRAPH AND SEE IF IT MAKES SENSE TO YOU AS IT STANDS? (IT SEEMS LIKE TOO OBVIOUS AN ERROR FOR THE WRITER TO MAKE…)}

As ever, public relations people do wield real power over media coverage and, thus, the rise and fall of reputations. At the relatively inconsequential end of the spectrum are handlers of Hollywood stars who permit or withhold their clients’ cooperation with the celebrity-hungry media. And then there are the PR people who are the gatekeepers to important figures of legitimate public interest–—corporate managementleaders, powerful government bureaucrats, elected officials.

Of course, much or most public relations power is granted by reporters and editors who accede to their demands and interference—for by letting PR people veto a particular journalist whom they deem insufficiently friendly, or agreeing not to broach certain subjects in interviews, or simply not pushing hard enough toward the truth. Publicists, like police, often exercise power over reporters simply because they can. And sometimes in this game of cat and mouse, journalists find it hard not to do the same. For instance, I’m surprised how often PR people, when they are negotiating access to their principals (as opposed to acting explicitly as spokespeople), make stupid or impolitic remarks, as if such behind-the-scenes conversations are inherently off the record; quoting them can be an irresistible bit of comeuppance.

A couple of years ago, after I wrote an article about the top executives of a large corporation, the chairman phoned and me and left a hurt and angry voice- mail: “What did I ever do to you,” he asked, “to deserve this?” It was odd and pathetic, not the way the way the game is supposed to be played. I let one of his underlings know about the message, and within an hour, the company’s PR chief was on the phone, her anxiety audible. She wanted to know if I was going to write about her boss’s unfortunate voice mail. No plan to do so, I told her, maybe or maybe not suppressing a small, evil smile, at least no time soon.

I don’t think any single PR person today has a dangerous amount of influence. But as this insightful volume by Professor Gower demonstrates, in the aggregate as a collective force, American public relations is staggeringly powerful. It’s probably fair to say that most major stories in the press, in every publication, and on every TV news program, were placed or impeded or significantly shaped by public relations professionals. When I was a magazine editor—of Spy as well as New York—I tried repeatedly to assign an epic piece of investigative journalism that would illustrate and deconstruct this tentacular, ubiquitous influence. My idea 7 was to take one day’s New York Times and try to detect the various PR fingerprints on every story in the paper. For whatever reason—the daunting scale of the project, or reporters’ fears of alienating in one fell swoop the entire public relations apparatus—I never managed to persuade anyone to do the piece.