For many of us, reading the morning paper, listening to news on the radio and watching our favourite television shows is part of our everyday lives. What many of us are not aware of is the role the public relations industry plays in each of these activities. First I’ll clarify what public relations, or PR is and then I’ll provide what I consider to be some of the best PR campaigns ever created.
Public relations is what I deem the next step beyond marketing. Marketing includes paid advertisements, where PR tries to promote a product or idea through ‘free’ venues. It is often said that the best PR is the stuff that goes completely unnoticed.
For example, the advertisement you see placed in the paper announcing a local church’s annual fish fry will state the date, time and details of the event. It will likely have a defined border around itself separating the ad from the content of the paper. You’ll find the PR component on the next page when in an article written includes comments by the journalist speaking highly of the fish fry and encouraging readers to attend.
The first example of PR mastery at work comes from the Easter parade in New York City in 1929. As the parade rolled down 5th Avenue many spectators noticed a group of females included in the event as they marched along the street openly lighting and smoking cigarettes. Their purpose, as it was claimed, was that of female liberation and equality. Keep in mind this was the first time many Americans had seen women smoking in public, up until this point in history it was only prostitutes who dared smoke in public.
Interestingly enough, each of these women at the parade were paid to be there. Edward Bernay, who many consider the grandfather of the PR industry, was the mastermind behind the parade and he was hired by the American Tobacco Company to increase sales.
After discovering a large amount of diamonds in South Africa the De Beers family had a problem. They found the precious stones, but at the time the market place was limited. De Beers did some research and found that 90% of all engagement rings were purchased by young males. De Beers decided to launch a campaign persuading North America that an engagement ring needed to include a diamond.
Working with movie producers, the De Beers family ensured any proposal scenes in the cinema would include a diamond ring. De Beers also carefully placed stories in magazines and newspapers that included facts about celebrities providing their loved ones with diamonds. Articles often included photos that stressed the size of the stone and reinforced the idea that love could be tied to a jewel.
The message the audience received was loud and clear; the more you love her, the larger the diamond. Within three years of the launch of this PR campaign, the sale of diamonds had increased by 55%, but more importantly the diamond engagement ring became the standard ensuring an ever-steady market for the stone.
Of course PR isn’t always used to sell a product. Many non-profit, charity or government groups use PR tactics to get their message heard as well.
In 1949, a reporter from the United Press International asked form FBI director Edgar Hoover to list his most wanted criminals. The story generated lots of positive press and inspired the bureau to formalize their “most wanted” list. This way a continuous effort was being made to bring media attention to fugitives. As of November 2008, 491 people had made it to the “most wanted” list and, of those, 460 had been located or captured. The FBI created the publicity of the list and the help of the media for their success.
In 1995, it was estimated that 40% of all print and broadcast news came directly from the desks of PR people.
What we have learned is that PR can teach us to smoke, convince us to buy diamonds and help capture criminals. In conclusion, the PR industry isn’t a bad thing, but it is a powerful thing. As a consumer, all you have to do is be aware of its existence to lessen its impact and influence. The more aware you become, the better your chances of being an active citizen as opposed to a passive consumer.
Ewen, Stewart; PR! A social history of spin, published by Basic Books, 1996
Stauber, John and Sheldon Rampton; Toxic sludge is good for you! Common Courage Press, 1995
Author: Beth McFadden
McFadden is currently employed in the public relations industry for a non-profit organization in Chatham-Kent. She has been employed in the PR field for five years and prior to her employment she studied public relations and communications at both the University of Windsor and Sheridan College.