Publicity…the be all and end all of Public Relations?

For the general public, publicity is public relations and is epitomised by Mr Max Clifford every celebrity in crisis right hand man!

In many ways publicity is where public relations began it is often considered to have it’s origins in late 1800 America when a certain Phineas Taylor Barnum went into the circus business. He had already carved a successful career for himself but it was his partnership with James Bailey and James Hutchinson, that earned him the  title ‘The Father of Publicity’. Barnum saw people for the first time as customers and knew that he had to intrigue and excite them to keep them coming back to the circus. One of his most memorable ‘stunts’ was when he used Jumbo the elephant to plough his field, the field ran alongside the main train line into New York city so all of the passengers saw Jumbo pulling the plough. Newspapers and reporters were down at the field reporting and marveling at the spectacle and Barnum’s circus got tons of free advertisement or publicity.

Although the world has moved on and evolved since the 1800’s, many of Barnum’s values are still as prevalent now as they were then. Organisations still view the public as customers and a lot of the time rely on stunts and spectacles to entice them to purchase their products and services. It is however the public that have changed the most since Barnum’s times. Today people can recognise a PR stunt a mile off and although it may cause a stir and make some ripples across YouTube there is no doubt in my mind that they aren’t always as effective today as they were in the 1800s.

Publicity today as already mentioned, is usually associated with celebrity crisis management guru Max Clifford. Now I don’t know about you but whenever I see Mr Clifford stood outside his house next to his flash car, commenting on the latest celebrity scandal it sends a shiver down my spine! Publicity has become synonymous with celebrities trying to rejuvenate their failing careers, which is a shame because it can be a very effective tool for companies when they get it right. Richard Branson has become an expert in publicity stunts, one of my favourites is when he sailed down the Thames with the Sex Pistols when they officially/unofficially got to number one With God Save The Queen on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee! Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say it was the be all and end all of public relations, but it has it’s place. Grunig and Hunt famously developed the 4 models of Public Relations: Press Agentry, Public Information, 2 way asymmetrical and 2 way symmetrical.

I think it’s right for publicity (press agentry) to still be included within these models I do however think it is important not to stray too far away from the standards. Publicity today is still on a base level the same as it was in Barnum’s time, but the ethics behind some publicity today is on or over the line. If Public Relations and especially publicity wants to continue  be effective then it has to be careful how it puts it’s messages out to the public. People have become savvy to a lot of traditional PR practices, so it’s important for the industry to stay on it’s toes and be creative while ensuring it doesn’t step over the ethical line. A balancing act that any clown performing in Barnum’s circus would have surely struggled with!


One thought on “Publicity…the be all and end all of Public Relations?

  1. Very interesting. How would one define ‘publicity’? Would you use Barham or Parsons?

    Would it be the deliberate attempt to manage the public’s perception of a subject (Wikipedia) or information that concerns a person, group, event, or product and that is disseminated through various media to attract public notice (Free dictionary). Or perhaps The quality of being public; the condition or fact of being open to public observation or knowledge; Public notice or attention given to someone or something; the action or process of making someone or something publicly known; the publicizing or promotion of a product, person, concept, etc.; the giving out of information for advertising or promotional purposes. Also: material or information used for such purposes or even R. Parsons Quiet Reckoning v. 370 ‘The thing might haue bin passed ouer with silence, or at least with lesse publicity, if himself had not prouoked the contrary’ (1609) OED

    As such it is documented in 1609.

    It is strange that anyone would want to quote a ‘Jonny come lately’ in academic journals about the nature of public relations because it was in 1875 when Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to lend his name and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin. This is way after the term was already in use and defined elsewhere.

    After all, for some people, 624 is quite a long time in the history of PR.

    Of course there are the five canons of publicity that were codified by the ancient Romans from the Greek: inventio (invention), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory), and actio (delivery) They show that publicity was already classified that far back.

    I guess they even resonate online today and being creative (inventio) is still really important.

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