London 1909- I am not an advertising agent…I am a storyteller.

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I am not an advertising agent, but a storyteller. This statement concludes a splendid article by Gugliemo Emanuel, correspondent from London of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera…dated December 1 1909 (yes! one hundred years ago..), significantly titled BUM!

The author clearly is not speaking for himself (he is a journalist!) but about Dana Blair, an American living in London, at the time the most famous press agent in the UK.

Emanuel supplies a terrific profile and sends us a few very subtle and contemporary messages:

° a certain envy for this new profession (he was not aware that many of his American colleagues had already crossed the line from journalism to public relations, as they still do today in increasing numbers in most countries);

° celebrity public relations -the domain of press agents- was the principal activity of british public relators and it still remains such today, stimulated by a media system characterized, much more than in other countries, by a huge offer of trash press which thrives on press agents.

As most visitors of this blog certainly know, press agentry is the first of the four descriptive model of public relations practice rationalised by James Grunig some 24 years ago.

The model derives from the activities in the second part of the 19th century of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the famous circus impresario.

Passionate for both his work and newspapers, in order to attract the attention of his potential customers, Barnum would write and distribute fantastic and highly creative stories of love and hate in relationships between his animals and get these published in local newspapers a few days before his circus arrived in town.

An ensured audience, and less need for costly advertising.

In describing Blair’s job, back in 1909, Emanuel wrote:

He is a prototype.

For Blair the media is indispensable, but he does not own a trust of newspapers; yes..he knows journalists… but this is not a necessary asset…he could even do without it.

He does not pay for the visibility he obtains for his clients, but this is not framed in the advertising pages; but he doesn’t even implore visibility as a grace from the benevolence of this or that media. No. He operates at a higher level.

Newspapers draw a pudic distinction between paid print and news print.

Very true…but these news columns, uncontaminated by money, need to be filled up with interesting news items, unexpected events, original gestures.

This is where I come in the game: here is where my interests and those of my clients coincide with the interests of newspapers, which are equivalent to the interests of the public.

I offer to the media what they need: true current events, eccentric adventures, imagined extravagances conceived and implemented purposely to attract the public’s curiosity, therefore infinitely more savoured and stimulating than what life would offer in lack of my fantasy.

The adventures of my celebrities are no longer advertising for newspapers, rather, they are history in action

Neat hey?

5 COMMENTS

  1. It’s neat, no doubt, but it’s as well depressingly sad, because it makes our industry (profession?) look like we not only neglected to learn something new in the last 100 years but seem to have forgotten where we’ve once been. Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to all PRs.

  2. Indeed it doesn’t apply to all PR people. Marcus, I’d respectfully suggest that you may be too pessimistic in your statement that we look like we have neglected to learn anything new in the last 100 years.

    I’m fully comfortable with the presence and importance of media relations as just one element of our still expanding field (an element that indeed reflects many of the same realities stated in the 1909 profile).

    When journalists themselves (and others) do not understand the breadth of our field today, that is indeed worth worrying about. Not to mention that all too many media and public relators don’t make a clear distinction between paid and news anymore.

  3. @Frank – In fact, I’m not at all as pessimistic as my comment may have sounded; there are too many examples and initiatives that tell a different–positive–story about the role and the achievements of PR. Still, it can’t be denied that we haven’t managed to get rid of various misbehaviors–especially in media relations.

  4. Toni,

    Victorian England was also home to those who demonstrated a different approach. Back in 1900, Claude Johnson (who later became known at the hyphen in Rolls-Royce), conceived the 1,000 Mile Trial, which I rate as a PR masterclass in changing public attitudes. As Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain, he secured a media partner in the form of Sir Alfred Harmsworth, newspaper owner and founder of the Daily Mail, and “established the legitimacy of the motor car with police, magistrates and in the public imagination” (to quote from a brilliant book on this event).

    At that time there were others who took more of a press agentry approach to the automobile. Most famously, Harry J Lawson who created the Emancipation run (London to Brighton)in 1896. Lawson was a great creator of stunts, but later found guilty of fraud he was sentenced to a year’s hard labour. Some might think it a shame that this punishment isn’t given to unethical publicists today!

  5. Very interesting and informative. Thank you Heather.

    Frank, your last sentence reminded me of the conclusions Chiara Valentini and I arrived at in interpreting, at least in part, the results of a recent research effort we conducted together comparing Italian public relators and journalists and how they view each others’ profession
    (see http://www.prconversations.com/?p=371 ),
    which indicate a huge gap in how public relators perceive their own role and how journalists perceive that same role…,while to the contrary, both have a similar perception of the journalist’s role.

    You say that journalists do not understand the breadth of our field today, and this of course is true, and is possibly the major obstacle to a clearer perception of our profession amongst other publics, for at least two reasons:

    a- when we normally deal with journalists in our day-to-day practice we tend to argue on behalf of others (i.e. our clients or employers) and therefore it is only natural that they see us as media relators;

    b- journalists, increasingly overworked and chained to their desk by publisher cost cuttings as well as annoyingly pestered by our deplorable insistencies, are not attracted and insufficiently curious about learning more about our ‘real’(?) role in an organization.

    This is truly a vicious circle because, although in decline, journalists are still the primary source of information for others who form their perceptions about most matters, including what public relations is all about.

    A possible implication is that professional organizations or institutions (the Institute you so successfully direct, for example) step up their advocacy efforts on behalf of the profession per se, both involving journalists as well as other stakeholder groups(i.e. business, management, financial, activist, public sector, political and academic communities…).

    By the way, Chiara Valentini a brilliant young researcher now working in Zurich, is one of the favourite scholars cited by my nyu students thanks to her paper which was posted in http://www.prconversations.com/?p=247.

    Instead, the research I referred to is being published in early October under the title
    ‘The Shattered Mirror: two professions at stance’
    by Luca Sossella Editore, and it will also contain two other recent works of mine:

    a- In What Sense?- What is Public relations.
    3 DVD’s, a full twelve hours of video recordings lectured by me, facilitated and discussed with many of Italy’s top professionals, scholars and thought leaders. Please see http://www.prconversations.com/?p=412.
    I worked on this before the summer together with Fabio Ventoruzzo, another of my best ex students and today a truly valued co-worker;

    b- A fully revised and updated (August 2008!) version of an already successful (it has now arrived at the third edition) encyclopaedic dictionary of 300 english terms commonly used in Italian public relations practice.
    The whole package (all in Italian of course..) will cost 20 euros if ordered through e-mail on line at amministrazione@lucasossellaeditore.it
    or 35 euros if bought in Italian bookstores.

    I trust you will excuse the self promotion tucked in at the end of a comment….

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