In praise of publicity – a woman's history

I’ve yet to come across Constance Hope in any public relations textbook – perhaps not surprising as women are largely missing from the history.  Indeed, apart from Doris Fleischman, I am unaware of any female voices writing about early experiences of the practice in the US; and Fleischman’s contribution inevitably is linked to her husband Edward Bernays.

So exactly who was Constance Hope and why should we care about her story?  Well she authored a book called: Publicity is Broccoli (published in 1941) a title which has to be worth a bit of our attention – and that’s the point about Constance.  She was a highly competent publicist working in the 1930s.  Alongside various high profile celebrities of the day, she managed numerous entertainment-related clients (orchestras, restaurants, recording companies).  Although strictly speaking, Constance Hope Associates was not in the business of public relations.  She was proud to be a publicist – defining the work in two words: Making news.

Constance distinguished publicists from press agents and Public Relations Counsels (her capitals):

The press agent is the fellow who believes there is no such thing as bad publicity.  He operates on the theory that even if his client plays the leading role in a murder trial, it’s justified by the space he gets in the papers… he reasons that a plug is a plug, even in the obituary column.

In contrast, she writes “the publicist is more selective” and concerned with creating “a definite impression in the public mind”.  Her methods invariably included choosing an appropriate publication and obtaining coverage that not only changed perceptions, but led to measurably outcomes.  Reading her detailed, yet light-hearted, explanation of the ways in which she helped her clients provides an exceptional insight into the publicity industry of that era.  Both direct and indirect approaches are in evidence – and Constance is open enough to discuss her failures too (not something I’ve seen often, if ever, among male writers of her generation).

Stunts – particularly the “screwy, space-grabbing variety” were not her method of choice, although she and her team demonstrated exceptional creativity in their work.  CHA was certainly not against being creative with the truth, as Constance justified “tongue in cheek” yarns that she felt were enjoyed by editors, readers and clients alike.

What I loved most about Constance Hope in reading her book was her enthusiasm and lack of pretention for her craft.  She saw publicity as a full-time job which offered moderate rewards:

The publicist, as a general rule, makes more money than the press agent, but the Public Relations Counsel is rich like anything.

She was scathing rather than envious of her more salubriously located “betters”:

The P.R.C. prepares impressive campaigns, studded with surveys, graphs and excerpts from Freud, to show how he will mold the mass mind, psychoanalytically. (The P.R.C. scorns anything less than eight-cylinder words).

Who can she mean with this portrait?  Undoubtedly Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who also dismissed press agentry (as originating in the circus) and agreed with Constance in the distinction that:

Public relations is not publicity.

Bernays saw publicity as a one-way street of communications compared to the two-way world of gaining public understanding and acceptance [Your Future in Public Relations 1961]. Their different viewpoints have echoes of today’s ongoing debate between those who seek to maintain a clear divide between rarefied PR and down-market publicity.  Or is that honest publicists and disingenuous public relations professionals?

Constance Hope (1908 -1977) had a successful 40 year career with an impressive roster of clients operating across the US (with offices in New York and Los Angeles) and working in Europe.   Music publicist Alix Williamson (who originated the idea for the book written by Baroness Maria von Trapp that eventually became, The Sound of Music), started her career at CHA. However, Kater,  in his biography of Lotte Lehmann, (Hope’s first and best known client), criticises Constance as a self-publicising “woman-about-town” and accusing her of almost Simon Cowellesque control of her client.

And she was that famous, being profiled in Opera News and starring in an edition of This is Your Life in 1957 – hosted by Ronald Reagan.  Publicity is Broccoli was also a publicity tool for her business.  The title is bemusing and not explained in the text at all, but apparently Constance wanted to call it And You Meet Such Interesting People, whilst her editor wanted to link to an earlier successful book Fashion is Spinach (by designer Elizabeth Hawes).  Her choice of title is used for a fascinating article in Columbia Library Column written in 1976.

Today Constance seems largely forgotten.  She does not even have a Wikipedia entry.  However, her “extensive files of papers, correspondence, photographs and memorabilia” are stored in the Columbia University Libraries’ Archival Collection (where she is listed as a public relations specialist and artists’ representative).  I’m not aware that any PR historian has yet studied these as has been the case with many of her male contemporaries.

Given the paucity of women’s stories in the early years of public relations (or publicity), a study of Constance Hope, her agency, nature of work and possible influence on others is surely due.  At the least, we need to raise her profile as evidence that women not only worked in the field, but were capable of running a successful consultancy business.  Time to write that Wikipedia entry I think.

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9 Replies to “In praise of publicity – a woman's history

  1. Constance Hope must have been a great character. I loved her “making news” definition of what she did. She was clearly a down to earth and effective operator. And, if I’m any judge of a photograph, she must have brightened up her client’s day with her smile. She was right to make fun of Bernays’ and the PR industry’s psychobabble (I’m actually much more critical of Freudians than of Freud). And Bernays was talking like a clown when he said press agentry began in the circus – it actually began in the London coffee houses back when newspaper were first invented. I was particularly amused by Hope’s quote exposing the spinning of terminology to justify larger fees. But it was PR she practiced; whether she’d agree with me or not. My guess is she, like me, just loved the honesty of the title she had: publicist (I used to be press officer). Clearly, we should be proud to associate ourselves with the memory of this PR from the past. I for one look forward to reading her Wikipedia entry.

  2. I suspect I would have got along famously with Constance Hope. 🙂

    So does the book contain an explanation of how she (or the publisher) came up with the title, Publicity is Broccoli?

    1. Judy – I do think you would have liked Constance Hope very much. There is no mention of the title of the book in it at all – no connection to chapter titles or so on. It was in the interview in the Columbia Library Column where I found any reference ie to connect to the Fashion is Spinach book. Interestingly there is a blog named in its honour Fashion is Spinach where it states that apparently Elizabeth Hawes hated spinach and writes at the end of her book that “Fashion is spinach… I say to hell with it.”

      It says this saying became famous, so presumably the link to Constance Hope’s book although she is celebrating publicity. But maybe this ” rel=”nofollow”>cartoon featured in the 1st book is a clue. Actually, Elizabeth Hawes seems to have been a very interesting woman – and she does have a Wikipedia page. Hope doesn’t seem to have been either politically motivated or a real critic of her industry unlike Hawes.

      Anyway, perhaps we should create a Publicity is Broccoli branch-blog for PRC to celebrate good publicity and raise the profile of Constance Hope too.

  3. Very interesting discovery, Heather. It shows that even before WWII, PR practitioners were attempting to delineate their work and distance themselves from the press agents who populated the business, an endeavor that continues to this day.

    I have never seen such a fine distinction between a publicist and a press agent, but Constance Hope obviously had an organizing principle for her work.

    1. I think she did – but as I’ve replied to Don above, I think the old-fashioned circus press agent has been much derided. I believe there was and is an art to the genuine press agent approach – that is largely lacking from most of the nonsense spat out by those seeking press coverage for its own sake today.

  4. The advent of social media and PR’s fascination with them, makes Hope’s definition of Press Agentry sound like an echo from the past.

    This becomes more apparent if we try to answer Mrashall and Eric McLuhan’s third question in their “tetrad” of how technologies (and specifically comms technologies) arch backwards in history to “retrieve” what has been obsolesced. Are we back to press agentry with our tweets?

    1. Don – I think there is definitely an argument that much of social media use is one-way communications without much value. As such, that could qualify as press agentry. However, I am not totally with Bernays and Hope on deriding good old-fashioned press agents. I’m reading the biography of Dexter Fellows (This Way to the Big Show) who was a lifelong circus press agent. Sure there’s lots of hutzpah in his actions, but they were all designed to publicise the circus even when much twisting of the truth was evident. He was also good friends with the editors and newspaper journalists he met on the circuit each year – and they also enjoyed the tales as I’m sure did their readers.

      The circus press agent although much derided was not, and is not, the real concern in my view. It is those who are deliberately lying about significant matters (organization’s safety records, politicians intentions etc) or who exploit relationships with the media on a power basis (modern celebrity agents and politican spindoctors again). Their actions are rarely as benign as a mindless tweet though.

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