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The First Great PR Man

Nov 9, 2007
PT Barnum (born Phineas Taylor Barnum) is best known for being a great showman who staged elaborate extravaganzas through his world-famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, a top attraction during the latter-1800s. For many of today's PR professionals, he is also the first great PR man.

Barnum first made it to the public eye in 1835 when he staged exhibits showcasing a blind and near-paralyzed African-American woman named Joice Heth whom he claimed was the nurse of George Washington and was over 160 years old. Heth died in 1836 and was declared to be 70 years old. Barnum's hoax was revealed, but this hardly deterred him from a lifetime of similar initiatives.

Starting in 1841, Barnum staged elaborate spectacles in New York that no one had ever seen before, featuring the likes of celebrated midget General Tom Thumb, a Fiji mermaid, the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker and a Native American dancer named Do-Hum-Me. In 1871, Barnum took his show on the road, first in America and later around the world with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose main attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant. At that point, many considered him the greatest showman of all time.

Barnum's exploits illustrate a fine example of what has become a fundamental belief in today's public relations: "perception" is the key. "It's not what they know, it's what they believe," is how the owner of one New York firm put it recently. Make them believe they are listening to the greatest proposal of all time, and you will have them signing on the dotted line. Make them believe that your product will give them exactly what it is they want and they will scamper to clear out your shelves.

But there is a big difference between PT Barnum and today's professional executives engaged in the PR business: a sense of responsibility in the exercise of his craft. Barnum was the absolute showman, but many of his attractions were mere hoax. Today, no legitimate businessman will have any use for a PR man without credibility, because who would believe someone like that? The savvy PR man knows you can stretch the truth a little and bend it a bit, but you cannot afford to lie.

Public Relations employs several communications tools to make clients perceived a certain way. They issue press releases announcing the client's newest products, latest awards and never-before-seen innovations. They court esteemed members of the press to consider their client in a positive light and to say so in their newspaper columns, TV shows or talk radio programs. On behalf of their clients, they create and support events that portray a carefully-studied image, much like PT Barnum during his heyday. And like Barnum, the try to go about their business with flair.

And although they may admire PT Barnum for his showmanship, they know that you can only go so far in the PR business if showmanship is all you have to offer.
About the Author
Jonathon Hardcastle writes articles on many topics including Business , Society, and Investing
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