3 lessons from circus PR

The promoters who ballyhooed 19th- and early 20th-century circuses were the creators of modern PR. The shows under canvas have mostly vanished, but lessons remain.

Circus PR lessons

The great three-ring circuses were once such extravaganzas that they seemed almost to promote themselves.

No newspaper would dream of ignoring a community spectacle that began with a two-mile parade through town, boasting aerialists, clown unicyclists, elephant musicians, motorcycle-riding bears, strongmen who could lift a horse, and other natural and manufactured oddities.

Yet promotion wasn’t left to happenstance. Circuses had armies of bill-posters, press agents and admen to drum up excitement as they crisscrossed America. Indeed, circus promoters such as Ringling Bros.’ Dexter Fellows have been credited with inventing modern public relations in late 19th– and early 20th-century America.

“In the gentle art of inducing newspaper editors not only to accept but clamor for news copy of that variety, Dexter Fellows, dean of circus press agents, was extremely successful,” The New York Times stated, as cited in Scott M. Cutlip’s “Public Relations History: From the 17th to the 20th Century.”

True, circuses often hyped their acts with ploys that would be frowned on today, such as, well, lying. A 1903 Ringling publication called Rose the rhinoceros “the sole surviving member” of her species, while the giraffes Nellie and Snoots were “the last of their kind on earth.”

Still, I keep noticing communication lessons as I work on my circus-themed novel “Encyclopedia Boy,” future best-seller and most terrific tale ever told.

Here are a few lessons from the days of big top promotions:

Know your reporters. Really know them.

Fellows developed personal relationships with journalists across America, dating back to his days with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The New England Historical Society reports:

He spun yarns for the newspaper editors and reporters that kept them laughing well into the night. One favorite involved the night when a lion escaped and a group of men were assembling to round him up. The men stopped at a bar for a drink to stiffen their nerve. But not Fellows. As he told it, he stopped the bartender from pouring him a drink: “Not for me, boys, hard liquor makes me too damn courageous.”

Yet Fellows was serious about his craft, the article notes. In newsrooms across the county, he knew names from the copy boy to the publisher and treated them as old friends. “In return,” the historical society states, “the reporters and editors would hand over valuable inches of space in their papers for him to promote the circus.”

The days are gone when a PR pro could stroll into a newsroom with a bottle of whiskey and expect a warm welcome and a full page in return. Still, it’s possible to do a better job of pitching journalists.

Talk to any reporter, and they express mystification at the onslaught of press releases that have nothing to do with their beat or interests. Get to know their work.

Jack the news.

One famous instance of Depression-era newsjacking involved banking tycoon J.P. “Jack” Morgan, one of the most hated men in America as farms and homes were being foreclosed.

In 1933, when Morgan testified before a Senate committee, a senator grumbled about the circus atmosphere caused by the swarms of newspapermen. “The only things lacking now are peanuts and colored lemonade,” he said.

Bing! A lightbulb went on over the head of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus press agent named Charles Leef. The next day Leef slipped a 27-inch-tall midget named Lya Graf into the hearing room and plopped her down on Morgan’s lap, Ron Chernow writes in “The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance.” Flashbulbs popped, and the picture made front pages all over America.

Ringling scored a publicity bonanza. Morgan’s lawyers and supporters were aghast, certain that Leef intended to humiliate the elderly banker. Actually, Chernow writes, something sweeter happened. Morgan and the ringleted midget were charmed by each other. He said, “I have a grandson bigger than you,” as flashbulbs popped.

“But I’m older,” tiny Miss Graf said.

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-two,” Leef interjected.

“I’m not,” Graf charmingly demurred. “Only 20.”

“Well, you certainly don’t look it,” Morgan said. “Where do you live?”

“In a tent, sir,” Graf said.

With a midget on his lap, the distant tycoon showed a sympathetic face to the public for the first time. “For a generation of Americans, this would be their indelible image of Jack Morgan,” Chernow writes. “The pictures were widely credited with starting a new age in financial public relations.”

In crises, do the right thing. Then worry about image.

In 1944, a fire broke out in Ringling tents in Hartford, Connecticut. Some 167 circus-goers were trampled to death or killed by fire; others were horribly injured. A 14-year-old arsonist confessed to lighting the blaze.

The circus went into receivership. Rather than quibble over who had caused the fire, Ringling management accepted full financial responsibility and agreed to pay damages. The circus forked over almost $5 million to survivors and families of the deceased—$71 million in today’s money.

When the circus reopened in Washington, D.C., there was concern that the public might never return to a venue now seen as dangerous. In “The Big Top: My Forty Years with the Greatest Show on Earth,” Fred Bradna, Ringling’s equestrian director, recalls suggesting that a celebrity be induced to attend.

Ringling invited Gen. George C. Marshall, lionized for his role in World War II, and he brought his grandson. Ringling made sure photographers were notified, and a picture of the two of them made newspapers nationwide.

“‘If the General thinks it’s all right to take his grandson, I guess we can risk it, too,’ was the refrain we heard over and over again as the season progressed,” Bradna writes.

“It is quite possible that the General’s action saved trouping under canvas in America.”

Crisis management begins with building trust by doing the right thing. Only then can image polishing or celebrity endorsements help.

Topics: PR

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