The Evolution Of Social Marketing In PR: A Snapshot

history of PR

Nearly a decade after winning the vote, American women took to the streets in 1929 to march against the patriarchy in a brilliant New York PR stunt focused around … smoking? That’s right, in the innocent days before the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, public relations industry godfather Edward Bernays hatched an ingenious plan. His goal was to build competitive advantage for the American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike brand. Bernays and his client saw an untapped market. In the 20s, smoking cigarettes was a man’s pastime. (And sadly, the health risks wouldn’t be widely known for another 30 years.)

In the Broadway theaters of New York City, people would smoke during intermissions in special rooms under the orchestra. That is, men would smoke, since the League of Theaters prohibited women from lighting up.

Bernays sought advice from influential psychoanalyst Dr. Abraham Brill, a buddy of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. (Yes, even back then; it was all about who you know.) For the low fee of $125, Brill offered expert  counsel: “They (cigarettes) titillate the erogenous zone of the lips.” Brill suggested that females might want to light up to reject the taboo against the fair sex smoking. He called cigarettes “torches of freedom” for women.

A torch is passed

Bernays knew a good line when he heard it. He enlisted New York debutantes and their boyfriends to march in the Easter parade down Fifth Avenue while smoking. In one of the first ever media stunts, Bernays alerted the press that the protests would be happening and instructed the women to tell their stories to the major outlets of the time: newsreels, newspapers, and the three press associations.

Not only did the demonstration garner a front page story in the New York Times, but a mere three days later, American newspapers were reporting that women were smoking in the public squares in several major cities, including Boston and San Francisco. Weeks later, the ban of women smoking in Broadway theaters was lifted.

Female empowerment or exploitation by men?

Bernays “invented” modern PR by using psychology and media savvy to influence public opinion. He had started his career doing propaganda work for the U.S. government during World War I. Later, he would coin the term “public relations.”

The “torches of freedom” episode is an early example of the co-opting of a social movement for commercial purposes. But was it ethical? Clearly, Bernays used the growing women’s equality movement to sell cigarettes. But if the initiative did in fact promote women’s rights (even the dubious privilege of smoking) by fighting a double standard of behavior, then does it matter if a company profited? If the demonstration had been a true grassroots protest instead of a staged event for cameras, the American Tobacco Company would also have profited. But Bernays’ intent was expressly commercial, and he was a man attempting to dictate the path of women’s issues. The ethics are muddy.

Social marketing in 2018

Today’s PR professionals are a little embarrassed by Edward Bernays and his propaganda stunts, but – aside from the toxic image the cigarette industry later took on – are modern campaigns really that different? For International Women’s Day, it’s instructive to look at the famous Dove-sponsored Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In some ways it is a similar co-opting of a cultural moment. Unilever’s Dove aims to sell beauty products, and it uses a powerful social issue to position its brand. Its PR agency studied women’s self-image and attitudes toward their own bodies to identify a legitimate concern. Perhaps one reason for the campaign’s success and its longevity is the need to broaden our definition of female beauty – a need that persists today.

Today, a company can be acting out of authentic social concern while simultaneously profiting from those concerns. Fast Company’s sixth-ranked World’s Most Innovative Company for 2017,  Patagonia, does exactly that by folding its social responsibility into its mission.

What makes the difference between true social commitment and exploitation? A company’s authentic intentions. An insincere or shallow corporate social responsibility program is usually easy to spot, and the public will call BS. When Pepsi produced an ad that was seemingly about the black lives matter movement it was roundly criticized. The ad, which depicted Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a central-casting police officer, reeked of inauthenticity, and the brand promptly did the right thing in pulling it.

If Edward Bernays were working today, he’d need to grapple with our digital news cycle, consumer skepticism, and our collective craving for true engagement. Today’s corporate communications campaigns are more likely to tilt toward transparency, responsible stewardship, and authenticity. Those have to be counted as steps in the right direction.

PR Winners And Losers This International Women’s Day

In the public relations world, every day is International Women’s Day, since women outnumber men and have for years (70%, according to the Institute of Public Relations).

But for the rest of the world, March 8 marks a range of events designed to inspire women and celebrate female empowerment. Rich and diverse local activities connect women through political rallies, business conferences, networking events, theatrical performances, and more.

In honor of this occasion, we wanted to take a look at some women making news at home and share our opinion on whether their rising profiles should be considered a PR “win” or a “loss” for womankind.

Winners

Sheryl Sandberg. Yes, we know the celebrated Facebook COO’s book is controversial. But, love her or loathe her, the author of the latter-day feminist manifesto (femi-festo?) Lean In is a winner in our book for the sheer volume of visibility she has generated even before its publication date. The proof will be in the pudding however; we’ll wait to see what kind of sales she racks up before finalizing our thumbs-up.

Marissa Mayer. Fresh from a ten-minute maternity leave, the Yahoo chief took an interesting stance on what has become the norm for so many progressive companies. She abolished tele-commuting in order to foster a more collegial and productive corporate culture. Again, the decision’s merits are debatable, but it was bold! (Rumor is she checked login levels to the Yahoo VPN and found them lacking.) And she has supporters; many suspect that out-of-office too often means out of the loop!

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For most women, they demonstrate class, smarts and humor. In fact, it’s already been suggested they parlay their hilarious Golden Globe hosting gig into an Oscars date next year. But there is a detractor. In a quote to Vanity Fair about a jab the two made during the Globes, Taylor Swift intimated that they were mean girls, deserving of “a special place in hell” for not being supportive of a sister. Instead of getting fired up, the duo responded with humor. A little “bossypants,” maybe, but a good move.

Michelle Obama. Kudos to First Mom Michelle Obama for a near-perfect rendition of “mom-dancing” on SNL, and for being willing to share the light side of her campaign to get us moving! And, while we’re on the subject, let’s give an honorary thumbs-up to “faux” mom Jimmy Fallon for helping FLOTUS bust some moves in an utterly appealing and non-partisan way. Again, they proved that a lighthearted pop culture poke can be a brilliant PR step.

Losers

Taylor Swift. That’s right, Swift came up short when she responded to the Globes wisecrack by blowing it out of proportion in a national magazine, weeks later! She also got it wrong when she cited Katie Couric as the source of the “hell” comment. (Actually, it was Madeline Albright.) We think there may be a special place in PR purgatory for divas who do NOT know how to laugh at themselves!

If PR Is A Woman’s World, Why Do We Earn Less?

The feminization of the PR industry is undeniable, and it’s not a particularly good thing. For one, it hurts diversity. And it’s been widely noted that the domination of any profession by women tends to have a depressing effect on salaries. A recently debated 2007 PRSA study confirmed what we already knew: that men earn up to $30,000 more than women for the same work. Now, that is depressing.

It’s International Women’s Day, and we’re reminded of the enormous challenges faced by women the world over, as well as the stubborn salary inequity here at home. In fact, the big-picture statistics make the PR wage gap seem like small change, and one that’s easily closed. With our advantages, we should be able to catch up quickly in a female-dominated industry, shouldn’t we?

Yet, the gap persists, probably because 80% of senior PR managers are male. But, why? Women take time off to raise children, of course. Yet, even allowing for family leave and “mommy trackers,” the gap is wider than it should be, say the experts.

Some say women just need time, but that doesn’t wash. Females have dominated PR for decades, yet the number of C-level women at large PR firms is static or declining. And, I hate to say it, but just because women are in HR and middle management does not mean that we hire and promote in our own image. On the contrary, the feminization of PR makes qualified men more sought after…and very possibly, better paid.

But there’s another likely reason for the salary gap. Apparently, women don’t ask for what they’re worth, either when starting a new job, or afterwards. A Carnegie Mellon study showed that women ask for raises or promotions 85% less often than male counterparts. The study is rife with discouraging facts, but for my money, the most telling are the metaphors chosen by the participants. While men compare salary negotiations to a sports competition, a majority of women liken them to a visit to the dentist. Ouch.

I think we’re on to something here. It’s hard to catch up if you’re behind at the starting gate. In today’s workplace, you have to negotiate, ideally from a position of confidence and in a spirit of win-win. To do that, you need to believe you’re worth it. I do think women know their worth, but my suspicion is that, in PR, where we’re often trained to promote others while we stay in the background, we wait for recognition. As Professor Karen Pine, a psychology professor and co-author of “Sheconomics,” puts it, “Many women think, ‘As long as I work really, really hard, someone will notice and they will pay me more.’” But they don’t.

Clearly, there are many things at work in the PR business. Women can benefit from better mentoring, more flexible work schedules, smart use of technology, and an “old-girl” network at the top. These and other factors have been noted by PRSA, The Council of PR Firms, and the handful of women who run large agencies.

But, it pays to ask. So, I have a suggestion for every woman out there who thinks she’s underpaid. Behave as if you were promoting your most important client, – yourself. Gather the facts, make the case, take your inspiration, and pitch. And then, keep on pitching. And don’t take no for an answer.