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It was the roaring twenties when arguably one of the most influential and politically significant public relations (PR) stunts was held, resulting not only in company sales doubling but aiding a shift in societal attitudes towards women’s rights.
Edward Bernays, hailed as one of the fathers of public relations, was the mastermind behind the New York Times frontpage headline, ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom’. George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, hired Bernays to crack into the female market of cigarettes at a time when only ‘fallen women’, outcasts, and prostitutes would smoke.
Following WWI, the 1920s was seeing a shift in societal norms and the campaign capitalised on this, playing a part in the righteous fight for women’s equality while lucking out on sales.
Bernays organised a group of women to walk down Fifth Avenue at the height of the Easter Parade smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes in broad daylight. A huge scandal at the time, one might equate it to women walking through Trafalgar Square naked today. The women told the press that smoking was ‘a form of liberation’, a chance to express their newfound strength and freedom.
Members of the press were informed of the stunt and thus, the press coverage spoke for itself. Lucky Strike sales doubled and continued to rise as Bernays was kept on to promote the slimming and ‘glamorous’ properties of smoking. Torches of Freedom lives on as one of the most effective, and important, PR campaigns ever recorded.
Fast-forward to the modern-day twenties (certainly not as ‘roaring’ so far) and the British public are facing an amalgamation of crises. High European wholesale natural gas prices have caused the collapse of over 40 UK energy suppliers, trickling down to hit Britons’ wallets with energy bill increases of over 50 per cent. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has doubled both the threat of the fuel shortage and need to speed up the net zero transition.
A convenient time, apparently, for Energy giant, E.ON, to send pairs of socks to its 30,000 customers as part of an energy saving campaign. The polyester socks were branded with advice to turn down heating to reduce carbon emissions and ‘leave lighter footprints’. Whether a crass PR attempt or simply an inability to read the room, E.ON came under widespread criticism for its stunt, releasing an apology statement on Twitter.
E.ON wasn’t the only energy firm to shoot itself in the foot at such an opportune time; Ovo Energy joined the outcast party when it posted a blog on its website encouraging people to ‘do star jumps’, ‘cuddle pets’, ‘open the oven after cooking’, and eat porridge to stay warm.
Both rather extreme examples of what public relations can do for a business, but good ones, nevertheless. PR, like everything, comes with pros and cons. Without my being biased albeit the ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ adage, here are the two sides to the PR coin to consider when looking to embark on a journey of PR outreach.
PR allows businesses to leverage their messages and reputation by getting in front of wider audiences. With a story hitting the right media and publications, the visibility and exposure can be invaluable and in turn, help to reach any organisational goals such as growing awareness and/or increasing profits.
People are more likely to trust what a five-year-old says about a can of soup than what a multimillion-dollar corporation backing the soup’s brand says about it. Particularly in the age of fake news and misinformation, people see through advertising and promotional gimmicks – and are less likely to trust messages when there’s a paid incentive behind the scenes.
Public relations, while a paid-for service, creates a level of transparency for businesses, both addressing client/customer demand and building trust. A Nielson study found PR is almost 90 per cent more effective at establishing, building, and protecting credibility.
No guaranteed results
The world of PR can be a tricky one, even for those on the inside. Businesses can devote hours of their time to crafting PR strategies, press releases, and statements, with no real guarantee a journalist or reporter will pick it up. A typical national newspaper journalist receives upwards of 500 emails daily; therefore, a specialist PR expert or agency is often the best bet at getting noticed.
Unlike other services where direct ROI can be established, it can be difficult to objectively measure PR and what it achieves. There are means of estimating, such as publicity and coverage views, shares, and publication reach, but PR is more of an art than a science. Direct results on your organisation, such as increased profits or reputation, may be seen over time. The American Tobacco Company saw its profits rise over a six-year period following the Torches of Freedom campaign.
We’ve worked with companies and charities of all sizes building the profiles, raising awareness, and enhancing the reputations needed to stand out in today’s market. If you’re a business toying with the idea of getting some PR help, get in touch.