Friday, January 6, 2012

Origins of public relations in surprising places

One of the rewards of reading Wade Davis' Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (Knopf, 2011) is the insight into the role of Arthur Robert Hinks -- not for his acknowledged importance as astronomer and cartographer, but for his role as honorary secretary, and chief administrator, of the Royal Geographical Society's and the Alpine Club's Mount Everest Committee, that conceived, organized, and promoted the post-WWI first assaults on Everest in 1921, 1922, and 1924.

Davis writes: "Arthur Hinks was a complex and difficult man. A fellow of the Royal Society, he was a brilliant mathematician and academic cartographer, a world authority on map projections who, ironically, had little interest in exploration and no experience whatsoever of life on an expedition. Before coming to the Royal Geographical Society in 1913, he had spent much of his career sequestered at Cambridge on the staff of the University Observatory, calculating the mass of the moon. Born in 1873, he had a codger's disdain for modernity. . . . disagreeable, intolerant, sarcastic, utterly lacking in tact or discretion, he was parsimonious and priggish, enamored of his own genius and convinced always of the infallible wisdom of his opinions. His letters suggest an individual imprisoned in a state of contempt and indignation.

"At the same time, he was ferociously hardworking, meticulous, and exacting, with a bureaucrat's obsession with process and control. From the outset he would orchestrate virtually every aspect of the expeditions, from the raising of funds and the recruiting of personnel to the purchasing of supplies and the design of equipment. No detail escaped his attention, whether the comparative costs of the passage to India or the proper brand of chocolate, the engineering of high-altitude stoves or the appropriate modifications of cameras, fuel supplies, oxygen cylinders, alpine boots, sun goggles, or chemicals for developing film and printing photographs at high altitude. He choreographed all interactions with the press, oversaw all travel arrangements, and negotiated for the publication of expedition reports, the production of documentary films, the sale of photographs and botanical specimens, the drafting of maps, the bookings of the international lecture tours that would play an essential role in fueling public interest in the expeditions. Every decision, conflict, debate, and controversy passed over his desk, and though he never left his London office, he was without doubt the nexus for the entire enterprise, the glue that held everything together. His correspondence fills some forty boxes, scores of files, in the Royal Geographical Society archives. He was liked by virtually no one, and yet without his irascible and indomitable will the expeditions might never have happened."

(That description makes Steve Jobs -- control freak/marketing genius -- look like a slacker.)

Hinks is a supporting character in Wade Davis' compelling story of the Mallory-generation Everest expeditions, but he nonetheless comes across as a fascinating figure -- and, I would argue, one of the founders of modern public relations (as well as the person who calculated the mass of the moon and the distance between the earth and the sun). Arthur Robert Hinks understood that the public interest and enthusiasm for the Everest expeditions made possible both the ability to raise the funding for the expeditions and the pressure on the politicians and diplomats that opened up Indian and Tibetan borders. Hinks implicitly knew that the "success" of the Everest expeditions was a complex conjunction of scientific enterprise with public perceptions and clamor for celebrity, heroic efforts, and national pride. A scientist, Hinks' ultimate goal was information about geography and geology, but he excelled in creating a public sentiment and demand -- which brought money and political clout.

Hinks was a contemporary of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), another early twentieth century Brit who intuited how personal reputation and public enthusiasm could create political power. Lawrence's complicity with the American journalist/promoter, Lowell Thomas, is well documented by Michael Korda in his Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (Harper, 2010). Lawrence and Thomas (like Mallory and Hinks) offer another instance and insight into how public relations created itself -- in spite, sometimes, of the motivations of the actors -- in the early years of the twentieth century. Needless to point out, Hinks, Mallory, Lawrence, Thomas are all contemporaries of Edward Bernays. All of these men consciously used "crowd psychology" for political, commercial, and scientific ends.

I cannot help but note (as author of this "textscape" blog), without surprise, that modern public relations emerged hand-in-hand, at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the modern, scientific era of mapping the earth -- the poles, the highest mountains, and European/Western-forced political boundaries on much of the globe.

What makes PR so darn stressful?

Yesterday PRNewser posed the question, "What makes PR so darn stressful?" Neither the post nor the immediate comments acknowledged one fundamental answer to that question that's obvious to the PR research community.

Public relations people have a very meager body of research to consult at any time when they are faced with a challenge -- determining a strategy or just selecting a tactic.

Every PR task may be different -- but that's a cop-out. Every tooth a dentist faces is different, too. But the dentist has a body of research evidence -- anatomy, biology, pharmacology, etc. -- that he has learned or can consult before applying a procedure. With science behind the decision-making, you can approach an action with a high level of confidence about likely results -- and with less personal stress.

Most PR people in most PR situations have only their 1) knowledge of "principles of PR" (rarely or thinly tested and verified), 2) past (idiosyncratic) personal experience, and 3) intuition. All of which sometimes works. Sometimes doesn't. (This also explains why PR/communications "experts" are often kinds of celebrities/shamans and not scientists.)

The PR person is less like that trained dentist with centuries of scientific method backing him up, and is more like an unsophisticated gambler -- with little knowledge of the odds of success and failure and no clue as to how to improve the odds. No wonder PR is stressful (and sometimes rewarding -- as there is that rush that comes from good PR outcomes, like a lucky spin at the roulette table).

Someday (let's be optimistic about 2012: starting this year) PR will get serious about research. Organizations will objectively document and scrutinize PR strategies and tactics and honestly assess what worked and what didn't. And in all transparency, they will share that knowledge with other PR practitioners. The goal -- within an individual organization and within the profession -- should be to accumulate data, draw objective observations and inferences, and share the insights openly, honestly, transparently.

Just think of all the stress PR people will avoid when research begins to give us a higher level of confidence about what works.


Reclining Figure (1965), Henry Moore,
at the Hearst Plaza, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts,
New York City