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Martians Invade Earth and National Publicist Day

Sorry, LinkedIn readers. Another posting hiccup.

Yes, friends, it’s another 30 October, and yet another reminder that the year is winding to a close…ever so quickly…yet at the same rate as it always does.  Tomorrow’s Halloween already…where did the year go?

But, enough of that.  30 October marked the beginning of at least two king’s reign, for better or worse.  Henry VII of England was crowned on 30 October 1485; Gustav II Adolf (better known as Gustavus Adolphus) was named king of Sweden in 1611.  Also, John Adams was born in Massachusetts in 1735, and in 1775 the US Navy marked its beginning as a separate service–sort of: it was a congressional committee. PT Barnum’s circus began in New York City in 1873; the first practical ballpoint pen was patented in 1888; Clarence Birdseye sold his first frozen peas in 1952; and the Soviets launched Laika into orbit in 1957.  But today I’m talking about that first Martian invasion back in ’38, and about press flacks.

Next to newspapers, radio was the primary source of news and entertainment for millions around the world.

Back in the early days of mass commercial media, before news became entertainment, commercial radio was one of the favored media around, indeed, one of the most heavily used.  Next to newspapers (which often had more than one edition every day before the early 1960s), radio was the primary source of news and entertainment for millions around the world.  Orson Welles was a talented actor and producer of radio plays and dramas for the Mercury Theater on the Air, a CBS property that used Welles’ own Mercury Theater performers to create dramatizations of well-known literary works.  The 30 October 1938 broadcast was an adaptation of HG Wells’s 1898 War of the Worlds. In keeping with his earlier programs, Welles’ latter-day version localized the scene, moving it from Victorian England to an unassuming unincorporated village in New Jersey called Grover’s Mill.  The entire hour-long program was played out as if it were late-breaking news, in the same way as The March of Time and several other programs had been doing for years.

A few listeners far removed from New York and New Jersey got the idea that the tripods really were emerging from a crater in Mercer County, New Jersey.

Mercury Theater was not the most popular program in the radio; in that time slot the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy program was more popular in the US.  But some people did listen to it–or at least parts of it.  A few listeners far removed from New York and New Jersey got the idea that the tripods really were emerging from a crater in Mercer County, New Jersey. A 19-year old waitress and her customers in Jacksonville, Illinois heard a large enough piece of the program to panic, if only briefly. Others around the US and Canada also heard just enough to miss the numerous cues that it was a radio play.

…some heard the program as far away as Scotland, and thought perhaps it was Germany attacking America.  Others in the US briefly felt the same thing: Germany or Japan was attacking with new and exotic weapons.

No other radio station was carrying this “news,” and that was the biggest brake on any widespread panic in the US.  But some heard the program as far away as Scotland, and thought perhaps it was Germany attacking America.  Others in the US briefly thought the same thing: Germany or Japan was attacking with new and exotic weapons. It may be useful to recall that the late 1930s was a time of increased international tensions: Germany had just annexed not only Austria but Czechoslovakia, and Japan was in a brutal war with China. Many people simply expected another world war to break out at any moment, and in less than a year Europe would be at war once again.  But the number of people who believed that this broadcast had any touch with reality in 1938 was very small: the CBS share of the audience for that time and date was likely less than  two million people, and the number who might have casually stopped on a CBS station at exactly the right moments to hear only the action and not one of the four disclaimers interspersed in the program was probably negligible.

WOTW-NYT-headline
New York Times Front Page, 31 October 1938.

After the program there was a general outcry about this early instance of “fake news” that enraged and (briefly) frightened some people in authority enough to start investigations of the “thousands” of casualties caused by accidents, suicides, murders, and other reported events, including a supposed panic in Jersey City that trampled the mayor.  Even though the New York Times reported “RADIO LISTENERS IN PANIC,” real evidence for these calamities is thin approaching non-existent.  Ultimately, the biggest casualty of the non-hoax–it was an entertainment after all–was the New York Police officers who mobbed the CBS studio that night, responding to alleged “reports” of calamity all over.  The main beneficiary of all the hubbub was 21-year old Orson Welles who, it could be said, came to believe that no publicity is bad publicity.

The PR racket has very little instant gratification, and at times no gratification at all.

National Publicist Day–30 October–is a day for publicists to come out from behind the scenes where they are always working (even behind their eyelids) and be appreciated for all they do to improve business communications with the public. The PR racket has very little instant gratification, and at times no gratification at all.  Public relations has a love/hate relationship with users, practitioners and the occasional communications professional compelled by circumstances to collaborate in creating their products. Having had small parts in PR product production in the past, I can sympathize…a little.  But the real abusers of the PR flack’s role are such adept obfuscators that it is difficult to sympathize with them when they grouse about the little gratitude they get.

When asked how this tragic news was to be handled, Ivy Lee simply told them that they should tell the truth, and in so doing they could control the narrative–“spin” in the modern vernacular–before anyone else could muddy the waters.

As we know it today, public relations had an abrupt and gory beginning. On 28 October 1906, fifty-three people were killed when a West Jersey and Seashore Railroad train fell off a swing bridge in Atlantic City, New Jersey and plunged into Thoroughfare Creek separating Atlantic City and the rest of New Jersey.  The West Jersey and Seashore Railroad was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which employed the third public relations firm in the US, Parker and Lee.  When asked how this tragic news was to be handled, Ivy Lee simply told them that they should tell the truth, and in so doing they could control the narrative–“spin” in the modern vernacular–before anyone else could muddy the waters.  Lee wrote the very first press release that afternoon.  He also convinced the Penn to provide a special train to take reporters to the scene.  On 30 October 1906, the New York Times was so impressed with this innovative approach to corporate communications that it printed Lee’s press release verbatim, as a “Statement from the Road.” Lee has been called the Father of Modern PR ever since.  PR firm Apartment Seven suggested National Publicist Day in 2015.

For some reason, that early PR guy’s name has been lost to history.

You know, of course, that Moses had a PR man.  Yes, indeed.  When Moses came to the Red Sea he summoned his press flack, asking what he should do.  The scribe didn’t falter. “Well, boss,” he said with a grin, “tell ya what. Raise your staff like this, then spread your arms out like this.  And the sea should part and we’ll just go over there.  And if it works, I’ll get you at least three pages in the Old Testament.” For some reason, that early PR guy’s name has been lost to history.

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