My friends and I are huge Zac Efron fans, so over the holiday season we jumped at the chance to see him sing and dance alongside Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman. While my love of Zac Efron was the major force, I also had another reason for wanting to see this particular movie… P.T. Barnum.
P.T. Barnum is mainly known for his work with circuses, but he was also a pioneer of public relations. Being the public relations nerd that I am, I loved seeing how Barnum used innovative techniques to build the reputation of his unusual business. Of course, The Greatest Showman barely scratched the surface of Barnum’s promotional history. Here are some of the ways that P.T. Barnum shaped the field of public relations.
Although Barnum often relied on deception for his promotions, he was an undeniable master of publicity. In 1850, Barnum was able to stir up so much publicity around European singer Jenny Lind that by the time she arrived in the U.S. for her tour, she was greeted by 30,000 people. Lind was completely unheard of in the United States before she partnered with Barnum. Barnum believed so strongly in the power of publicity that he signed Jenny Lind for her American tour without even hearing her sing a single note.
Barnum’s circus advertised with large, painted posters and would even paint on structures like barns to promote the show. While these methods don’t sound groundbreaking now, they were unheard of during their time. Barnum was not afraid to push boundaries in terms of how he promoted his circus. Barnum’s use of new platforms paved the way for today’s public relations practitioners to try things like augmented reality.
Barnum could take an everyday object and brand so you felt you absolutely had to see it. He once took an everyday hat and branded it as the hat of Ulysses S. Grant. People would pay to see the hat, whether it be to marvel or point out how ridiculous. While example is of deceptive branding, P.T. Barnum showed that branding has the power to turn nothing into something.
My favorite P.T. Barnum story is also a great example of Experiential Marketing. Following the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, Barnum marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across the bridge to prove it was safe. The press and the public marveled at this event and it was incredibly successful in promoting the bridge and Barnum’s circus.
With all this praise of P.T. Barnum’s influence in PR, it is important to note that many of his methods are considered unethical today. It seems that as more time passes since Barnum’s life, the less we talk about his deceptive and deceitful ways. Barnum’s image is considerably cleaned up in The Greatest Showman, so think it’s important that we take anything related to P.T. Barnum with a grain of salt because his real life public relations practices were far from ethical.