#PRinHistory: P.T. Barnum, Media Ringmaster

#PRinHistory: P.T. Barnum, Media Ringmaster

You might think the media today is a three-ring circus—if that’s the case, you won’t be surprised to know that one of the original masters of media relations and a pioneer of PR was P.T. Barnum himself. In promoting his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (“The Greatest Show on Earth”), he would stop at almost nothing, and the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has often been attributed to him.1

He combined earned and paid media for the ideal PR portfolio, before this was a recognized strategy in the field. He also was one of the first to employ “press agents” – the modern equivalent of publicists – to nurture one-to-one relationships with journalists and keep press coverage constant and mostly positive.2

As he was running a circus, he became the master of the publicity stunt. He once had a circus elephant plow the front yard of his Connecticut home, close by some commuter train tracks, reporting that “the six acres were plowed at least sixty times before I thought the advertisement sufficiently circulated.” Clearly Barnum knew that one of the keys to promotion is consistency.3

With an eye to newspaper headlines, most of his circus performers were given short names. He knew what was newsworthy—he delighted in publicizing the legal marriage of two of his performers, “thin man” John and “fat lady” Hannah Battersby, which the public ate up.4

He also knew how to leverage bad press to his advantage—when one publication published an unfavorable review of his show, he mentioned it in an ad and offered a discount to anyone who brought the ad to the ticket counter. Sold-out shows were the result.5

Most of all, he was bold—his shows often stirred up and invited controversy—and he thoroughly believed in the product he was selling. Even during periods of low-ticket sales, he knew that better times were just a new sales pitch or PR method tweak away.6

In today’s constantly-evolving media landscape, it can seem that we always have to find new ways to be heard, but P.T. Barnum’s basic philosophies are still being practiced by the most successful. Barnum bravely sold his business well and often. Whether via social media or in the traditional news, that’s still what draws people to a brand.

  1. Foster, Ashley. “The End of a Publicity Era: How P.T Barnum Affected Marketing and PR.” Big Communications, bigcom.com/2017/01/pt-barnum-marketing-and-public-relations/.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Garrett, Michelle. “9 PR and Marketing Lessons from ‘The Greatest Showman’.” PR Daily, 10 Dec. 2018, prdaily.com/9-pr-and-marketing-lessons-from-the-greatest-showman/.
  8. Ibid.

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