The Top 10 PR Endeavors: 250 Years Of Tylenol, Tea And Teddy Bears


The history of our nation is marked by triumphs, defeats, scandals and moments of stunning poise in the economy, business, technology, culture, politics and ... PR? To tip our hats to communications efforts of yore that lay buried in textbooks and handbooks and guidebooks, PR News recently conducted a survey asking readers to select what they consider to be the greatest PR endeavor from a list that spans our young nation's lifetime. And the results? While no corner of history was left uninfluenced by the tenets of public relations (or whatever its earliest incarnation would have been called), the crowning achievement was voted (from a pool of 400 respondents) to be ... The Tylenol Tampering Crisis When seven Chicago-area people died in 1982 after ingesting what was discovered to be Tylenol laced with cyanide, the PR team of parent company Johnson & Johnson hit the streets to put the crisis to bed. Executives took aggressive measures to investigate the incidents, all of which could be traced to five bottles that had been tampered with after being placed on store shelves (three other compromised bottles were eventually found). Despite the fact that tampering occurred in post-manufacturing phases, J&J still issued a nationwide product recall and halted all production and advertising - moves that garnered widespread praise in the media for their resolve and admirable social responsibility. To this day, crisis communicators follow the case study like a roadmap, referring to then-CEO James Burke's application of the J&J credo in every facet of recovery. That attention to the company's first responsibility - "doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use [our] products and services" - set a standard for crisis management. And, though J&J went from a 35 percent to an 8 percent market share directly following the incident, it recovered within a year thanks to the PR team's rebranding initiatives. Ever since the Johnson & Johnson brand turned the deaths of seven people into an example of quintessential crisis communications, the company has been immortalized in textbooks, case study guidebooks and best-practice guidelines. That notoriety continues among PR News' readers, 23 percent of whom ranked it the greatest PR endeavor of all time. But the list goes on to include less obvious initiatives that did more to shape the public relations landscape than anyone could ever imagine. For starters, the Boston Tea Party slides into second place, with 20 percent of respondents deeming it the most noteworthy PR endeavor. Likely not planned as such, the 1773 Tea Party went down in history as arguably the first large-scale publicity stunt. After all, a PR practitioner today would be hard-pressed to coordinate the dumping of 342 crates of tea into the Boston Harbor (legal issues notwithstanding). Thus, according to reader respondents, America's earliest years provided PR fodder for centuries to come. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" ranked fourth due to its exemplary political communications that resonated with a national audience; The Federalist Papers also scored well for the distribution of syndicated opinion pieces via available media outlets. A bit later, in 1903, the "Teddy Bear" as we know it today was born as a promotion tool for President Teddy Roosevelt's conservation efforts and sense of fairness; ranking eighth among reader respondents, it may be the best example of brand strength and longeveity (even if most don't know the source, it's name has certainly stuck around). But perhaps most indicative of current PR professionals' attention to creativity and off-the-beaten-path opportunities is the list of write-ins that accompanied many respondent submissions. Among them: Claiming Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks disseminated a message of clear-and-present danger to an entire nation Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast (1938) demonstrated the power of mass media in influencing public opinion Moses' reading of the Ten Commandments relayed a message of Biblical proportions Cabbage Patch Kids hit the marketplace in 1982, and research showed that the product launch was based solely on "adoption events" and public relations activities, with no advertising in the mix The damage control surrounding Dan Quayle's 1992 grade-school gaffe, when he publicly corrected a 12-year-old boy's spelling of "potato" by claiming it had an "e" at the end, was an image patrol of monumental (not to mention embarrassing) proportions The "Top PR Endeavor of All Time" reader survey indicates that, while executive buy-in and quantitative measurement tools are figments of modern PR's increasingly realized imagination, PR as a concept has driven many momentous movements - and historic downfalls - that predate even our country. Readers Respond: The Top 10 PR Endeavors Of All Time 1. The Tylenol Crisis (1982): The news of deaths related to product tampering has become a case study in how a major brand forcefully dealt with a crisis through focused and mature communications. (23 percent) 2. The Boston Tea Party (1773): Arguably the first American publicity stunt, white colonists dressed up as Indians to throw British tea shipments into Boston Harbor as a protest to repressive taxation. (20 percent) 3. The Fireside Chats (1933): President Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio addresses to the American public provided a direct communications approach that both bypassed the media and became a media event. (19 percent) 4. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" (1776): The self-published call for American independence was the first example of political communications resonating with a national audience. (11 percent) 5. The Office of War Information (1942): This federal agency worked with the media and the entertainment industry to build public support of America's military efforts during WWII, most notably in its use of Hollywood filmmakers to create frontline documentaries. (10 percent) 6. The Beatles Arrive in America (1964): The aggressive promotional campaigns hyped a hitherto-unknown British rock band's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," resulting in one of the most significant cultural events of the century. (7 percent) 7. Ivy Lee's "Declarations of Principles" (1906): The PR pioneer's widely distributed manifesto marked the first open statement that public relations practitioners had public responsibilities extending beyond their client obligations. (7 percent) 8. The Teddy Bear (1903): Naming the stuffed doll after President Theodore Roosevelt (several sources take credit for this) proved to be a PR honeypot for Roosevelt, whose supporters used it in promoting his conservation efforts and sense of fairness (the connection came because he allegedly refused to shoot a baby bear). (7 percent) 9. The Federalist Papers (1787-88): A series of articles written by three men (Hamilton, Madison, Jay) under a single pen name laid the groundwork for distributing syndicated opinion pieces via the media while taking a local issue (New York's ratification of the Constitution) to a level of national debate. (6 percent) 10. The First PR Agency (1900): An aptly named company called The Publicity Firm created a new industry by focusing its efforts solely on the art and science of public relations. (6 percent)

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