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The Press Agentry Model Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 1472 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The earliest PR model to appear was press agentry or publicity. It emerged in the late 19th century and was characterized as one-way, source-to-receiver communication where the flow of information is only from the sender to the receiver. The sender is not much concerned about the second party’s feedback, reviews and so on. Press agentry attempts to change the behavior of publics without changing the behavior of the organization. Under the press agentry, public relations strive for publicity in the media in almost any way possible. Grunig & Hunt confirm that the model involves a ‘propaganda’ function (Grunig & Hunt, 1984 pp. 21) and academics such as Butterick (2009), Theaker (2004), and Johnston & Zawawi (2004) agree that accuracy and credibility are somewhat compromised as the goal of the model is to influence the audience by manufacturing news, be that by way of stunts or ‘explicit’ publicity seeking. Butterick (2009) states that practitioners who use this model become ‘press agents’, utilising a range of PR tools from press releases to publicity stunts which in turn ensures that an audience takes a specific course of action.

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Press agents did little research aside from monitoring the media in which they sought to place favorable articles about their clients. The prototype practitioner of this model was the American impresario P. T. Barnum. He promoted circuses and other entertainment venues such as the singer Jenny Lind. Publicity continues to be a component of contemporary American PR and is used in sports, entertainment and product publicity, although today’s practitioners are less likely to take liberties with the truth. In Press Agentry publicity model, public relations expects enhance the reputation of the organization among the target audience, stakeholders, employees, partners, all other associated with it through manipulation. According to this model, hire public relations expects who create a positive image of their brand in the minds of target audience through arguments and reasoning. They influence their potential customers by simply imposing their ideas, thoughts, creative stories of their brand, USPs of the products and so on. Flow of information takes place only from the public relations expects to the target audiences. (One-Way communication)

Although J. Grunig and Hunt acknowledged that there had been “public-relations-like” activities throughout history, they claimed that the press agents of the mid-19th century were the first full- name specialists to practice public relations. These press agents practiced the press agentry/ publicity model of public relations for such heroes as Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane. The most prominent of these practitioners was P.T. Barnum, who skillfully promoted his circus performers using the axiom, “There is a sucker born every minute.”

Curiosity and scepticism played a pivotal role in the success of the press agentry model in the 19th Century, as illustrated with Barnum’s stunt, and to this day it still does. Butterick (2009) points out that we only have to look at the inner editorial pages of the tabloid newspapers, the celebrity magazines or observe when a new movie or CD is launched to see the press agentry model in its purest form. Press agents like Max Clifford are often seen as masters of the industry, carefully manipulating the media coverage of their clients, as Butterick notes; ‘even the so-called exclusive pictures of semi-naked celebrities on a beach in a Sunday newspaper can sometimes be the result of a collusion between the star’s publicist and photographer’.

Although it is clear from the examples above that the press agentry model is still very much in use in the 21st Century, we can easily argue that the ethics involved in this model are highly questionable, and the admission from Grunig & Hunt that the model has an element of propaganda attached to it does nothing to distil the negative connotations attached to PR as propaganda (Butterick, 2009).

However, despite these criticisms, it is ultimately our curiosity and scepticism which ensures the press agentry model is still alive and well in the modern day. Although the modern day PR practitioner must be more au fait with the truth, the very foundations of the model still exist whether it be to publicise a sporting event, a theatre production, or ‘the scariest film of the decade’, as in the recent movie release ‘Paranormal Activity’ (2009). We, the public, will either want to believe what we see, or find out for ourselves if our scepticism can be proven correct which is why this model still works for practitioners seeking to gain the illusive media spotlight and is therefore relevant for the 21st Century.

Having established a need for the press agentry model in the 21st Century, we must now look at its successor; how it works, and how it continues to work today, in order to establish how relevant it remains. The public information model surfaced circa 1920, when, some say, the press agentry model started to lose credibility with journalists who had caught on to the press agents’ way of emitting the truth on many an occasion to get their clients into the media (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). Although similar to the press agentry model in that it is characterised by a one way method of communication, the public information model differs because it is aimed at giving its audience clear and factual information.

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Press agentry is closely associated with publicity in the entertainment world. Press agentry is the practice of attracting the attention of the press through technique that manufactures news. Methods associated with press agentry include staged events, publicity stunts, faux rallies or gatherings, spinning, and hype. A common practice is the late 1800s and early 1900s, press agentry is not part of mainstream public relations. Rather, it is a practice primarily associated with major entertainment-related events, such as Hollywood premieres and boxing matches. The goal of press agentry is to attract attention rather than gain understanding. Even today, however, the term press agent is sometimes used interchangeably with publicist in traditional Broadway theater and motion picture industries. Today’s entertainment industries are populated with publicists rather than press agents. Publicists are individuals skilled in media relations who attempt to get the name of their clients or events in the media by carefully constructing messages that inform, educate, and persuade. Some are astute in branding and positioning strategies to aid the careers and success of their clients.

In contrast, press agents want attention either good or bad in most any form. Press agentry had been called persuasion for short-term advantage through the use of truth bending and even distortion, but it can also be simply the staging of provocative acts to get publicity and draw attention to an individual, event, or cause. Therefore, it is understandable that one of the earliest proponents of press agentry was Phineas Taylor (P.T) Barnum, the famed American showman and promoter who put gun Gen. Tom Thumb on exhibit and launched a mobile circus featuring Jumbo the elephant and freak shows. Barnum was a master of press agentry. For instance, he wrote letters both praising and criticizing his circus show to newspaper under an assumed name.

In the early part of his career, Edward L. Bernays was also a master of press agentry. He persuaded 10 debutantes to hold up Lucky Strike cigarettes manufactured by his client, the American Tobacco Company, as “torches of freedom” while participating in New York’s Easter parade. In 1929, Bernays staged a global news event by organizing the “Light’s Golden Jubilee,” a worldwide calebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the electric light bulb for his client, General Electric. Bernays managed to secure several prominent individuals for that event, including carmaker Henry Ford, electricity scientist Thomas Edison, and President Herbert Hoover.

Henry Rogers, one of the founders of Rogers and Cowan, the largest and most successful West Coast entertainment publicity firm, became well known when he promoted an unknown contract player for Columbia Pictures named Rita Hayworth. He contacted Look magazine with a telegram from the Fashion Couturiers Association of America, a fictitious group, claiming that Hayworth was the best-dressed off-screen actress. Look magazine took the bait and put Hayworth on the cover and published 10 pages of her photographs.


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