When Edward Bernays Was in High School, My Prescient Ancestor Sherman Morse Was Defining Public Relations

Note: This piece originally appeared as a free article in the early January 2016 edition of The Measurement Advisor newsletter.

sherman-morse-and-wife
Sherman Morse, seen here with his second wife.

As some of my readers may know, Paine Publishing was named in tribute to my numerous journalistic and publishing ancestors. (Short version: Mother was editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, father was publisher of Fortune, maternal grandfather was general manager of Hearst, paternal grandfather covered — and some say helped start — the Spanish American War and the Boxer Rebellion, then retired to Durham NH to write 46 novels.)

But there’s another person in my family history that has always been left in the shadows, Sherman Morse. Mr. Morse was a highly esteemed journalist in his day. Fortunately for me, unfortunately for him, he was a colleague of Ralph D. Paine. Morse graciously invited Mr. Paine to dine with him and his wife one evening in Watertown, New York. The next day, as Mr. and Mrs. Morse were preparing breakfast for Mr. Paine, Mr. Morse inquired of his wife what she thought of his colleague Mr. Paine. To which she answered, “I like him very well. And if you invite him to dinner again I shall marry him.” True to her word, she promptly divorced Mr. Morse and took her two children and ran away and married Mr. Paine. Three years later she gave birth to my father. But I digress…

I never met Mr. Morse, but from what I’ve learned he was quite the journalist and author, and his writings are incredibly relevant today. In a piece written in September 1906 for The American Magazine called “An Awakening in Wall Street,” he wrote about how, “the Trusts, after years of silence, now speak through authorized and acknowledged Press Agents.”

Written a decade before anyone had ever heard of Edward Bernays, might I add.

His observations continue to have relevance in today’s political and PR environment. Morse described what a remarkable shift occurred at the time in corporate attitude towards PR. It was the day of the anonymous statement, Morse wrote, when the man, “who should be in a position to know,” “whose sources of information have heretofore provided reliable,” and “whose name for obvious reasons cannot be used,” was quoted at length by reporters and editors who were willing to face the reasonable suspicion that, “some of the corruption fund had gone into their pockets.”

It was a time when corruption and fraud regularly filled the daily newspapers and public indignation was growing: “It was inevitable that the corporations would take measures to stop the growth of public indignation to which their policy of silence had in considerable measure contributed, but the means they first took were disastrous… Newspaper men were induced here and there to color their ‘Stories’ and to influence other reporters to be friendly to powerful financial interests.”

Apparently one such attempt included a $200,000 party for journalists hosted by the 23-year old head of an insurance company under investigation for  fraud, which landed the company on the front page of the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. The resulting publicity prompted an official inquiry by the State of New York.

Then came the Coal Strike of 1902. On the one side you had the heads of the coal trust who, when called by journalists heard this from their secretaries: “Mr. Baer is not here today, I’m sorry, but I really can’t tell you where he is or whether he will be back. A meeting of the operators? I haven’t heard of any, and certainly no meeting has been held in this office.” It was almost impossible, Morse writes, “to obtain any reliable information regarding the plans or real sentiments of the operators.”

On the opposing side you had John Mitchell, the young and affable head of the Coal Miners Union. Morse says that he, “treated [reporters] with consideration and frankness. What he said was presented with such directness and sincerity that it was necessarily reflected in the news reports.”

As a result, Morse added, any reports of meetings or developments reflected Mitchell’s version of the affair, because it was the only version obtainable. “Therefore the public was influenced to sympathize with the miners, rather than with the operators, and because of this aroused public opinion, the miners were assisted in their efforts to gain the concessions for which they were contending. Had the operators and the other great financial interests involved in the struggle realized then as they realize today how far reaching is the power of public opinion when fully aroused, it is reasonable to believe that they would have pursued a different course.”

Morse goes on to detail how the financial interests and corporations learned from that experience. “The Sphinx became talkative,” was how he described the shift. Specifically, large financial interests began hiring reporters and installing them as spokesmen with the job of educating journalists on behalf of the corporations.

Morse describes what may have been the first official press release and conference called by a corporate entity:

The anthracite coal operators, realizing the general public interest in conditions in the mining regions, have arranged to supply the press with all possible information. Statements from the [coal-mine operators] will be given to the newspapers through Ivy L. Lee, a former New York Times reporter, now “publicity man” for the coal trust. He will also answer inquiries on this subject and supply the press with all matter that it is possible to give out.

According to Morse, “The results justified the concession. The newspapers, weary of anonymous interviews and underhand methods, welcomed the change. Newspaper readers recall that almost every day while the struggle was in progress there appeared statements of the operator’s view of the situation as well as that of the miners. The miners have admitted that the campaign of publicity carried on by the operators was the most ready weapon used against them.”

Even more prescient, Lee sent the editors a “Declaration of Principles” that all publicity agents should take. These included:

  • “All our work is done in the open, we aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it.”
  • “Our matter is accurate. Further details on a subject treated will be supplied promptly and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly a statement of fact… In brief , our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it so value and interest to the public to know about.”
  • “I send out only matter every detail of which I am willing to assist an editor in verifying for himself. I am always at your service for the purpose of enabling you to obtain more complete information concerning any of the subjects brought forward in my copy.”

Lee was just the first of many that followed, essentially creating the Public Relations industry as we know it today.

What is stunning about this piece, written 110 years ago, was the last paragraph, a quote by one newspaper editor on the changes that were coming to both companies and journalists of those days:

This is a day of publicity, and the press is the means of communication. Whenever any public or quasi-public organization tries to conceal from the people that which the people think they have a right to know, the people grow suspicious and are apt to imagine the worst. It is always best for corporations to be frank and open in all their dealings, and so long as they behave themselves they need have no fear in taking the public into their confidence.

Would that more corporations would heed these words… and I wonder what they’d make of social media? ∞

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