I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention to a show; but I never believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious article permanently successful. — P.T. Barnum, private letter, 1860

Officials at Feld Entertainment Inc. announced this week that the curtain will soon close on the 146-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which is in Birmingham at BJCC Legacy Arena throughout this weekend.

An entertainment institution in the the last century, the circus’ popularity had suffered in the last few years due to opposition from animal-rights groups, diminishing ticket sales and rising operational costs. But there was once a time when this truly was “The Greatest Show on Earth” — and one led by a publicity ringmaster himself.

Founding member Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810-1891) was a savvy publicity showman, one who impacted particular aspects of public relations and advertising, primarily event planning, event promotion and true publicity/media coverage. Ahead of others in his time, he actually understood the importance of media coverage (he started New York’s first illustrated newspaper in 1853) and believed “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” a popular phrase many times attributed to Barnum himself.

Barnum 2

But he definitely did things his way, come hell or high water and despite some of his tactics being called flack or puffery due to his sometimes questionable publicity-inducing methods. He was a pioneer in his own right, and one that, to an extent, PR and marketing professionals can admire. And whether you were a fan of the modern day circus or not, the tactics Barnum pioneered, including those listed below, have influenced how we consume media even today.

  • Publicity Stunts — Barnum understood the power of a staged event to garner press attention, so much so that he used a circus elephant to plow the front yard of his Connecticut home to attract commuters’ attention on the nearby train tracks into New York City1. According to Barnum, ”Newspaper reporters came from far and near, and wrote glowing accounts of the elephantine performances.The six acres were plowed over at least sixty times before I thought the advertisement sufficiently circulated.”
  • Media Tours  Ensuring media spread word of his “products” to the public, Barnum did what many of today’s PR practitioners do and went directly to reporters with news. He discovered the small-statured Charles Stratton, better known as “General Tom Thumb,” and after giving him this stage name and teaching him to sing and dance,  promoted him to the world by personally introducing him to major newspaper editors in New York City1.
  • Press Agentry — Barnum was the original propagator of “press agents” — or in that time, those employed by performers to raise awareness and generate publicity to ensure the product was well received by the public. His own press agent was Richard F. “Tody” Hamilton2. Today we just call them publicists.
  • Newsworthiness as a Foresight — Barnum understood that the “printer’s ink” had power with his intended audience and knew to keep newsworthiness at the forefront of thinking. He gave many of his performers short names so that they would fit in the headings of newspapers3 (that short Twitter name you have? Barnum would be proud!) and strategized during planning about the amount of publicity he might receive around acts he concocted. He earned a great amount of PR coverage when he publicized the legal marriage of his sideshow performers John Battersby, a circus thin man and Hannah Battersby, a professional “fat lady” who weighed over ten times as much as her husband. He knew how to get a headline and attract consumer attention through media coverage — both earned and paid.

As Barnum’s circus legacy comes to an end, it is through his contributions to public relations and advertising that he will continue to live on. And while these industries — and the people who practice them — have certainly changed since the 19th century, one thing can still stand as truth: In the words of P.T. Barnum himself, “I am indebted to the press of the United States for almost every dollar which I possess.”

Indeed, when it comes to us in the industries he so fervently believed, aren’t we all?

1Joe Vitale. There’s a Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum’s Secrets to Business Success. AMACOM, 1998.
2Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, Glen H. Broom. Effective Public Relations. Prentice Hall, 2000.
3The Bryce Blog. P.T. Barnum’s Effect on P.R. 12/2/2012.

Want to Talk?

Rebekah Weinberger

Business Development Specialist