American corporations have never been reticent to use available media to reach their goals, and in the years between 1890 and 1940, there are impressive examples of how U.S. corporate interests have utilized various media to realize additional profit and power -- sometimes employing unorthodox and unethical methods. This paper delves into instances of corporate use of media, and points to the dynamics that allowed those associations to flourish.
"Today's critics of media conglomerates fail to grasp the reality that corporate power, in league with the state, [has] made a mockery of prospects for a democratic global media system… [and it's vital to recognize that] the U.S. radio industry subsequently followed a similar pattern of monopolization in the 1920s…" (Peterson, 2004, p. 86).
Author James Schwoch points to the fact that the American radio industry had a profound impact on Latin American activities between 1900 and 1939, and he uses several examples to back up his assertion. For example, U.S. Rubber (whose point man was E.C. Benedict, a board member and "experienced Wall Street finance capitalist") had a strong interest in seeing more effective strategies in terms of the management of "wild rubber forests" in the Amazon basin (Schwoch, 1990, p. 16). Indeed, U.S. Rubber had established purchasing agencies for "raw rubber" from Amazon states Para and Manus, which was due to the fact that they had eyes for greater control of the rubber in the Amazon.
The annual report for U.S. Rubber in 1903 stated: "We have…laid the foundation in another direction for acquiring and handling generally our very large requirements of crude rubber"; the report went on to explain that "special advantages" the company was developing would offer U.S. Rubber access to rubber "never before possessed by this company, and not enjoyed by any other consumer of rubber" (Schwoch, p. 16).
What was that advantage that Benedict alluded to? It was the establishment of "Amazon Wireless," a radio / broadcast system that would play a big role in the U.S. Rubber corporation gaining power, money, and of course rubber from the Amazon region. The Amazon Wireless deal was cut with Brazil thanks to the efforts of two Americans, Richard Mardock and Charles Archer, who began experimenting in the Amazon in 1901. Using new radio technology developed by iconic electronics innovator Reginald Fessenden, Mardock convinced the Brazilian government that he had the technology to bring wireless communication to Brazil. So a deal was inked on September 29, 1902, allowing fifteen years of operation of Amazon Wireless in Brazil.
Fessenden had implemented the already existing electromagnetic theory and pursued it to its ultimate end: a) he was the first to transmit voice over radio waves; b) he was first to send two-way wireless telegraphy messages across the Atlantic Ocean; c) Fessenden was first to send "wireless telephony (voice) across the Atlantic Ocean"; and d) Fessenden produced the first wireless broadcast of voice and music (Balrose, 1994, p. 1). He didn't do it to help U.S. corporations earn more profit, but it turned out to be an advantage for corporations.
While U.S. Rubber did not make the great profit strides in the Amazon jungle with their Amazon Wireless project -- the Brazilian government backed away from cooperation with U.S. Rubber, taking over the project, and the Fessenden system had serious technical problems operating in the deep Amazon jungle -- other U.S. corporations had success in Latin America, including the United Fruit Company (UFC). Indeed, the UFC used radio equipment purchased from Lee DeForest and established "a [radio] system between Port Limon, Costa Rica, and Bocas del Toro in Panama" (Schwoch, 21). One reason that UFC succeeded and U.S. Rubber failed -- besides the difficulties U.S. Rubber experienced setting up transmissions that consistently functioned properly in rainforest environments -- is that the UFC project involved the company planting banana plantations rather than depending on "wild harvesting" in remote areas such as U.S. Rubber had to deal with (Schwoch, 22). Eventually UFC built steamships and used wireless transmissions on board those ships for constant communication with corporate regional offices.
Upton Sinclair, who "railed against the corporate takeover of America," went to Colorado during the coal miners strike of 1927-28; he called the Denver Post that had, he says, "published some perfectly fantastic falsehoods about me, made up out of whole cloth. I called [an editor] and protested. He cursed me and said 'we say what we & #8230;' and I won't repeat his language but 'we are gonna say what we please about you and we don't care a blankety-blank-blank what you think about us or what you say about us…'" (Gordonskene, 2010).
Meanwhile, the emergence of public relations components by corporations was truly the beginning of the era when companies used media to promote their goals and fatten their profits. Public relations departments were designed to have a positive effect on public opinion, and the PR departments of course carried out their duties by informing -- and using -- the media. In the book Effective Public Relations and Media Strategy, author Reddi explains that the very first in-house publicity department was established by Westinghouse Corporation in 1889 (Reddi, 2010, 54). Up until the late 19th century, Reddi asserts, corporations "had the notion that they were not accountable to the customers and the people," and hence corporations were reticent to "share information with the media" (54).
Ivy Ledbetter Lee was among the pioneers of public relations bureaus (in fact he is considered the "Father of American Public Relations," according to Reddi); he declared that the old attitude -- "Public be damned" -- had given way in the early 20th Century to "Public be informed" (Reddi, 55). Both AT&T and the Ford Motor Company developed media relations components very early in the 20th century. Henry Ford sent out a press release that was picked up the press around the country: "Everyone should own a car and… it should be affordable to people" (Reddi, 55). Ivy Lee's "Declaration of Principles" was instrumental by influencing corporations to get wise in the ways of media. Reddi presents an extract from Lee's principles:
"This is not a secret Press Bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency. Our matter is accurate.
Further, details on any subject needed will be supplied [to media] promptly
And any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any
Statement of fact…" (Reddi, 55).
And so from roughly the late 19th century forward, corporations were smart enough to create media relations departments to provide promotional narratives and factual data to the press, and it has proved to be a financial and image benefit for companies large and small.
Not all of those public relations departments established within corporations were designed to be wholly honest and forthcoming with the press, however. The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications (GCJMC) has published a white paper that contains a number of detailed reviews of books that assess and critique the history of public relations -- and the link between PR and business in America. To wit, GCJMC lists writers such as Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., N.S.B. Gras, Alan Raucher, Richard Tedlow, as the men who "revolutionized" the field of business history as it pertains to PR.
Gras wrote that between the 18th and 19th centuries, the belief put forward by business was that "the public should keep its hands off business so that businesses could freely compete" (GCJMC). From 1901to 1945, Gras continued, beliefs about the relationship between business and government "shifted again"; in this era business engaged in a pattern of "pleasing yet fooling the public" and yet moved toward a more open policy of informing the public, the Grady group explained. In Raucher's book (Public Relations and Business, 1900-1929) the author claims that corporations hired PR professionals "…who claimed to be completely above board" -- a strategy to give the impression that business really "cared what the public thought" (GCJMC).
In Tedlow's book, Keeping the Corporate Image, the author explains that "If the public turned against business" during the early 20th century, "its leaders had to set them right," the Grady document reports. By 1914, according to author Ewen, middle-class Americans were fully convinced -- thanks to muckraking journalism -- that corporations (and by implication all private enterprises) should be "responsive to public concerns" (GCJMC). Hence, the first generation of truly objective and professional PR persons like Ivy Lee, "dispensed facts and created a demeanor of openness to counterbalance traditional corporate secrecy," Grady's research indicates. After the end of World War I, the media explosion in the U.S. -- newspaper chains and commercial radio -- combined with public relations techniques "caused a dramatic spread in organized propaganda" which corporations were a big part of.
In 1925, Time Magazine published an interview that was conducted between Henry Ford and New York Herald Tribune reporter Wilbur Forest. The interview was a rare one for Ford whose…
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