Propaganda & Mass Persuasion: Ma Bell in the Big Bad World of Monopolies

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ma Bell in the Big Bad World of Monopolies

In chapter five of Stuart Ewan's PR!, he examines the growth of AT&T in the anti-monoplistic setting of the first decade of the 1900's. Beginning under the lead of Boston based The Publicity Bureau and carried over to the ingenious Theodore Newton Vail, AT&T was able to turn public relations into a science; like chemistry in its ability to cause desired reactions and meteorology to forecast upcoming events and complications. Before further addressing this reading, I must make a point to note that the case Ewen presents is one in which I did not read a fault of the company. AT&T is presented as a service, superior in performance to its rivals that, while it may have manipulate public news outlets, played by the rules of the capitalistic game without sacrificing the customer.

The time in question was the time of trust busting and Progressives ripping down monopolies. While many public relations men of the time such Ivy Lee had their hands full trying to convince clients like John Rockefeller to act in a way which the public could perceive as endearing, one growing company better understood the complexities of not just surviving but thriving when it seemed the bigger the business, the more evil it is.

Since the turn of the century, AT&T (or the Bell System) had to struggle to grow when every new territory gained could present them as one of the robber barons of public scorn. There was already pressure to "postalize" the new telephone as it had been done in some European countries. The Publicity Bureau was brought in to address these concerns. They went to work changing the public's idea of the company (Bell System became Bell Companies to appear less like a trust) and through advertising pressure, flooded newspapers with "articles" humanizing the company and its product in new markets.

In 1907, Theodore Newton Vail replaced the Publicity Bureau when he became the new CEO. Ironically, this new business officer was also a man of his times; a Progressive of industry. He was able to see the folly in other large corporations quest for short term gains over long term success. He also acknowledged the dangers of business "muckrakers" that created a public "educated entirely by those whose entire capital is in exciting class prejudice and class feeling." He identified the middle class as the target base for consumption of the telephone and had their rates lowered at the expense of business long distance.

He was unapologetic about the breadth of his company and in many ways likened it to the first monopoly that a person knows: their mother. In the respect that a mother takes care of her child, he made sure to publicize the competitive wages for his workers and the "unprecedented employee health programs" they received. The soothing sound of a mother's voice was now the sound of another woman, a telephone operator who answered with a helpful "number please?" And like a mother supplying for her child in a world too large for them to care for themselves but that they must still live in, he believed in educating the public of the advantages of his nationwide system versus regional phone service. It is no surprise that it would soon be known also as "Ma Bell."

Whether it be accurate telling or omission of facts, Ewens recounting of AT&T is a triumph in public relations in which the public was cared for regarding their needs, calmed regarding their fears, educated in their misconceptions. They were not taken advantage of as was the case with the Rockefellers and Morgans of before. AT&T and their customers grew in what is the ideal relationship in capitalism: mutualistic symbiosis.


Blogger A. Mattson said...

A great post.

According to Ewen, Theodore Vail is the first of a new generation of corporate executives. A generation that understood the importance of the long term management of public opinion as a part of everyday corporate behavior rather than occasional 'damage control' after a scandal or conflict. Led by Vail, AT&T became the model for the incorporation of public relations into modern business culture. The days of 'let the public be damned' were over.

2/23/2009 5:17 PM  

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