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The Voice of Business: Hill & Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations

Author(s):Miller, Karen S.
Reviewer(s):Laird, Pamela W.

Published by EH.NET (September 1999

)

Karen S. Miller. The Voice of Business: Hill & Knowlton and Postwar Public

Relations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xiii +

261 pp. Notes, bibliography, index, and illustrations. $ 39.95 (cloth),

ISBN 0-8078-2439-9.

Reviewed

for H-Business and EH.NET by Pamela W. Laird, University of Colorado at Denver.

Listening to a Voice of Business

Public relations, like advertising, is alternatively blamed and credited for

both the good and the wicked conditions of modern times. How can a scholar

tread the perilous course of responsibly assessing the impacts of a public

relations firm, while avoiding both platitudes and alarms? Karen S.

Miller provides us with a solidly researched and insightful model in her

masterful case study of Hill & Knowlton (H&K), one of the most important public

relations firms in the United States. Instead of a false drama of blame or

credit, Miller weaves together a lively and finely tuned narrative of H&K

activities after World War II with a balanced evaluation of their impacts. She

sticks closely to her evidence, resulting in a solid and most useful study.

Moreover she knows that looking at her subjects’ output does not necessarily

tell the historian whether or not “the general

public saw,

read, agreed with, or discussed the material” (p. 112). Like advertisements,

public relations messages tell us more about their creators than their

audiences. This approach is not the stuff of which New York Times best

sellers are made, but

The Voice of Business should make the best seller list of all those

interested in how ideas combine with business activities and interests when

business people try to influence public policy, consumption, and mainstream

attitudes.

Public relations advisors and textbooks alike insist that practitioners’

most important tasks focus on clients. After all, without commitment and

participation by managerial authorities, no PR program can function. Even more

than an advertising campaign, which certainly requires some managerial

cooperation, a public relations policy or program must engage decision makers.

For instance, in an all-time classic case, public relations pioneer Ivy Lee

guided the Rockefellers’ recovery from the public opinion disaster of the 1914

Ludlow Massacre by convincing John D. Rockefeller Jr. to come to the site of

the anti-labor violence and express his sorrow and regret. Had Lee simply

issued a press statement on the Rockefellers’ behalf, it would not have

sufficed to calm public outrage at

a time when Progressive Era opinion already mistrusted Robber Barons, and

firms were more generally identified with their owners than now. In a more

recent classic, Johnson &

Johnson executives decided in 1982, at huge cost, to remove and destroy all

Tylenol packages from store shelves across the United States after seven

poisonings in the Chicago area. Even though the cyanide had been inserted by a

murderer in a single locale, with public confidence their highest priority,

Johnson & Johnson managers sought to assure consumers that they would

thereafter see only safe products on the shelves. They did not hesitate or

argue about their firm’s lack of culpability.

Miller demonstrates the merits of such focus on clients by public relations

practitioners. Th rough a series of case studies she shows how H&K’s prestige

and influence grew because founder John W. Hill early on recognized the client

as the public relations practitioner’s first audience. Selecting cases for

their importance to successive stages of H&K’s development, Miller covers the

agency’s postwar work for and relations

with the steel, aircraft, butter, and tobacco industries. The public opinion

campaigns H&K generated and waged on behalf of these business interests yield

fascinating narratives and provide Miller the means of analyzing complex

relationships between large-scale businesses,

the state, and the public. On behalf of steel interests, for instance, H&K

argued against labor militancy and state authority, taking on the task of

“popular education” about “basic economics,” that is, pro-business economics.

Through the usual armamentarium of news releases, publications,

film, radio broadcasts, speeches, and congressional testimony, plus a comic

book for school distribution, H&K attacked what

Hill called the “national problem of winning more friends for the steel

industry” (pp. 55-9).

In the early stages of the professionalization of advertising agencies, F.

Wayland Ayer raised the stature of the field by operating as a businessman

among businessmen, helping the latter to make decisions rather than just

taking their orders. John W. Hill likewise raised his profession by always

conducting himself as a peer to his clients, counseling them and speaking–not

shouting–for them. Hill expected to participate in policy making, and

believed that clients who sought only publicity risked “poor policy and bad

public relations” (p. 142). When even major clients, like the National Retail

Dry Goods Association and the tobacco industry, closed their decision-making

processes, H&K resigned those accounts.

Miller concludes that “Hill’s legacy must be viewed as mixed.” H&K’s

“manipulation of information” did influence “both the content and the quantity

of public discussion,” but its “biggest impact was not on

the general public but on its own clients” and others who already agreed with

them (p. 3). For instance, the agency helped settle the 1948-1950 controversy

over oleomargarine by “urging the butter lobby [its client] to alter its policy

to a compromise position that in turn changed legislators’

goals” (p. 72). Miller also suggests that in other cases H&K’s influence

followed in part from reinforcing the pre-existing opinions of clients and

like-minded citizens. By fulfilling its mission “to amplify the voice of

industry,” H&K “fortified executives in the face of battle” and strengthened

their resolve (pp. 189, 193).

Perhaps Miller’s strongest methodological contribution is her use of the social

science concept of issue framing. In each of her cases, she

finds H&K’s greatest impact in its “adding to the frames of interpretation used

in public debates” (p. 190). This analytical insight alone is well worth

historians’ attention, for others besides skilled, professional communicators

deliberately attempt to

frame public debates. H&K’s work for the tobacco industry during the 1950s and

1960s provides Miller’s strongest example of purposeful framing. To combat

growing evidence and fears that cigarette smoking was hazardous, H&K

“emphasized several themes within the

‘case is not proved’ frame.” At that early stage in the gathering of

antismoking evidence, H&K helped the tobacco industry to define the public

opinion problem not as a direct confrontation with scientists and their

evidence, but rather as a matter

of raising doubts about the validity of their concerns. “Medical science” had

not proven a health hazard, and H&K recommended that the industry set up a

research program to “demonstrate that a controversy existed” (pp. 129-30,

133-4). This campaign succeeded in rebuilding consumers’ confidence in tobacco

by raising comforting doubts about the challengers’ arguments. After a decline

in smoking among adults during 1953 and 1954, consumption rose again until the

Surgeon General’s 1964 report, which made it increasingly difficult to

maintain the decade-old framing of the controversy. In this case, as in others,

H&K sometimes increased the flow of information, and at other times decreased

it. More importantly, it learned to direct that flow by framing issues for the

press and the public.

Miller’s opening critiques of those who have

“overestimated the power of public

relations” initially raised my concerns that The Voice of Business

might parallel the apologists for cigarette advertising–whose modesty about

its marketing impacts before courts and legislators clashes repeatedly with

the immodesty implied by massive campaign spending. Miller,

however, is no apologist; nor is she a critic. Instead her scholarship conveys

little of her own opinions about the ethical consequences of H&K activities,

although I think I detected a sigh of relief when H&K resigned the tobacco

account in 1969. Clearly, Miller admires John W. Hill for his skills, dignity,

and his steadfast adherence to personal and professional standards, yet she

also points to his political contradictions. She frequently refers to Hill’s

political conservatism and party affiliation without positive or negative

comment.

Linking labor’s goals and state authority with the thin edge of socialism’s

wedge

, especially when arguing against President Truman’s seizure of steel mills in

April, 1951, during the Korean War, H&K fought the free enterprise battle in

each of its big postwar campaigns. Intriguing contradictions popped up,

however, such as promoting

the butter lobby’s desires that the federal government intervene in the market

by forbidding oleo manufacturers to color their product yellow. Similarly,

H&K’s extensive campaigns on behalf of the air transport industries lobbied

both Congress and the public to increase government contracts. In both these

cases, anti-government partisans unabashedly saw government action as the

solution to their problems.

Exercising the reviewer’s prerogative, what would I have asked Miller to do

differently? A broadened

perspective that included slightly fuller treatments of the public relations

story before and during the postwar period could have deepened Miller’s

analysis of Hill’s principles and practices. Similarly, although Hill’s

pro-business, politically conservative ideas are key to her story,

contextualization and explanation run thin: “Whatever the reason, Hill held

many of the characteristics and beliefs of his clients” (p. 22). The

ideological environment in which Hill and his clients operated during the early

Cold War fostered their mutual successes, and more recognition of this

could have better situated H&K and its impacts. On another track, did H&K

agents take into account issues of population diversity with which advertising

agents were learning to wrestle, or did they dismiss those outside the

mainstream middle classes as either irrelevant to decision-making processes,

or, as with labor,

opponents? A clearer sense of how H&K saw “the public’s” identity would have

enriched our picture of why they operated as they did. Surely they knew that

their field, like advertising, was moving toward stronger feedback loops with

audiences. Was it paternalism, elitism, or just inertia that kept H&K’s vision

narrow? None of these areas is essential for Miller’s story

, but I do think that brief forays would have made the book,

and her otherwise sterling analyses, more accessible to a larger audience and

more meaningful to all. Nonetheless, The Voice of Business is a must

read for all those interested in how and why

business organizations project ideas into the public arena when they seek to

influence public policy,

consumption, and popular attitudes.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII