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Analyzing the workings of a ringmaster

My sophomore year of college I took an introduction to public relations (PR) class. It was here I began to learn the basic ins and outs of what it took to be a PR professional. As in most introductory classes, I was told to read about the people who started it all. Edward Bernays is known as the father of public relations, thus he was an essential person to learn about in the introductory level course. However, Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum is arguably just as significant.

When I took this class in the spring of 2018, learning about Barnum seemed applicable and necessary. Just a couple of months prior to the class, a hit movie was released: The Greatest Showman and P.T. Barnum was the main character. While Barnum had a million dreams, he did not achieve them in noble ways. In fact, Barnum is placed under scrutiny by many modern-day PR professionals.

Barnum committed what is known as a PR sin; he used false advertisement in order to attract the media and an audience. However, this was not his only “wrongdoing.” His other PR blunders include, but are not limited to:

  • Twisting of the truth;

  • Manipulation of the media; and

  • Giving false information to his employees.

In short, Barnum was guilty of lying on multiple accounts. As I have furthered my PR education, I have learned how important it is to avoid lying, manipulating and twisting the truth. If there is one thing that can ruin the career of PR professional, it is a lie. A PR practitioner is a trusted representative of a company or organization. When that trust is lost, it is hard to find.

While a person should not follow Barnum’s example directly, there are some things that can be learned through the way he promoted his show. In her article “9 PR and marketing lessons from ‘The Greatest Showman’” featured on PR Daily’s website, Michelle Garrett describes lessons students like me can learn such as:

Understanding the Power of PR.

  • Barnum may not have gained publicity in the most noble ways, but he did understand that having the media on his side was necessary. Barnum once said, “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.” He believed the most effective way to draw a crowd was through media mentions. Drawing attention from the media and leveraging relationships with journalists was Barnum’s claim to fame.

Differentiating oneself is beneficial.

  • Today there are so many different companies competing for the consumers’ attention. It would be wise to follow Barnum’s example and find what makes you unique and embrace it.

Believing in your product or service is essential.

  • Even when one’s company is establishing precedence, it is important to have faith. Follow Barnum’s example and continue to tweak your approach until the consumers are given what they want. Afterall, if you do not believe in your own product or service, then how can anyone else?

Remember your roots.

  • This can be directly related to personal branding. Although Barnum became very popular, he never forgot what gave him success in the first place. This can be used in the world of PR because branding a company is essential. Consumers should be able to differentiate your company from others, and a company can achieve this by staying consistent.

Barnum did not always make the best decisions in promotion techniques. He did, however, reinforce the significance of telling the truth in the PR world, gaining media attention, setting oneself apart from competitors and remembering the reasons for success. Everyone is trying to prove they have ”the greatest show;” the only challenge is making others believe it.


Blakelee Steeb is a senior from Eminence , Ind., majoring in public relations. Steeb is an associate with Fifth Street Communications®, a student-run public relations agency at Anderson University.

fsc@anderson.edu | Anderson University (IN)

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