BP’s PR machine has been in overdrive of late; their latest effort at saying “look how hard we’re working to sort the oil spill out” is a live roving webcam monitoring the clean-up effort. I’ve tried to go on it but it’s never operational – either broken or offline. Whether that’s by overload of people looking or by design remains to be seen.
I wonder what Barnum would have done? Yesterday, I went to see an exhibition on him for the 200th anniversary of his birth in Sheffield at the National Circus and Fairground archive at the University of Sheffield, run by Vanessa Toumin. It was brought home to me once again that Barnum never lost an opportunity to network with the famous people of his day, such as Mark Twain, and make sure that he and his ideas were deeply embedded in the 19th century conversation.
So embedded was he that Regent Street and Piccadilly used to be littered with freak shows inspired by Barnum’s example – look at the busy shopping haven now and you’d never think it was once the UK’s carnival central.
Now that all else has failed with BP’s efforts, I think there may need to be a Barnumesque response to the oil spill – some grandiose scheme to get behind a piece of equipment or behind a person involved in the clean up. Something that will bring surprising information into the foreground, rather than the usual hush up. It would be absolutely delightful to see them trying to repair their damaged reputation in a noisy, colourful burst of showmanship.
PR has taken a backward evolutionary step lately – it’s sad that Max Clifford is the go to man of choice, that information must be hidden or drip-fed when it should be celebrated in Barnum fashion. Barnum may be criticised now for the freak shows, but many people forget that quite a number of them earned so much through Barnum that they were able – and willing, too – to bail him out when times were tough. Colonel Tom Thumb earned the equivalent of $17 million a year.
I’ve also been looking at Meeky – see here for more information – and it goes to show that nothing is original in promotion.
Everyone tries to capture the public’s imagination and generate interest – the tools of communication were primitive in Barnum’s time, yet anyone prepared to use a bit of showmanship became rich.
Any showman nowadays is influenced by Barnum, whether they realise it or not; the spores of his genius have spread far and wide. Now it’s just a question of applying his means to today’s slightly more advanced tools of communication. In BP’s case, they need to be a bit rough and ready – all this just goes to show that you just can’t be slick with an oil spill.