Speak to some of the PR greats, such as Harold Burson, Dan Edelman, or Betsy Plank, and one of the things they will tell you is that they are frustrated by - as Burson puts it - the constant "reinvention of the wheel that goes on in PR. Their point is that young PR pros who could learn from past experiences spend a lot of time coming up with what they think are new strategies, when they might have fared better by learning from tried and successfully tested campaigns of the past.
As former Bristol-Myers Squibb public affairs chief Jon Weisberg puts it, "It is sad to sometimes see how the pantheon of great PR work and fabulous PR practitioners is forgotten. Younger pros seem to know little of the great roots of this growing industry. So, with the goal of highlighting those roots and reminding the PR industry of the power that it wields, PRWeek set out to find the greatest campaigns of all time.
Naturally, it was not an easy task. PRWeek began the process by using those invaluable tools - Profnet, Expertsource, and Sourcenet - to get PR pros throughout the industry to send in their suggestions for the greatest campaigns of all time. Some, enthusiastic but a little shameless, saw a great opportunity for self-promotion, and sent in examples of their own work. But many more took the time to suggest classic examples, drawing on some key moments in history from the spread of global religions such as Christianity, all the way through to the launch of the Wonderbra.
As this example illustrates, it was not easy to compare and evaluate the suggestions that were sent in, which is why PRWeek roped in a number of wise PR experts, and charged them with making the judgements we didn't feel qualified to make. Some of the put-upon sages were reluctant, feeling that in many cases they were being asked to compare chalk and cheese (and it is true, they were in many ways), but - after a little cajoling and arm-twisting - they were persuaded to select their 10 favorite campaigns. The ones with the most votes across all 10 judges were then combined into the list that you see before you.
The judges looked for campaigns that broke ground in terms of PR technique (see the brilliant leveraging of celebrities for the original March of Dimes, or the classic media tour executed by PT Barnum to promote Jenny Lind), and for campaigns that created huge behavioral change, from prompting people to buy a product in droves (see the Cabbage Patch Dolls launch), to world-changing initiatives such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s incredible civil-rights campaign.
We do not claim to have created the definitive list of great PR campaigns, but we believe we've uncovered 20 phenomenal campaigns that highlight the broad scope, history, and power of the PR profession.
And the story doesn't end here.
If you disagree, or think we've missed a great campaign, write to us and let us know.
Boston Tea Party
Arguably the greatest and best-known publicity stunt of all time, and certainly one that changed the course of history, the Boston Tea Party was a favorite of all the judges who recognized Samuel Adams' mastery of opinion-swaying techniques. When American colonists threw crates of tea leaves from a British trade ship into Boston Harbor to protest excessive British taxation, the action was significant - but the message it sent was more important still.
Jenny Lind "The Swedish Nightingale"
Celebrity publicists could learn a lesson from entertainment entrepreneur PT Barnum, whose national tour for Swedish soprano Jenny Lind made her a pop icon even before the start of the Civil War. Barnum fueled "Lindomania by scheduling appearances nationwide, and negotiating product endorsements, all the while promoting her virtuous personality. "It's a terrific celebrity tour model, said Norma Lee.
Henry Morrison Flagler promotes Florida
Never mind pitching the Poconos - the founding father of travel and tourism PR turned a muggy, mosquito-infested swamp into vacation paradise. At the turn of the 20th century, Florida rail and hotel owner Henry Morrison Flagler hired a New York firm to convince Americans of the merits of visiting the east coast of Florida, ultimately establishing the tradition of the Florida Vacation. As Helen Ostrowski said, "This campaign took incredible PR savvy at a time when Americans were being attracted to the beauties of the American West, and the mysteries of more exotic destinations abroad."
Ed Bernays' campaign for the Ballet
Russe Ed Bernays once said, "Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. Using now-common PR techniques for the first time, the father of PR built a following for Russian ballet in the middle of WWI. In a time when ballet was considered a scandalous form of entertainment, Bernays used magazine placement, created a publicity guide, and used overseas reviews to make men in tights respectable, and put ballerina dreams into the heads of little girls.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
For the past 75 years, Americans across the country have witnessed hundred-foot helium balloons of cartoon characters floating among Manhattan skyscrapers and Rockettes tap dancing in Herald Square, thanks to a publicity campaign so successful that it is recognized by many as the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season. "The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a great, family-oriented annual event that has built awareness and recognition for the Macy's brand, said Jon Weisberg.
Olympic Torch Relay
The IOC understood that strong symbols and high visibility are key to great PR, and have created an emblem that is arguably the most recognizable in the world. The Torch Relay program, executed in the months before the Winter and Summer Games, has generated publicity for the Olympics, the runners, and sponsors on a global stage since 1936. Jon Weisberg says, "It is a highly visible event that consistently delivers a straightforward message about an international ideal."
March of Dimes
Way back in 1938, PR pro Carl Byoir was leveraging celebrity in an innovative fundraising campaign for a healthcare institution that's still around today. Established in 1938 by polio survivor FDR, the March of Dimes was originally part of a larger PR movement to eradicate the virus. Radio celebrities encouraged Americans to mail dimes to the President on his birthday, and the campaign raised $268,000 in its first year. "The March of Dimes has been consistently innovative in its determined PR efforts to keep the nation focused not only on polio as a foe of children, but on other problems such as birth defects, prevention of mental retardation, and sickle cell anemia, said Wes Pedersen.
Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War
While many judges recognized the PR prowess of anti-smoking campaigns that have resulted in heavy fines for tobacco companies, one of the greatest PR campaigns actually contributed to the popularity of cigarettes. The campaign, which publicized the redesign of Lucky Strike's packaging, is now known as one that made smoking fashionable among women. The patriotic and annoyingly repetitive ad campaign got so much negative attention, that American Tobacco Company president George Hill celebrated that it would live in infamy. "Few PR or advertising campaigns have been so successful, for such negative reasons, said Wes Pedersen.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Civil Rights Campaign
Every PR pro knows that good speechwriting and delivery are essential tools to a successful campaign, and few would argue that they have ever been better used than in Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 civil rights campaign - which is to say nothing of this great man's letter-writing skills, lobbying, or ability to stage effective nonviolent protests. King proved that powerful words and persuasive grassroots campaigning can turn a powerful idea into a reality.
Openness toward the media and a close relationship with the US government have been NASA's best PR assets from the start. Ever since Houston's Johnson Space Center director Chris Kraft insisted that television cameras be placed on the lunar lander in 1969 and reporters invited inside mission control during the Apollo 13 mission, the public has closely witnessed NASA activities - both awe-inspiring and tragic alike. Those historic moments have helped the public overlook the huge taxpayer expenses and numerous technical debacles that could otherwise have jeopardized the future of the organization.
Cabbage Patch Kids
PR efforts that led up to the national launch of the Cabbage Patch Kids created hysteria among the media, kids, and parents looking to get their hands on the elusive adoptable dolls. The PR efforts set a standard for the creation of a toy fad on this scale. "An early example of how to create a 'must have' toy, the Cabbage Patch craze was a great product concept, well executed through a strong media program, said Helen Ostrowski.
Now In the 1980s, the US automotive industry saved lives and got the nation to buckle up entirely through PR and lobbying for better safety-belt laws - no advertising was used. Tactics included winning the support of the news media across the country, interactive displays, celebrity endorsements, letter-writing campaigns, and several publicity events, like buckling a 600-foot-wide safety belt around the Hollywood sign. The results of one of the biggest public information campaigns of all time were phenomenal, with the number of people 'buckling up' rising from 12% to 50% - it is now even higher.
Hands Across America
The largest human gathering in history was a PR stunt that saw everyone from bikers to Boy Scouts and ball players come together for a worthy cause in a huge show of support orchestrated through media outreach by Weber Shandwick. On May 26, 1986, more than 7 million people, including President Ronald Reagan, joined hands in a human chain across sixteen states to raise money for the hungry and homeless in the United States.
The campaign produced a music video that premiered during the Super Bowl, reaching millions more.
When negative coverage threatened the tuna industry because dolphins were getting caught in fishermen's nets, Edelman and H.J. Heinz's StarKist led the way in changing fishing practices, with conferences, videos, and an Earth Day coalition. Eighty-four percent of the public heard about the efforts, and StarKist was praised as an environmental leader. This campaign was not just about changing perception, but about changing reality, with commercial tuna fishermen everywhere following StarKist's lead.
When PRWeek asked PR pros around the country what they thought was the best campaign of all time, the Tylenol crisis garnered more votes than any other - proof positive that it has become the classic model for a product withdrawal. When Johnson & Johnson discovered that several people had died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, a national panic erupted,and many thought that the company would never recover from the damage caused by the tamperings. Tylenol's PR pros ignored short-term profit losses, and issued a complete recall of the product,ultimately becoming a leader in the redesign of medicinal packaging. Using strong publicity and coupons to win back consumers, they strengthened both market share and consumer relations for Tylenol. Betsy Plank called it "the classic case history of contemporary PR at its ethical best."
Windows 95 Launch
In the pantheon of modern product launches, Microsoft's Windows 95 invaded the minds of the American public and consumed the media, resulting in an unprecedented 99% awareness level among all audiences before the product even hit store shelves. For a short time, media coverage of the product outpaced the OJ Simpson trial, which was no small feat in 1995.
Arguably the most successful health-education campaign ever, the national AIDS mailing "Understanding AIDS changed the way the disease was perceived by Americans, and caused a sexual revolution. Dictated by the US Congress in 1987, the Ogilvy PR campaign also included grassroots activities that specifically targeted Black and Hispanic Americans in order to curb the epidemic's spread.
Making BP beyond
British Petroleum is currently enjoying success that runs counter to most trends in the energy market, and much of that is due to a repositioning that started with this impressive internal branding campaign. BP's 1999 global initiative defined the brand as innovative and environmentally aware, while building confidence, performance, and unity among the company's several thousand employees. The corporation's work with Ogilvy has set a standard for post-merger internal branding exercises that many will seek to match.
Human Genome Project
It's not difficult to get publicity for a controversial scientific discovery, but with a lot of preparation, an early press conference, and some excellent education programs, the PR pros at the Whitehead Institute made sure that the complicated science of the human genome project was not lost in politics and scandal. At the time, the media was focused on the gene-sequencing race and the debate over cloning. Rarely has such complex science been made so accessible to the masses. Helen Ostrowski said, "this could have easily become a focus of controversy. Instead, it was a testimony to our scientific prowess."
Justice for East Timor
In a literally revolutionary campaign, Amnesty International, Initiatives for International Dialogue, and the East Timor Action Network succeeded in liberating East Timor from Indonesia with a precedent-setting and phenomenally powerful internet campaign. After the 1991 massacre of Timorese citizens by the Indonesian army, human-rights advocates took notice, and employed new global technology to draw attention to the injustice quickly and effectively.
Using tactics that involved exposing human-rights violators and lobbying through mass e-mails, organizing committees in chat rooms, and educating the East Timorese, IID proved the power of the internet by successfully deposing those who abused their own power. Few campaigns can argue to have gone a long way to creating a nation state - but this one certainly can.
"I think one of the great communicators and public relations practitioners of the 20th Century was President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had his own l0 PR principles."
Founder, Edelman Public Relations "I can't compare the spread of Christianity to product launches."
President and founder, Norma A. Lee Company
"It was difficult to narrow the Greatest PR Campaigns of all time to just 10."
Chairman, Weber Shandwick Worldwide
"Winston Churchill and FDR understood that communications was an essential tool of leadership. Their inspiration held the alliance together and made it victorious (in WWII)."
SVP, Fleishman-Hillard, PRSA Chairwoman
"I think Rudy Giuliani did a terrific PR job after September 11."
CEO, Porter Novelli
"Given China's record on human rights, the program to gain acceptance among world thought leaders to bring the Olympics to Beijing was a tour de force."
Director of Communications and PR, Public Affairs Council
"Ed Bernays devoted his life to his two favorite topics: PR and Ed Bernays.
He achieved remarkable success with his efforts to present himself as the preeminent PR practitioner of the 20th century."
Betsy Plank, APR
Former PRSA president, doyenne of the PR industry
"I have two wishes: that more nominations had come from educators, and that criteria had been allowed for Arthur W. Page's genius in defining corporate PR through his pioneering work for AT&T/Bell system."
President, Weisberg Communications
"Since the most effective PR influences opinion to achieve a desired goal, are the 'greatest' PR campaigns those that advanced ideas that influenced the most opinion and helped shape history?"