Here is what I wrote for one of my assignments for my Strategic Communications class. I’m posting it here because I needed a history refresher to write this and some of you out there might enjoy one too. The question put to us was, “Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay engineered “history’s finest public relations job” to gain national acceptance of the U.S. Constitution. Based on your reading of Chapter 4, describe the organized effort they undertook to urge ratification of the Constitution. How did their approach differ from those of the nation’s first publicity agencies, and now in contemporary times?”
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to make the case to ratify a new constitution featuring a stronger, more centralized Federal government to replace the Articles of Confederation (Thernstrom 174-177). Federalists had appropriated the title “Federalist” and labeled their opponents “Antifederalists” because it sounded better than to call themselves “Nationalists” even though Nationalist was a more accurate term (Thernstrom 175). The climate in which Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote these articles was one in which 88 out of 100 newspapers in the colonies were Federalist-owned and did not print opposing views (Thernstrom 176). Hamilton sponsored a paper called the Gazette of the United States in order to insure the promotion of his ideas (Bitter 22). Even though he did not necessarily agree with which form Federalism should take, fellow Federalist Madison also used his influence to install a poet sympathetic with his own views as editor of a rival newspaper called The National Gazette (Bitter 22). Even with much press influence in place the Federalists came very close to failing to win ratification as the fear of replacing one type of tyranny with another was well-entrenched, especially among more rural populations (Thernstrom 175-176).
At the time the Federalist Papers were written, newspapers were generally published for specific audiences and not for a mass audience. The majority of Americans were not literate then so what newspapers there were mostly served specific interests (Bitter 21). The Federalist Papers were similar to the era’s papers in that they represented the interests of a group that was very influential but not what we think of today as “the masses” (Bitter 21). Only people who were very involved in politics were much concerned about which form the new government should take (Thernstrom 178).
John Jay, although he only wrote 5 out of 85 Federalist Papers, wrote some of the most influential. He was able to write persuasively by drawing on his personal experience as Foreign Secretary of the national government (Ferguson 223-224). After expressing some of his frustrations, Jay switched to more rational language that was also in contrast to the more fiery tones of Hamilton who wrote “Federalist No. 1” (Ferguson 225). Jay expressed his arguments in language that was beautiful on it’s own merit while conscious of trying to convince the reader of the rightness of his cause by insisting that the more aesthetically pleasing idea is the right idea (Ferguson 227-235).
When more organized public relations firms came into being in the early 1900s, they were responding to the needs of organizations seeking to counter the new phenomenon of mass media. More of the population was literate at this time and newspapers aimed at a mass audience were engaged in a lot of muckraking to advocate for and appeal to a more popular audience (Bitter 21).
The public relations profession further matured as the 20th century progressed, with specialization, increased recognition and milestones obtained by women and minorities. The pace of change accelerated at times of national crisis (Broom and Sha 91-101). Right before the 20th century ended, the internet started to see wide adoption and changed the way we all consume and produce information. Almost everyone now has some kind of a “press” in their possession, so we don’t have to sponsor a newspaper to get our opinions “printed”. However the amount of influence we can bring to bear and the way we use language are still important in determining how effective we are at communicating and persuading so most of the strategies that the Federalist Papers writers used are still relevant in my opinion.
Bitter, John. “Which Came First – Journalism or Public Relations.” Public Relations Quarterly, Fall 1987, pp. 21-22. Accessed 20 August 2020.
Broom, Glen M. and Bey-Ling Sha. Effective Public Relations. Pearson, 2013.
Ferguson, Robert A. “The Forgotten Publius: John Jay and the Aesthetics of Ratification.” Early American Literature, vol. 34, 1999, pp. 223–240. Accessed 20 August 2020.
Thernstrom, Stephan. A History of the American People: Volume One: To 1877. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.
Here is a follow up comment from me.