Sunday, March 28, 2010

Buckingham the PR Genius

We think of public relations as a 20th century profession, though we know that trying to lever the public will goes back centuries. The Declaration of Independence itself was written to rally public opinion to the controversial cause of American Revolution.

I see the birth of public relations in Elizabethan England as reflected in Shakespeare, starting with Marc Antony’s fiendishly manipulative speech to the Roman citizens after the gang-stabbing of Caesar. “I come to bury Caesar not to praise him” and all that posturing was Marc Antony’s calculating way to stir up public rage against the stabbers.

My favorite example of PR men in silk tights and woolen doublets is a little scene at the end of Act III in Richard III. Which Richard was the Third? You remember the guy who murdered ruthlessly to attain the English crown and lost his kingdom when he couldn’t find a horse? Well, I simplify somewhat, but the scene I care about is the one in which Richard (still only Duke of Gloucester) and his henchman Buckingham bamboozle the public with strategies straight from the book of Richard Edelman.

The scene begins with Buckingham returning from his attempt to fire up the citizens to name Richard king,

GLOUCESTER How now, my lord, what say the citizens? 

BUCKINGHAM Now, by the holy mother of our Lord,
The citizens are mum and speak not a word. 

Citizens mum! A PR man’s nightmare.
So Gloucester asks if Buckingham made all the points they discussed, and Buckingham says, yes, I spoke of “your victories in Scotland, your discipline in war, wisdom in peace, your bounty, virtue, fair humility, indeed, left nothing fitting for the purpose untouched or slightly handled.”

BUCKINGHAM …And when mine oratory grew to an end, I bid them that did love their country's good cry 'God save Richard, England's royal king!' 

GLOUCESTER Ah! and did they so? 

BUCKINGHAM No, so God help me, they spake not a word;
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
Gazed each on other, and look'd deadly pale.

Okay, so round one goes to citizen apathy.
But these noble PR geniuses have another trick up their puffy sleeves. Buckingham – turned Edelman-like strategist – advises Gloucester to show the world his devout and pious side. He arranges to have Gloucester be seen in a sort of spiritual retreat in plain sight.

BUCKINGHAM And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord;
For on that ground I'll build a holy descant.

And then, in a bit of shrewd stagecraft, Buckingham counsels Richard to play hard to get.

Be not easily won to our request:
Play the maid's part, still answer nay, and take it.

Does the strategy work?
You’ll have to read the scene yourself to savor the dark comedy of Elizabethan public relations. But rest assured that Buckingham and Richard’s play-acting would make any modern practitioner blush with pride.

Richard plays his part crudely but well, pretending to be at prayer and dismayed by Buckingham’s loud entreaties to take the crown. Richard even cries out, “Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?” – delicious hypocrisy from one who has murdered his way to be next in line.

Finally, in a wonderful bit of slapstick, Buckingham nearly gives up trying to persuade Richard and walks away! “And in this resolution here we leave you… Come, citizens: 'zounds! I'll entreat no more.”

Whereupon other lieutenants get nervous and call Buckingham back, and Richard, saying that he is “not made of stone,” accepts the crown.

What a display of public deception and mass manipulation.
Not fair to call it public relations? Not true to modern, professional standards that would never brook such crude theatrics to help a client to the brass ring? As Richard (the III, not Edelman) might conclude: "Uh, ahem…Come, let us to our holy task again.”



麗君 said...


brandsinger said...

I had no idea you girls took such an interest in Shakespeare.