Public relations as a practice and profession didn’t really come to fruition until Edward Bernays popularized public engagement in the early 1900s. While this is a “new” industry by historical standards, I’m sometimes awestruck to learn of public relations campaigns tied to things established, in my mind, long ago – like the national parks.
According to a recent, in-depth story by National Geographic, we have public relations to thank for Yosemite, Yellowstone and countless other national parks and monuments once declared “America’s best idea.” National Geographic shares that in 1915 the parks were in disarray with little oversight by a single government body. Enter Stephen Mather, head of the Department of the Interior’s parks office. Mather spearheaded efforts to streamline funding and management of the parks. He set out to do this by first wooing the American public.
Mather immediately hired a publicist to increase public awareness of the parks, identifying that consumer engagement is a critical component to creating a successful parks system. A meeting was organized, and park superintendents and anyone else with an interest in the park, including railroad companies and automobile associations, were invited to discuss ways to improve the parks. Today, we call this stakeholder engagement, and it’s something NST practices for many clients, especially those in the public space.
A campaign to “See America First” encouraged Americans to spend their vacation money in the homeland rather than venturing to Europe. Automobile associations lobbied to improve roads for drivers. Hotels and restaurants sprang up to capture tourism dollars. Some could argue this marketing campaign laid the framework for what we now experience as the iconic family roadtrip.
Mather didn’t stop there. He organized a two-week trip through Sequoia National Park with 15 “influential men” including the editor of National Geographic magazine. This media relations move resulted in an inspiring special issue of National Geographic dedicated to the national parks – “The Land of the Best” – which was then distributed to politicians. When the time came for Congress to decide whether or not to dedicate additional funds to the national parks, funding was indeed secured – how could they not give the public what it wanted?
A well thought-out strategy, impactful relationships and effective storytelling brought the National Park Service to life. One hundred years later, we mirror this framework to help NST clients also find success. Maybe our campaigns will one day
be seen as history in the making.