The Voice of Business, Hill & Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations

Originally posted at my blog , while working on the book.

The Voice of Business makes good reading, it’s a well written history of the first and one of the most important PR consultancy firms in the United States. Originally a dissertation (in Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, if I understood the acknowledments correctly) it is a well of sources and insights, leaning on scrutinous research. The book could be read as a biography of John W. Hill, the founder of the company, as well, the influence of his thinking, his ideology – and what happened when his successors decided to make, or were forced to make strategic choices away from the company’s ideology.

Much has already been written about Hill & Knowlton’s involvement in the tobacco controversies in the fifties, their work for Philip Morris and their involvement in the foundation of the Council for Tobacco Research. See for instance Source Watch.

However, I collected some inspirational details for you below. The other case study that I found very fascinating was H&K involvement in the steel strikes in the Depression years in the United States. Right from the start, H&K was involved in antiunionism, strike breaking, and associated with front organisations and armed private police.

The extracts in this posting are mostly copied from the book, or slightly summarized. At the end of this posting I have included the content of the book, and links to some reviews.

H&K and Little Steel.

Hill’s views were strongly influenced by the upheaval of the Depression in the twenties and thirties and the New Deal reforms. The National Industrial Recovery Act guaranteed workers the right to organize without employer domination. This and other reforms spurred the labor movement to take on steel (yet again). Executives in all industries sprang into action and did what they could to discourage unionization. Workers’ successes angered antiunion leaders of the Little Steel companies, which employed more than 185,000 worker and were ‘little’ relative only to U.S. Steel. Management’s responsability was to maximize profitable production. It perceived no room for democracy in the production process; rather, hierarchy led to effenciency.

Little Steel thus became the lone obstacle to industrywide unionization for the firt time in history.

CEO Tom Girdler took action. In 1937 “his company spent $49,439 in two months for munitions for a police force of 370 men, and more for the publicity expertise of Hill & Knowlton.” Later, his Little Steel company (Republic) reported having “552 revolvers, 64 rifles, and 245 shotguns with 2,702 gas grenades.”

In retrospect it seems inevitable that the Little Steel strike would result in violence. Four days into the strike police threw tear gas bombs into strikers approaching Chicago’s Republic steel plant. In the ensuing panic the police fired into the crowd, killing ten and injuring many other, then they begon to hit people with clubs, injuring scores more. At several other occasions riots ended with deaths. In Massiollon, Ohio, a Republic policeofficier led citiziens’ committee volunteers in a bloody attack on union headquarters. Ultimately the steelworkers settled for a moral victory, the industry a hollow one.

Other than preparing the advertisement announcing Little Steel’s position, Hill & Knowlton’s role in the Little Steel strike is unknown. Hill took part in preparation for testimony before a congressional committee investigating the industry’s record of suppression of labor’s civil rights in June 1936. This subcommittee of the Senate and Labor Committee, chaired by Robert La Follette, exposed four antiunion practices which had frustrated labor organization for decades: espionage, industrial munitions, strikebreaking, and private police. Little Steel had employed all four, and Hill & Knowlton’s job was to help the company explain why.

The committee revealed that Hill and Knowlton sponsored antiunion messages appearing in the news media. George Sokolsky, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly received $28,599 from H&K from June 1936 to February 1938, chiefly for consultation to the American Iron and Steel Intitute. When writing against the steelworkers union, his articles failed to mention his connection to H&K or the Institute.

The agency’s advertising practices also came under scrunity. A memo prepared by an employee, suggested using pressure from advertisers to procure newspaper support for the Little Steel line.

H&K interested La Follette most in relation to the various citizen’s committeees that sprang up in many Ohio steel towns promoting back-to-work movements. The Senator returned several times to mysterious funds H&K had created during the strike periods. Six corporations hired the agency to describe the history of the strike, trends and characteristics of the labor movement, and to provide a weekly digest of news articles and comment. The agency collected $1,500 per month from each corporation and kept track of those funds in a separate account book. The project began in July 1937 and involved hiring five new employees. Yet one year later, none of the corporations had received anything from the agency. The executives involved claimed they all were satisfied with the progress of the work. (These statements were prepared with the help of H&K). However, the Senator never found a smoking gun to connect that money or H&K to anything underhanded, and agenc activities returned to normal. (p.13-19)

Like his clients, Hill grew to detest big labor and big government. He was a genuine ideologue of the right. He favored education rather than coercion to halt the spread of communism. During the earliest years of his career, he gained an appreciation for the power of public opinion, the marketplace of ideas: “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas” and that “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition on the market.” Hill & Knowlton did not seek the role of mediator between conflicting groups, instead privileging one point of view, that of the client. (p.25-27)

On smoking & war

In the US southerners introduced Union troops to cigarettes during the Civil War, and tobacco opponents, mostly form the Midwest and often temperance advocates, demanded regulation. During the early decades of the twentieth century, tobacco opponents began to build a medical case to support their suspicions. As early as 1928, a first research project discovered a relation between smoking and certain forms of cancer.

The issue largely disappeared during World War II because of a lack of funding and because antitobaccoism seemed unpatriotic. Tobacco corporations got all the free promotion any industry could desire during the war: Churchill’s fat cigars, Roosevelt’s jaunty cigarettes seemed ubiquitous. Roosevelt listed tobacco as an essential food, and popular brands were shipped overseas by the billion, leaving a shortage at home. Despite warnings of danger, then, the 1940s solidified tobacco’s place in American culture. (p.122-123)

The tobacco case: Health groups failure in the fifties.

Groups as the American Cancer Society (ACS), and especially individual doctors, lacked the organization, funding, and knowledge about PR strategies needed to argue convincingly about the dangers of smoking. One major obstacle to conducting an effective campaign against smoking was the failing of the many concerned groups to work together. The American Medical Association, the Lung Association, the Heart Association, their research agendas overlapped, there was no coordinated release of information, no pooling of resources, no sense they should do anything more than what they had always done. The author, Miller, is convinced that correction of any one of these omissions would have aided the antismoking cause – but maybe that’s an easy thing to say looking back.

Information with convincing evidence was provided to the news media, but the largest of the organizations, the ACS, believed an informed public would choose not to smoke, and therefore called not for tobacco prohibition of even regulation but for decisions by individual smokers.

Another problem was the inability of scientists to prepare information suitable for press use. Researchers displayed a lack of PR sophistication, which not only limited their effectiveness but actually hurt their case. (p. 125-128)

Paid science and front organizations

The scientific evidence against cigarettes was building, but problems the health groups encountered left room for a strong tobacco industry response, Karen Miller concluded. And of course the tobacco industry had a tremendous advantage, money to purchase the services of skilled media professionals.

H&K did not present any arguments on behalf of cigarettes that tobacco executives had not previously made in the press. But the PR specialist realized the importance of credibility and emphasized that information they supplied to reporters should come from an organization associated with research and well-known scientists rather than the industry or the agency.

Since 1958 the Tobacco Institute, also founded through H&K, has handled the PR function for the industry, while TIRC, renamed the Council for Tobacco Research – USA in 1964, continued to sponsor research on smoking and related fields. The Institute was created to provide a more vocal lobbying arm when regulations against tobacco were proposed in several states.

Creation of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee meant that PR professionals could coordinate the statements of the tobacco companies into complete, well-organized reports such as background memoranda for the press, while scientists released their findings piecemeal. (p.144)

Hill & Knowlton’s strategy gave the industry a defense it used to stonewall its opponents for many years. A 1972 Tobacco Institute memorandum summarized the industry’s twenty-year approach as a ‘holding strategy’ consisting of three parts:

– creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it

– advocation the public’s right to smoke without actually urging them to take up the practice

– encouraging objective research as the only way to resolve the question of health hazard

Three years later, in 1975, a tobacco executive admitted that the TIRC’s successor organisation, the Council for Tobacco Research, was an integral part of the industry’s survival strategy. The CTR was, he said, the ‘best and cheapest insurance the tobacco industry can buy, and without it, the industry would have to invent CTR or would be dead’. (p.143)

H&K International

For a man who had fought long and hard to sell America at home, fighting communism abroad was simply an extension of patriotic duty. Advancing the conseps of free enterprise around the world was both a matter of good business and essential to victoriy in the battle with communism. Indeed, rumors that H&K International supplied information to the CIA are entirely plausible. Hill would have seen the opportunity to assist the CIA by sharing insights and information gathered during his or his executives trips abroad as a way to help his nation an democratic free enterprise worldwide. (p.164)

There were apparently few, if any, Jewish executives or people of color on the staff, and even white men were subject ot careful scrunity. H&K executives noted concern about one job applicant who had a “good background” but was  “handicapped by a large, black, handlebar moustache.” John Mapes added that the applicant was otherwise “a perfectly normal individual neither affected nor effeminate,” although he was unmarried. The man was hired, but generallly speaking, H&K’s policies were no different than those of the large companies it served. (This was in 1948, p. 164,165)

Compared with other American companies, H&K displayed regard for other cultures. The company had an understanding of working abroad that could have been very useful for multinational companies like Shell in Nigeria later on.

Despite a level of traditionalism at home, H&K displayed remarkable sensitivity to citizens of Caltex’s host nations. Recognizing that multinationals transferred not only capital and technology but intangibles like culture and ideas, Hill acknowledged [in 1954] that “foreign peoples may desire to emulate our standard of living and provide markets for our goods; but they do not wish, for the most part, to adopt a made-in-America way of life.” Moreover, he aded, ït is their standards, not ours, which deserve management’s first attention in all foreign operations.” In a draft outline for H&K’s report, Jackson went much further, recommending that Caltex not show white people in advertisements, advance nationals as soons as possible, offer improved educational facilities, procure locally, become familiar with native languages, and associate with the nationals. (p.165).

However, H&K sough not so much mutual understanding as understanding for the purpose of persuation. Information from the field would help decision makers in the US determine the policies and practices the multinationals should undertake. (…) H&K wanted to improve conditions in nations where its clients operated, but the agency, not the people whoe lived in the client’s country of operation, would determine how best to accomplish that.The voice of business spoke with a distinctly American accent, Karen Miller writes. (p.167)


The Voice of Business, Hill & Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations, by Karen S. Miller (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1999).

The Voice of Business – Contents


Part I. Policies and Practices

Chapter 1. Forged in Steel: Founding Hill and Knowlton

Chapter 2. Air Power Is Peace Power: Postwar Trade Association Public Relations

Chapter 3. Client as Consumer: Selling Hill and Knowlton

Part II. Influencing Discourse

Chapter 4. The Great Margarine Controversy: Public Relations and Politics

Chapter 5. The Mills Are Seized: Public Relations and Public Discourse

Chapter 6. Smoke and Mirrors: Public Relations and the News Media

Part III. Changes at Hill and Knowlton

Chapter 7. A Voice with an Accent: Hill and Knowlton Abroad

Chapter 8. Hill and Knowlton since 1955

Chapter 9. Hill and Knowlton and Postwar America

Appendix. Client Lists

Notes Bibliography Index Illustrations etc




Economic History Services

Instead of a false drama of blame or credit, Miller weaves together a lively and finely tuned narrative of H&K activities after World War II with a balanced evaluation of their impacts. She sticks closely to her evidence, resulting in a solid and most useful study. Like advertisements, public relations messages tell us more about their creators than their audiences.

The American Historical Review

Karen S. Miller concludes that the world’s most important public relations firm had little impact on either public opinion or political action in the 1940s and 1950s. Instead, she argues, the agency’s primary effect was on its own clients. More than anything else, Hill & Knowlton (H&K) reinforced the beliefs and opinions of business leaders, providing them with a rationale for their behavior and, not coincidentally, convincing them that the agency’s services were worth paying for.

The Journal of American History

Avoiding narrow institutional history, Karen S. Miller has written a good study of what was for many years the largest and most respected public relations agency. Her aim was twofold: to explain the history of the firm within the larger field of public relations and to assess the impact of public relations activities on public discourse and behavior.

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