PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Further perspective on the publicity phase of public relations:
"I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right."
rev'd © 2010 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

The quotation "I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right." is widely cited in journalism, public relations and advertising books where it is variously meant to reflect the importance of the media, the power of publicity, and/or the arrogance of celebrities. Some people believe it; others dispute it. Either way, it perfectly captures the now out-dated but once-popular notion that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Because it's clever and easy to remember, it's been widely quoted for a hundred years or more. Ironically, those who have quoted it have attributed it to a wide-range of speakers. It appears that lots of people have said it, or are given credit for saying it, but no one seems to know who said it first.

Personally, I had long thought it was P.T. Barnum, the great nineteenth century impressario who built his career, his reputation, and his fortune on publicity and didn't mind being regarded as a bit of a scoundrel as long as people paid to see his shows. Now, I'm not as sure as I once was.

While I was doing research on the history of public relations in the mid-1990s, I tried to find the origins of the quote. I found it attributed to:

I then went on-line and queried several hundred public relations professionals and teachers who were active participants in the PRForum listserv. I asked what they knew of the origin of the quote and who they thought was the first to have said it. There was little agreement among the respondents. The fifty-some responses included every one of the possibilities listed above as well as:

That's where I left the matter for a decade and a half. Then, apparently out of the blue but actually triggered by the earlier version of this online reading, I received an e-mail from Martin Ringo of Concord, New Hampshire. He politely and correctly pointed out that I hadn't included William Safire's assertion that the quote should be attributed to "Big Tim" Sullivan, a high-profile and very controversial political figure who was part of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. My subsequent research confirmed that Sullivan almost certainly did speak these words but, as is true with the other speakers, I could find no conclusive proof that he originated it.

At this point, I have to accept that every one of the people cited above spoke this statement at one time or another. There's fairly solid evidence to support this. But, only one of them can be the first to have said it.

Logically, if we assume that all of the people under consideration actually made the statement at some point, we can conclude that the very first time it was spoken had to have been before any of them died. This means it had to have been said in or before 1891 when Barnum died. On this basis, Mae West, George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, and W.C. Fields can be ruled out. Mae West wasn't born until 1892, and the others would have been so young in or before 1891 that they are unlikely to have uttered such a profound, albeit simple, statement. The four remaining possibilities are P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Big Tim Sullivan.

I haven't been able to come up with any further evidence to support my belief, but I'm still inclined to think P.T. Barnum originated the statement. Chronologically, he came first and, to me, he seems to have been the most outspoken and the most self-deprecatingly cynical of the four. It simply sounds like something he would have said.

Ultimately, however, it's a marvellous statement and deserves to be remembered and quoted regardless of who said it first. It is a pithy and perfect summary of the thinking that drove the now out-dated publicity phase of public relations.

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Publicity phase of public relations
Further reading on
Explanatory phase of public relations
Further reading on
Mutual satisfaction phase of public relations
Practicing Public Relations
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1 Dec 2010