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."
© 1998; 2022 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, "I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right." has 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, at least, have been given credit for saying it, but no one seems to know who said it first.

Personally, I have long thought that it must have been 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 still think this, but I'm not as sure as I once was.

Who was the first to say it?

While I was researching the history of public relations in the mid-1990s, I scoured physical libraries and online resources trying to find the origins of the quote and, once and for all, settle who said it first. But, alas, I couldn't determine that. I did learn that the quote has been attributed to:

Then I went on-line and queried several hundred public relations professionals and teachers who were active participants on the PRForum listserv, a primitive form of social media. I asked them what they knew of the origin of the quote and who they thought was the first to have said it. In those days, such online "conversations" were carried on by email, and I received more than 50 responses to my query, almost all of which suggested a different origin. There was little agreement among them, and many of the respondents admitted they really didn't know but were just guessing or expressing "a gut feelings.". Their suggestions included every one of the possibilities listed above as well as several others.

My next task was to review and narrow the suggestions by doing further research into each of them. It was easy to eliminate quite a few of them simply because they didn't become public figures until the 1950s or later, well after the quotation had been circulating for decades.

In the end, I was left with only two additions to my previous list of possibilities:

At that point, I thought I had hit a dead end and essentially let the matter rest.

A few years later, another possibility popped up.

Henry Ford had long been known as a lover of personal publicity in the early decades of the 20th century. He had a habit of courting newspaper editors and reporters and firmly believed that the better-known he became, the more cars his company would sell. But, I had never encountered any suggestion linking him to this quote.

However, Steven Watts, 2005 dynamic biography of Ford, The People's Tycoon, devoted a bit more attention to Ford's love of publicity and desire to defend his reputation than some of the earlier biographies written about Ford. While never specifically referring to this quotation, Watts did attribute some similar, albeit much less in-your-face statements to Ford.

"Since his early days in the automobile-racing game, he had demonstrated talent for generating publicity; by the 1910s, he had honed this skill to a sharp edge. As he once confided to an associate, 'I don't care what anybody says, so long as they talk about Ford.'" (Watts, p. 271)

But, that wasn't true. How much Ford cared about what people, and especially what newspapers, said about him was amply demonstrated in his protracted and very costly million dollar libel suit against Robert McCormack, the publisher of The Chicago Tribune. "The jury found that The Tribune was guilty of libel but awarded Ford only six cents in damages." (Watts, p. 270).

Ford was so proud of his name, the name he had emblazoned in multiple locations on every car his company produced, I couldn't conceive of him ever making the statement I was trying to track down. Beyond that, his popularity which only surfaced in the 20th century doesn't fit the timeline discussed below. He simply can't be the one who originated the statement.

More than another decade pased before another possibility was suggested to me.

I unexpectedly received an e-mail from Martin Ringo of Concord, New Hampshire who had read an earlier version of this online reading. He politely and correctly pointed out that I hadn't considered William Safire's assertion that the quote should be attributed to "Big Tim" Sullivan, a high-profile and very controversial New York political figure at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. He was a key part of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City.

My subsequent research confirmed that Sullivan almost certainly spoke these words but, as is true with the other speakers, I could find no conclusive proof that he was the first to do so.

At this point, I'm convinced that every one of the people cited above and maybe others made this statement at one time or another. There's fairly solid evidence to support this. But, I believe most of them were consciously or unconsciously repeating something they had previously heard from another source. There was only one person who was actually the first to say it.

Let's forget about other sources and look at the timeline to try to figure out who it could have been.

Logically, if we accept that all of these people actually spoke this phrase at some point, we can conclude that the very first time it was spoken had to have been sometime before any of them died.

Barnum, who was the first to die, passed away in 1891. That means whoever made the statement first had to do it no later than 1891. That rules out four of the possibilities. Mae West (b: 1892) wasn't even born then. The other three, George M. Cohan (b: 1878), Will Rogers (b: 1879), and W.C. Fields (b: 1880) would have been still in their early teens in 1891 and are unlikely to have made such a statement at that age. Even if they had, it's unlikely anyone would have paid any attention to it.

Eliminating those four, cuts the list of possibilities in half and narrows it down to four contenders:

I haven't found any further evidence to support my belief that P.T. Barnum was the first person to make this statement, but I'm still inclined to think he was. Chronologically, he came first. And, to me, he seems to have been the most outspoken and the most self-deprecatingly cynical of the four. In short, it sounds like something he might have said. If you want to learn more about him, you could start by reading my review of a recent biography of Barnum.

Ultimately, even if we never conclusively determine who was first to say this, it's a marvellous and evocative statement. It deserves to be remembered and repeated as a pithy and perfect summary of the thinking that drove the now out-dated publicity phase of public relations.

Thumbing through dusty books on my office bookshelf, I recently came across a 1994 comment about Donald Trump directly related to what we've been discussing here. It was in a biography of Samuel I. Newhouse, Jr., the now-deceased billionaire and media mogul who was the long-time owner of The New Yorker and chairman of the Condé Nast global media empire. Its full citation is: Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power, and Glory of America's Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It by Thomas Maier. Published by St. Martin's Press, New York; 1994.

While the book doesn't offer any insight into who was the first to make the statement we've been discussing, it did offer the following quote from Mr. Newhouse about Donald Trump. "Those who know Trump marvel at his ability to perceive any publicity -- good, bad, or even being compared to Satan -- as ultimately helping his public image."

Return to
Publicity phase of public relations
Explanatory phase of public relations Mutual satisfaction phase of public relations
Review of the recent biography
Barnum: An American Life
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