PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Your product is going to be used for executions ? ! ?
© 2010 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
main page
About the author

Long-established products and practices are among the things we often take for granted. We fail to take into account -- or simply don't know about -- the public relations challenges they faced and overcame when they were introduced.
Consider, for instance, what it must have been like to promote electric energy when it first became commercially available in the late 1800s. Do you think the public's willingness to accept electricity as a useful household product was affected by state and federal government decisions to adopt electrocution as the preferred method of execution? Would this have been a business crisis that required a public relations response?

That's what Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and other American electric entrepreneurs were asking themselves in 1890.

Edison had invented the first reliable incandescent electic light in 1879 and, within a few years, had developed a practical, electrical distribution system that could deliver electricity throughout an entire city. As he continued to refine his system, he also began marketing it and trying to get it adopted by city governments. He made steady, but not always smooth or rapid, progress and remained in the forefront of electrical development during the 1880s. His electrical system used direct current (DC) which provided great, even lighting but was a technical nightmare to transmit.

Westinghouse, however, used a different approach in his alternating current (AC) electrical system. The light it produced was not as even and consistent as that produced by DC, but AC electricity could much more easily and efficiently be transmitted and distributed over large areas. As a result, the Westinghouse AC electrical system was seen as a viable alternative to Edison's, and the two men became intense and bitter personal rivals as well as business competitors.

Their high-stakes battle for electical dominance spanned the 1880s and stretched into the 1890s. In 1890 it was at its peak. A number of cities had adopted the Edison DC system and were being "electrified" with that system. Others had chosen the Westinghouse AC system and were being wired accordingly. And, some experimented with both systems and had different types of electric service in different neighborhoods or at different times. The rest of the country -- actually, most of the industrialized world -- watched to see which system would prove to be the most reliable, most efficient, and most cost-effective.

Both competitiors relied on public relations techniques to win public support.

To feed the public's curiosity about the latest developments and adoptions, both Edison and Westinghouse initiated publicity and media relations campaigns. Each city that adopted an electical system and every breakthrough that Edison or Westinghouse achieved was treated as major news and widely heralded in the newspapers.

Electrical failures and system breakdowns were also widely reported. However, these occurrences were often announced by the competitor of the company that experienced the problem because he wanted to spread word of his opponent's shortcomings.

Then came electrocution and the fear of how it would be perceived.

At this time (1890), capital punishment remained a worldwide norm and the execution of criminals was not uncommon in the United States or elsewhere. In some places, such as New York state, the legal authorities also wanted to be up-to-date and high tech in conducting executions. New York prison wardens thought electrocution would be an effective and humane method of execution.

The first person sentenced to be executed by electricity was William Kemmler, a New York man convicted of murdering his wife with a hatchet. Sentenced to death by electrocution, he appealed claiming that his electrocution would be an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

What's interesting about the Kemmler case from a public relations perspective is that: "his legal bills were probably paid by George Westinghouse, who did not want his alternating-current (AC) electical system used lest the public associate AC with killing." (Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe & Hummel by Cait Murphy; p. 78)

"Westinghouse didn't want any part of electrocution, even refusing to sell his generators to the state if they were to be used for that purpose." (Murphy, p. 79)

Edison's reaction to electrocution was more complex and somewhat self-contradictory. According to Murphy (pp. 78-79), Edison thought capital punishment was wrong. But, he realized it was probably going to happen anyway, so he decided it would be pointless for him to speak out against it. However, even though he considered it inevitable, he "did not want his preferred method of direct current (DC) associated with it. So, in one of the nastier moments of his career, Edison quietly but effectively began to promote electrocution. He wrote a letter to the death penalty commission in favor of electrical execution (using AC, of course)."

Beyond that, Edison's lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey engaged in research that involved "electrocuting dogs, calves, and horses" and developed a prototype electric chair. "Finally, it was an Edison associate who came up with a verb to describe this innovative punishment: `to westinghouse.'" (Murphy, p. 79)

The sizzling never stopped, but it came to be accepted.

In retrospect, this was a very interesting time in American history, technology history, and public relations history. By the time the Westinghouse versus Edison battle was over and a dominant electical distribution system had emerged, there were several losers.

Now that you've had a chance to think about it, what actions would you have recommended to George Westinghouse or Thomas Edison
if they had asked you for public relations advice?

Overview of crisis communication
Crisis portal page
Stay well-informed to be ready
when a crisis hits
Performing public relations in a crisis
Crisis communication:
The Olympics of public relations.
Coping when a crisis hits Planning for crisis communication

13 April 2016