Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hitting His Stride

John Walker Harrington's interest in technology was evident in this
article which appeared in Scientific American during World War I.

John Walker Harrington, an enterprising reporter who blew into New York City during the heyday of yellow journalism in the 1890s, came equipped with a big ego. 

In college he’d torn up the competition in oratorical contests.  He composed sly poems about his friends, pushing caricatures to the limit.  His writing dominated the student newspaper and yearbook. 

Still, everyone seemed to like him.

At Harrington’s 1887 wedding, it reflected well on the groom to have as his best man Samuel Hopkins Adams, an up-and-coming muckraker who wrote for the esteemed magazine, McClure’s.  


Popular Science Monthly (1918)

It was Harrington’s good fortune to hit his stride during World War I when editors were looking for his particular brand of story – technological innovation and the expansion of government and industry:

Hudson Under-River Roadway: Chief Engineer Talks of Plans and Prospects for the 40-foot Tunnel with Three Lines of Traffic Each Way

Police Force Expands as its Duties Increase; Nerve Center of City at Headquarters Utilizes Motor Cars, Telephones, Radio and Special Street Signals

Yet there was a downside to the kind of in-depth reporting in which Harrington specialized, and he recognized it even as he celebrated his own success. 

As the public consumed ever greater amounts of information about how business and government worked, complacency gave way to questions.  Rumors spread.  Organizations, corporations and individuals lost absolute control of how they were perceived by the world.      

Dividends, reputations, and fortunes could be erased by a single newspaper article.

Popular Science Monthly (1928)

Consequently, Harrington began to pay attention to how his services might be used to balance negative publicity.  He designed a pitch and sent out dozens of letters, emphasizing his knowledge of the inner workings of the press with the implication that he could manipulate coverage.        

For example, in 1917, after the imperturbable New-York Historical Society confronted the unthinkable – an attack on its leadership by one of its own starchy members – Harrington wrote to the director suggesting that the museum might need some help holding onto its aristocratic image.  

New-York Historical Society flap:
New York Times; January 3, 1917

The Society declined Harrington's help, but he had great luck in the business sector.

By 1919, he was running a news service for the American Chemical Society, a trade organization eager to calm fears about toxic gases, the use of X-Rays and fertilizer, problems with the nation’s milk supply, and other public concerns.

Harrington had a particular interest and faith in science and scientists, so he was a natural to write about the benefits of industrial research.  His topics ranged from electrification of the railroads, to the extraction of all-important potash from rock deposits, to building cheaper, more comfortable shoes.  His articles were always upbeat.

Popular Science Monthly (1922)

Harrington did not invent the art of public relations. 

That honor went to Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a Princeton graduate and publicity expert.  Lee began reshaping the unsavory image of the Rockefeller family in 1914 after the Ludlow Massacre, when John D. Rockefeller Sr. ordered a Colorado militia to break a strike by the United Mine Workers. Nineteen men, women, and children were killed.  

Harrington flourished in the world of flackdom, which would become a derogatory term for PR.  He also continued to write for himself.

In July 1924 American Magazine, a popular interest monthly, published a story by Harrington: “His Most Valuable Contract was the One He Didn’t Get.”

Here’s the teaser: “By speaking well of a rival firm, James G. White, when he was a young engineer, lost a big contract but gained some bigger friends.”

And here’s the first line: “Two men stood facing each other in the office of an Omaha smelting plant.”

No one sets a scene like that anymore.

"Chemistry's Greatest Rally"
Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry

*John Walker Harrington died in Connecticut in 1952.

See part 1 - 10/9/10.


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