1939 Better Things

DuPont has re-invented itself twice in 200 years, from an explosives maker to a chemical company, then to a science-based "discovery" business. Each change has transformed its relationship with the public and the company has learned that its activities are often misunderstood if left unexplained. DuPont’s ongoing conversation with the public about its goals, its achievements – and its mistakes – is at the heart of its public relations.Show more



Although the company established an Advertising Division in 1911 to promote its increasingly diversified products, it still relied on its earned reputation for honest dealings and quality products to assure the public of its good intentions. Up to the early 20th century, DuPont, like most businesses, regarded its motives to be a private matter. But as the company grew larger after 1900, and its relations with the public more impersonal, older notions of propriety gave way to a new questioning that extended to businesses as well as to individuals. More than ever before, public trust had to be earned by not only producing diligently but also informing accurately. DuPont would soon learn that the most effective way to address public perceptions was to work with, rather than against, the public’s desire for information.

 

It was a series of explosions in January 1916 that spurred DuPont to institute an organized public relations effort. President Pierre S. du Pont was furious about the error-riddled and inflammatory newspaper accounts of the accidents, but Charles K. Weston, city editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, confided to a company official that DuPont’s failure to provide timely and accurate information had only inflamed the inevitable rumors and speculation. The papers, in turn, reported the rumors for want of anything more substantive to print. Soon after, Weston was hired to be the first director of DuPont’s new Publicity Bureau, and he established regular contact with journalists and instituted standard procedures for issuing press reports. News coverage of accidents, which once ran for days on mere rumors, now often ended after a single, factual article. The Publicity Bureau also marked the company’s first formal distinction between advertising, where the company fully controlled content with paid messages, and publicity, which relied on constant submissions about products and events to writers and editors who then conveyed that information at their own discretion to readers.

 

By the mid-1930s, public opinion of DuPont had soured due to Depression-era anxiety, anti-big-business sentiment, and congressional hearings into World War I profiteering that tarred DuPont as “merchants of death.” Despite Lammot du Pont’s reservations about spending large sums on public relations, the company engaged the firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn to emphasize its peacetime contributions to society. The result was DuPont’s sponsorship of "The Cavalcade of America," a radio show dramatizing American history. For 22 years after its 1935 debut, "Cavalcade" created positive associations with DuPont’s public image, and helped assure Americans that the company’s primary focus was on the benefits of science, not on munitions. Heeding the public relations axiom that well-known personalities and decision makers lend authority to a campaign’s content, "Cavalcade" included scriptwriters like Arthur Miller, Stephen Vincent Benet and Alexander Woollcott, while historians like Arthur Schlesinger and James Truslow Adams checked the show’s scripts for accuracy.

 

After the success of "Cavalcade," DuPont reorganized the Publicity Bureau as the Public Relations Department in 1938 and increased its staffing. Four years later, Harold Brayman, a 20-year newspaper veteran and former National Press Club president was hired as public relations director. Brayman, with former newsman Glen Perry, launched the modern era of DuPont’s public relations. Key among Brayman’s policies was the 1946 implementation of a “precinct system,” derived from his experience covering politics, in which business leaders at a local level explained DuPont’s broad, societal contributions to employees and to their communities. Within several years, the system, which featured an effective, grass-roots, educational campaign, had become a model for other corporate public relations efforts.

 

This new sophistication helped DuPont more effectively manage its World War II activities, including sensitive work on the atomic bomb. DuPont’s great research and production capacity for materials such as neoprene, nylon and rayon helped win the war, and remained vital to the national defense effort in the Cold War years. These materials, like most of DuPont’s products, were in great demand in the civilian, peacetime market as well, allowing DuPont to ride a wave of postwar prosperity and consumer optimism through the 1950s. But sometimes size was a mixed blessing. Brayman and the Public Relations Department were kept busy through these years defending the company’s reputation against renewed federal antitrust charges for its General Motors (GM) holdings.

 

Describing his department as “ends minded, not means minded,” Brayman used a variety of communications media and techniques to disseminate information about DuPont. Better Living magazine, a glossy employee publication, was titled after the successful advertising campaign magazine promising “Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry.” Fortune magazine and The Saturday Evening Post each published a series of articles about DuPont. “This Work Goes On” was a film about the company’s history based on the book, “Du Pont: One Hundred and Forty Years,” by public relations staffer William S. Dutton. DuPont’s “Wonderful World of Chemistry” exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair included upbeat, song-and-dance presentations and exhibits such as the House of Good Taste.

 

In the 1960s, America’s postwar economic expansion and consumer optimism yielded to concerns about environmental pollution and social justice. In this new, turbulent era, books such as Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" began to turn the tide of public opinion against the chemical industry. A nation once enamored of chemicals and their benefits now grew uneasy and suspicious. DuPont, its sales sluggish and its future direction uncertain, earned a reputation as a “sleeping giant,” resting too much on its great, but now past, successes. In the early 1970s environmental researchers produced new data indicating that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) DuPont manufactured for refrigerants might be destroying the earth’s protective ozone layer. In response, DuPont publicly vowed to stop making CFCs if they were conclusively linked to health and ozone problems. The company aired televised messages that projected a corporate image of integrity, competence and efficiency.

 

In 1973, as public policy problems overshadowed daily business operations, DuPont elected company attorney Irving S. Shapiro as chairman and CEO. Shapiro had helped negotiate DuPont’s court-ordered divestiture of General Motors (GM) stock in 1962, and had also served as the company’s liaison to Ralph Nader’s researchers as they prepared their critical 1971 report, "The Company State." Accompanying Nader’s “raiders” on their interviews with DuPont personnel, Shapiro walked a fine line between openness and defensiveness. In an era when DuPont was often on the defensive, Shapiro maintained an easygoing relationship with the press. In 1979 he appointed DuPont general counsel Charles E. Welch to the newly created position of Vice President for External Affairs.

 

In the last quarter of the 20th century, DuPont continued its two-pronged policy of turning problems into solutions and diversifying the media for its messages. In 1987, it helped establish the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFC production by century’s end and in 1991 it introduced Suva® as its first substitute for CFC-based refrigerants.

 

In 1992 DuPont used recycling technology to convert plastic soda bottles and car fenders into 13,000 square feet of sail for the tall ship HMS Rose, which visited U.S. ports that summer with a DuPont plastics recycling exhibit aboard. The company also has distributed a multimedia student package about chemical protective clothing that includes a computer disk, videocassette and swatch book containing several DuPont products.

 

Corporations now live in glass houses. New information technologies, combined with numerous disclosure and regulatory requirements, have increased the importance of a firm’s public relations. A company’s immediate progress may be slowed by the need to earn public trust, but in the long run a company will not get very far if it does not make room on board for its consumers. As former DuPont Chairman Charles McCoy once observed, “private corporations live by public permit.”

 

History of the Public Relations Department, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. (no author cited), October 1954. Hagley Museum Archives, Box 8, Folder 4.

 

William L. Bird Jr., “Better Living”: Advertising, Media, and the New Vocabulary of Business Leadership, 1935-1955 (Evanston, Illinois, 1999).

 

L.L.L. Golden, Only by Public Consent: American Corporations Search for Favorable Opinion (New York, 1968).