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Did Napoleon Really Invent Modern PR?

“So Bill, what you’re telling me is that Napoleon was a short, dead dude.”

He was! But he may also be the founding father of PR as we know it today—at least according an article in Investors Daily this week.

After the French revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy in the late 18th century, Napoleon was just one of many generals leading armies as they fought to take control of land throughout Europe. But he came up with a great idea to further his own power: commandeer media outlets and use them to his advantage.

While fighting Prussian and Austrian troops near the Italian border, he bought two established Italian papers to “to trump his troops’ excellence and deride his enemies’ incompetence.”

His main purpose then was to intimidate his enemies, but he soon learned that controlling the media helped to inflate his own public image, and he changed leading papers from rags devoted to “bolstering the morale of the army” to his own PR machine, casting himself as a man of the people fit to rule an empire.

As he grew more popular and eventually took power, he made sure to keep himself in the headlines by shutting down France’s independent papers, commissioning art to glorify his accomplishments and passing out awards with his face on them.

Napoleon didn’t really start this practice per se. Juilius Caesar, for example, was much more than “a salad dressing dude”—the general wrote a memoir about his various campaigns and published it in Rome to let his future subjects know what a badass he was and convince them that he would be the best choice to head the Roman state. The Senate disagreed, but Caesar responded by starting a civil war and declaring himself dictator.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, the public wasn’t too keen on media censorship even in the 18th century. Support fell as soon as they caught on to his game, because most people don’t appreciate the idea of the state owning the media. PR is thankfully a much more subtle and skillful discipline today because of it.

Do you find this history as fascinating as we do? And do you agree with Investors Daily that Napoleon “invented the press release” with unsigned op-eds masquerading as news?

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