Titanic centenary – memorial or marketing?

Titanic publicityThe disaster of the Titanic’s sinking a centenary ago has been reported in crisis management texts such as Fearn-Banks to illustrate the need for planning and other advice the authors wish to highlight. However, reading Coombs it is clear that the key issues were operational, so the Titanic appears appropriated by public relations as a reason for criticism, even before there was an established occupation to critique.

Titanic has become more than simply a case study, with some reporting it has been mythologised and used to support various political and socio-cultural arguments. Jaques notes how such cases have been “re-interpreted to provide lessons for modern organizations”. In 1999, Ziaukas sought to situation the Titanic within the history of public relations. He provides a fascinating study of the promotional materials produced by White Star Line as well as media coverage following the sinking. Linking this historical context to the current centenary activities provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of marketing/PR and also ask questions concerning the development of the Titanic narrative over the past 100 years, including the emergence of ‘memorial marketing’.

The positioning of Titanic as “unsinkable’ and the “world’s largest liner” aimed to counter the publicity of rival Cunard ships which had broken speed records crossing the Atlantic. “Scale and sumptuousness would capture the public’s imagination” according to Ziaukas. The names of the White Star Line fleet symbolised the reputation being sought: Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic. In mythology the Titans ruled during the legendary Golden Age.

Ziaukas reports White Star Line had a publicity department in Liverpool, with a press representative, David Lindsey, employed at its New York office to provide press agentry services. But despite the modern emphasis on the ship being promoted as ‘unsinkable’, it appears the company did not have a culture of being aggressive in its marketing approach. Nevertheless, media interest in the construction of the ships was considerable and high profile launch activities were planned. Marketing material identified by Ziaukas includes posters, postcards and brochures – far from modern hype and spend, although the language used was “overheated”. Third party endorsement beyond the media coverage included a special souvenir edition of the British trade journal, The Shipbuilder. Other promotional tools included the reputation of the Titanic band which has become immortalised in the past century as continuing to play as the liner sank. The ship’s commander was likewise a high profile personality, as were the first class passengers travelling on the inaugural journey. Nevertheless, Ziaukas notes the ship was less than half full owing to various issue, and the launch was less elaborate than that for the Olympic which had preceded Titanic.

Commenting on the post-sinking media coverage, Ziaukas notes how “the alchemy of publicity was performing its metamorphosis” as various narratives competed for attention. In particular, he highlights the “epic theatre” evident in the management of the arrival of survivors in New York on 18 April (five days after the sinking). However, he observes that the attempt by the company to use apologia to take control of the media message was countered by a committee of passengers who issued their own public statement. Indeed, he notes how survivors faced considerable media attention with heroes and villains established as stories became told worldwide.

Over the years, interest in Titanic diminished, with its makers, Harlands, and Belfast in particular (where the ship was made) very quiet about the tragedy. Discovery of the wreckage in 1985 brought renewed interest, followed by the Cameron movie in 1997. It is no surprise that every location with a link to Titanic has been involved in commemorating the centenary.

Indeed, it is hard not to view much of the memorial activity as marketing – particularly the promotion of new museums in Belfast and Southampton (the departure city). The promotion of involvement in marketing Titanic Belfast by Stakeholder PR on its website seems to lack any decorum. Similarly the Council of Public Relations Firms carries a case study reporting Ackermann PR’s promotion of the Titanic Attractions in the US, which seem particularly insensitive in their marketing activities (at least to my British eyes). Indeed, I am not even sure of the links to the two locations where memorabilia has been collected for the tourist attractions.

I’ve been thinking about why I find the overt marketing of the Titanic tragedy to be questionable. I’m not sure if it is just the high profile campaigns to draw visitors to gawp as tourists in museums that are more infotainment than education. I do understand the argument that the marketing of history is not just good business, but does ensure continuity of narratives – even if those sometimes tell us more about the time in which they are told than the original period. The Holocaust museums work on that basis, particularly in educating groups of schoolchildren for whom the reality of modern disasters seems unreal. It is shocking, for example, that apparently many people didn’t realise that Titanic was a real story and not just a movie script.

I do wonder why today we cannot seemingly acknowledge a historical event without turning it into a promotional extravaganza. And, although I do believe society increasingly reflects promotional culture, this is not a new phenomenon as ‘memorial marketing’ has been around for decades, if not centuries, as people collected artefacts and memorabilia.

Perhaps it is the commercialisation of disasters with industries (including public relations) capitalising on what were essentially others’ real life tragedies. Ironically, hearing the human stories behind the Titanic (which is more educative in my view) makes a disaster seem more real and hence makes publicity more discordant for me. The Mary Rose, the famous warship of Henry XIII, which sank off Portsmouth in 1545, has become a major tourist attraction. It doesn’t feel as insensitive to use the Mary Rose as a marketing device for the city – but hearing that a new museum will focus more on the stories of the sailors who died, moves closer to ‘memory marketing’ for me.

A close cousin of ‘memory marketing’ is ‘tragedy tourism‘ where people deliberately visit the scenes of recent or ongoing conflicts or disasters. Again, I understand the importance of tourism returning to areas that have been devastated, such as New Orleans, Japan or Haiti. But does this include sight-seeing of places where people lose their lives. Isn’t that we do all round the world when we travel to age old battle grounds and so on? Is it any worse to visit in person than seek out information about tragedies online?

I’m just uncomfortable with the role of public relations here, particularly when it is so evidently focused on marketing rather than any sense of remembering. I wonder whether promotional activities do contribute towards historical knowledge or corrupt it. At the same time, I am not sure this is a really new phenomenon rather than being part of the human condition to tell narrative about major events and for businesses to look at opportunities around them. Maybe it’s just the scale of modern promotion and the superficial attention that feels paid by professional communicators.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.