Move over, Hugh Jackman—P.T. Barnum’s got nothing on today’s savvy newsmakers! Yes, I know I’m a tad behind in covering this box office blockbuster (and equally panned film) about the life of America’s first real publicity agent. But after watching the movie over the weekend, it got me thinking about who today has what you might call Barnum’s “gift of grab”: that talent for snatching the spotlight in a hyperactive media landscape.
Many of today’s “showpersons” tend to be CEOs, celebrities or politicians as opposed to PR practitioners, but they still appear to be channeling P.T. Barnum’s over-the-top style and flair in their relentless quest to capture both headlines and social media love. And while I suspect many of them have real publicity experts pulling the strings behind the curtains, these showpersons get all the attention and the credit as the faces of their brands or organizations.
On that note, let’s celebrate a few of the P.T. Barnums of 2018. Given my passion for show business plus my experience in handling one of the best publicity masterminds of all time—shout-out to Ted Turner aka the mouth of the south!—I have focused mainly on newsmakers from the world of entertainment.
All the Shark Tank sharks: At first, I was going to limit myself to Mark Cuban, the zealous owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and the founder of such pioneering companies as Broadcast.com and ASX TV. As a television personality and best-selling author, Cuban has even been known to make cameo appearances on TV shows like Showtime’s thrill-ride financial drama, Billions. (Barnum would be proud of Cuban’s genius for inserting himself into the latest pop culture phenomenon.)
But Cuban’s fellow sharks—including Barbara Corcoran, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavac, Daymond John, and Kevin O’Leary—are equally skilled at stealing the limelight in their own unique ways. From Herjavac’s Dancing with the Stars stint to Greiner’s status as the Queen of QVC, they all know how to elbow their way to center stage. But let’s also give credit where credit is due: to Mark Burnett, the prolific British creator-producer of Shark Tank and many other wildly-successful reality shows.
Mark Burnett: Burnett deserves his own listing, as he is more Barnum than all the Sharks combined. Like many newsmakers, Burnett always lets the talent take the podium, so to speak. But make no mistake, he is calling all the shots behind the scenes. After all, who ever heard of Jeff Probst before Survivor? And for better or worse, Burnett was the mastermind behind The Apprentice, which gave Donald Trump an enormous national audience. (Insert your own political commentary here.)
Simon Cowell: Is it just me or are Brits just natural-born showpersons? Maybe they learn it as a kid watching all the pomp and circumstance that goes into the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Regardless, Cowell is another prolific creator-producer from across the pond who knows how to get attention.
Widely known for his mean-music-mogul persona on several of his red-hot shows, including American Idol and America’s Got Talent, but I hear it’s all an act. In fact, he apparently is a regular guy when the cameras aren’t rolling. But once they are, you can bet he’s ready with just the right soundbite to send the ratings though the roof. (In contrast, Barnum was more inspirational than sensational in his many famous quotes, but nevertheless, Cowell shares his ability to provide the media with highly memorable remarks.)
Sir Richard Branson: Seriously! We’ve got a major British invasion going on here. But a newsmakers list of this kind would not be complete without Sir Richard Branson, the charismatic founder of all things Virgin. In fact, I think he carries the Barnum gene more than all the people mentioned so far. After all, his publicity stunts are as legendary today as Barnum’s attention-grabbers were for his generation. Kite-surfing with a naked girl on his back. Driving a tank down Fifth Avenue. Wearing an authentic astronaut suit to his own press conference. These are just a few of his previous audacious antics. You can read about more in this USA Today article.
Jeff Bezos: Speaking of stunts, Mr. Amazon has a flair for them, too. When he revealed his flashy drone delivery system on 60 Minutes in 2014, he turned what was basically a boring product-fulfilment business into an exhilarating experience for his customers. Also like Barnum, who published his own newspaper as a young entrepreneur, Bezos recognizes the power of the press, purchasing the Washington Post in 2013. His latest high profile endeavor? The launch (literally!) of his company Blue Origin’s first rocket into space earlier this week.
Kim Kardashian: As much as it pains me to put her on the same list as these other awe-inspiring newsmakers, there’s no denying that Kim Kardashian has taken the art of publicity to a whole new level.
Back in the good ‘ol days, you had to actually accomplish something to be considered big news, but Kim and the rest of the K clan are mainly just famous for being famous. I blame the celebrity weeklies, Ryan Seacrest and E!, and even the American public for their ridiculous popularity. If people weren’t interested in reading about and watching their every move, then the press would simply quit covering them.
Nevertheless, over the years, Kardashian has said and done some pretty attention-worthy things in order to get to where she is today. So you–and I think Barnum would whole-heartedly agree—have to give her extra-credit for creativity and commitment.
My favorite quote of hers is: “Stretch marks are my biggest fear in life.” Another good one is: “I’ll cry at the end of the day, not with fresh make-up.” If you find these Kim-isms entertaining or enlightening, you can find 31 more in this Buzz Feed article.
Of course, Kardashian, and all of today’s newsmakers for that matter, have a major tool at their disposal that Barnum did not: social media. From topless selfies to shameless product promotions, Kardashian consistently breaks the Internet with her varied and unpredictable posts. And what I find most intriguing, albeit sometimes frustrating, about her posts (and those of her peers) is that the traditional media then repackages them as actual stories. Barnum would have a field day with such opportunities!
Kardashian’s knack for creating head-turning eye-candy also shines through in her ever-evolving appearance. In February, for example, she dyed her hair hot pink. I’m just guessing, but I bet if you were to track New York Fashion Week’s coverage, photos of Kardashian’s numerous wardrobe changes would be on the top of the heap.
Adam Rippon: He may have only won a bronze at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but he deserves the gold as one of the latest and greatest newsmakers to recently hit the scene. Known for his bravado and boldness, he brilliantly called himself “America’s sweetheart” at a news conference and the title stuck, with media happily running with it in their ongoing coverage of him. This month, he continues to stay in the public eye as an LBGT role model and contestant on ABC’s current installment of Dancing with the Stars.
If it weren’t for pesky word count limitations, I would go on for pages with this list. Nowadays, between reality TV and social media, aspiring as well as veteran newsmakers have many, many more ingenious ways to make a splash than Barnum ever did. The downside of that, or course, is that the competition is much greater, challenging today’s showpersons to continually up the ante and reinvent themselves for the next 24/7 news cycle. Then again, if you bought Jackman’s performance in the Greatest Showman, Barnum would be right here in the middle of it all, too!