PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Your product is going to be used for executions ? ! ?
© 2010; 2020 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
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Long-established products and practices are among the things we often take for granted. We fail to take into account -- or simply don't know about -- the public relations challenges they faced when they were first introduced and the additional ones they ultimately had to overcome before they became successful in the marketplace. Consider, for instance, what it must have been like to promote electric energy when it first became commercially available in the United States near the end of the 19th century.

Did you ever think that government decisions to use electrocution as the preferred method of capital punishment might affect the public's willingness to have electricity brought into their homes for light and power? -- People like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse did. -- And, this issue became became the basis of a very heated, multi-year public relations war between them.

Thomas Edison initially dominated the emerging electrical industry.

By 1880, Edison was already well on his way to being an American icon. He had invented and patented the first reliable incandescent electric light bulb in 1879, and he and his team were hard at work developing an electrical distribution system that could deliver electricity to each individual home within a city. It wasn't yet perfect, and it certainly wasn't cheap or easy to build or maintain. But, they were refining and perfecting it as it was being installed in an increasing number of cities. Looking ahead, they had also launched extensive marketing campaigns to win public approval and convince even more city governments to grant local monopolies to their system.

The Edison Company was making steady, but not always smooth or rapid, progress and it remained in the forefront of electrical development throughout the 1880s. Technically, its electrical operating system was based on and supplied direct current (DC). This offered high quality, flicker-free lighting to the end-users, but it required an extensive and expensive network of transmission relay stations to carry its current over long distances or to large numbers of consumers. As a result, electrical service was relatively expensive.

Westinghouse, who was then best known as the inventor of the air-brakes that were used to stop railroad trains, was also an electrical entrepreneur and in direct competition with Edison. However, Westinghouse and his company had taken a very different approach than Edison and had developed an electrical distribution system based on alternating current (AC). -- The two systems were totally incompatible and could not be combined.

Even Westinghouse admitted that the quality of light end-users received from his system was not as even and consistent as the light provided by Edison's DC system. -- It was generally agreed that light from AC systems often had noticeable flickering while light from DC systems was steady. -- But, electricity generated by AC systems could be more effectively and efficiently transmitted much longer distances and to many more customers with far less relay equipment and a much simpler network. This meant that transmission systems to deliver AC power to new service areas could be built much faster and more inexpensively than DC systems. In addition, the on-going operating costs of an AC system -- and the corresponding costs to end-users -- would be somewhere between one-half and on-third of the cost of DC operating costs. As a result, the Westinghouse AC system was considered by many as a viable, economical alternative to Edison's system.

Their high-stakes battle for electrical dominance began in the 1880s and stretched into the 1890s. It was at its peak in 1890. Nationwide, a number of cities had adopted the Edison DC system and were being "electrified" with that system while other cities had chosen the Westinghouse AC system and were being wired that way. A few cities were even experimenting with both systems and had different types of electric service in different neighborhoods or at different times.

The rest of the country -- indeed, most of the industrialized world -- watched what was happening in these cities and waited to see which electrical system would prove to be the most reliable, most efficient, and most cost-effective before picking one for themselves. And, as the feud that some pundits called "the current war" heated up, the two men became increasingly bitter personal rivals as well as business competitors.

The electric companies and the men for whom they were named relied on public relations to gain public support.

To feed the public's curiosity about the latest developments and adoptions, both Edison and Westinghouse initiated publicity and media relations campaigns. Each city that adopted an electrical system and every breakthrough that Edison or Westinghouse achieved was treated as major news and widely heralded in the newspapers across the country.

In addition to new adoptions, electrical failures, system breakdowns, and fluctuating prices and production deadlines were also widely reported. However, any shortcomings in the competing systems were usually announced by the competitor of the company that experienced the problem. Both men were as eager to to spread the word of their opponent's shortcomings as their own successes.

Proposals to use electrocution as a form of capital punishment brought new uncertainties to this already complex situation.

In the late 1880s, capital punishment -- most often, by hanging -- remained a worldwide norm and the execution of criminals was not uncommon in the United States or elsewhere. Regrettably, not all hangings were well executed. (Pun intended.) Some were botched and became prolonged, gruesome, deaths which led some legal authorities to seek alternate methods of execution. Some state authorities, including those in New York, also wanted to be as up-to-date and high tech in conducting executions as possible. So, New York prison wardens, among others, began wondering if electrocution could be an effective and humane method of execution.

Ultimately, this came down to three questions:

It was well known that people could be killed if they were struck by lightning, and lightning was essentially a natural and wild form of electricity. But, did less-powerful, man-made forms of electricity have enough strength to reliably and quickly kill someone? Lightning was so much stronger than the power of the electric current flowing through commercial electrical systems that even the experts weren't sure that death by electricity would be a certainty.

Admittedly, some electrical workers had died in on-the-job accidents while they were building, installing, or repairing electrical equipment, but their actual cause of death wasn't always obvious and may not have been electrocution. They may have been killed by a subsequent explosion, fall, fire, asphyxiation, or other cause. Nor was there clear evidence that electrocution could be a humane death. How could these concerns be resolved?

The answer was obvious back in those days before animal rights had risen to the forefront of public consciousness. The answers lay in animal experimentation. So, Thomas Edison and other inventors and scientists set out to find those answers. Beginning in 1887, Edison conducted a series of experiments and demonstrations in which he electrocuted a number of cats, dogs, pigs, cows, and horses. These experiments clearly demonstrated that animals much larger and stronger than human beings could be killed rather quickly by electricity, BUT only by alternating current (AC) electricity, not by direct current (DC) electricity.

As Edison was quick to point out, this meant that his DC electrical system was inherently safer and less likely to hurt anyone than Westinghouse's AC electrical system which was ideally suited for killing people. In The Current War, the 2017 movie about the Edison-Westinghouse feud, there are several scenes in which Edison (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) uses the name "westinghouse" as a synonym for "executing someone with electricity." There is, however, no evidence that Edison himself ever used Westinghouse's name in this way, although several published sources, including Scoundrels in Law by Cait Murphy, claim: "It was an Edison associate who came up with a verb to describe this innovative punishment: `to westinghouse.'" (p. 79)

However, the question of whether electrocution was humane or not remained unanswered at this time. Many of the animal deaths had appeared to be quick and painless, but others were agonized and awful. Some animals had their hair/fur burst into flames. Nevertheless, these animal electrocutions convinced enough government officials and enough of the general public that electrocution would be an appropriate and modern method of human execution to get it approved. New York was one of the first states to authorize electrocution for death penalty convictions.

The first death sentence to specify electrocution was issued in 1890.

The first person sentenced to be executed by electricity was William Kemmler, a vegetable peddler from Buffalo, New York who had been convicted of murdering his common-law wife with a hatchet. He never denied it, and, in fact, had bragged about it to neighbors before being -arrested in a nearby saloon where he had gone for a beer almost immediately after her death. The only thing unusual about his conviction was that his sentence specified death by electrocution. This became his basis for a legal appeal. He claimed that electrocution would be an unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment and that he should not be put to death in that manner. He did not claim to be innocent, nor did he claim there had been any improprieties or errors made in convicting him. Even if he won his appeal, he expected to be put to death for his crime, but it would be death by hanging, not by electrocution.

Perhaps the biggest question about his appeal was: Who paid for it? He was a poor man without any apparent financial resources. Nor did he have any wealthy friends or politically-motivated supporters taking up his cause.

That question still hasn't been definitively answered. No hard evidence has ever turned up. However, Murphy's Scoundrels in Law, published more than 100 years later in 2010, fairly conclusively argues: "His (Kemmler's) legal bills were probably paid by George Westinghouse, who did not want his alternating-current (AC) electrical system used (for an execution) lest the public associate AC with killing. ... Westinghouse didn't want any part of electrocution, even refusing to sell his generators to the state if they were to be used for that purpose. But the government got them anyway..." (p. 78)

Edison's reaction to this impending electrocution was more complex and somewhat self-contradictory. According to his public statements, Edison thought capital punishment was wrong. However, he apparently also realized that this execution was probably going to happen anyway. So, he decided it would be pointless for him to speak out against it. If that was all he did, it wouldn't be hard to understand.

But, Edison did much more. And, he tried to keep what he did out of public view. He started by writing "a letter to the death penalty commission in favor of electrical execution (using AC, of course)" and citing many of the electrocution experiments that had been done on animals in his labs. He also testified about the "efficacy of electrocution" during Kemmler's appeal, "going so far as to recommend a preferred technique." He also had his lab "work on a prototype of the electric chair." (Murphy, p. 79)

Kemmler lost his appeal and his sentence of death by electrocution was carried out.

It took the appeal almost a year and a half to move through the New York Appellate Court System and for Kemmler to receive a full hearing. In the end, his appeal was denied and his sentence to death by electrocution was reaffirmed. Claiming this decision violated his constitutional rights, he filed a new appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That court subsequently declined to hear his appeal and "turned down the case on the grounds that there was no cruel and unusual punishment in death by electrocution." (McNichol, AC/DC; p. 120)

So, on August 6, 1890, New York State sat William Kemmler in its electric chair at Auburn Prison and carried out the first execution by electrocution. Sadly, Kemmler's death was neither quick nor painless. It took two separate surges of electricity to kill him. The first lasted less than 20 seconds and should have killed him. It was only after the attending physicians realized Kemmler was still breathing that a second, more powerful and longer surge of electricity was administered. It lasted more than a minute and wasn't stopped until Kemmler's hair and patches of his skin began smoldering. This time, there was no doubt that Kemmler was dead.

The official witnesses of the execution, the prison staff who carried it out, the state court and justice department officials, and the newspaper reporters were shocked and outspoken about what they had seen. "Deputy Coroner Jenkins said, 'It was fearful.' The district attorney was in tears." The Times was so appalled that its editorial "called for prompt repeal of the law that brought this disgusting innovation to the state." And, some lawyers speculated that the horrific accounts of this first legal electrocution might "practically abolish the death penalty for some time to come." (Brandon, The Electric Chair; p. 187). But, that didn't happen.

Once the furor died down, "the official view was that death had indeed been quick and painless, if an affront to the senses. A botched hanging could have been much worse." So, New York quietly decided that it would continue to perform executions by electrocution. They also demanded that improvements be made in the electric chair, the generating equipment, and the procedures used for an execution before any additional executions by electrocution were conducted.

Before the Westinghouse vs. Edison, AC vs. DC battle was over, there were a number of winners and losers.

Now that you've had a chance to think about it, what actions would you have recommended to George Westinghouse or Thomas Edison if they had asked you for public relations advice in the midst of their AC vs DC current war?

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23 May 2020