Kurt Vonnegut: The Public Relations Man


I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. Call it a kinship or even a man-crush. The guy’s writing – peppered with his special brand of black humor – enlightens and entertains and gives curmudgeons a good name.

The late writer’s new biography, “And So It Goes” recently hit book shelves. After cracking it open and diving in, I was tickled to discover a few more commonalties between the man and myself besides a penchant for wise-cracks and good-natured mischief-making. The most enjoyable being the fact that before his rise up the ranks of American literature, he was a PR professional for one of the largest corporations in world history. Read on after the break for a short summary of Vonnegut’s journey from journalist to public relations professional to iconic author.

After graduating high school, Vonnegut had every opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, the renowned scientist Bernard Vonnegut. His love of putting pen to paper, however, overruled everything. He was most at home during his (limited) college days writing columns for and editing Cornell’s university paper, The Cornell Daily Sun.

His unfinished stint at college was followed by a grab-bag of reporting gigs, which were interrupted by World War II service and the now-infamous fire-bombing of Dresden which inspired his most popular novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.” Sandwiched in between the war and his time as a full-time novelist was a leap from reporter to PR man for General Electric.

Reading about the icon’s time drumming up news releases and placing GE stories in The New York Times brought a smile to my face, not unlike when I learned that Steve Jobs often pitched publications such as Time magazine himself.

But it’s also the manner in which he joined the Public Relations discipline that rings especially relevant now in 2012, some 60 years removed. It’s no revelation to say that newspapers and magazines have had a rough go of it lately. Vulnerable and shrinking newsrooms are hemorrhaging dollars and staff – and not coincidentally the role and influence of public relations, for better or worse, has grown in spades.

The story behind Vonnegut’s move to PR pro is not unlike the stories of many today:

What (General Electric) was after was a newspaperman who could pitch a story idea to a major outlet, interview employees, make photo assignments, and turn it all into a feature story.

His writing style, honed in newsrooms and on the beat, also made his novels so distinct, easy-to-read and at the same time low-hanging fruit for critics.

“I mean, a lot of critics think I’m stupid because my sentences are so simple and my method is so direct they think these are defects. No. The point is to write as much as you know as quickly as possible.

Current day PR pros (especially those ex-journalists) can certainly appreciate that philosophy.

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