Santa Claus– the perfect example of PR vs Spin

A good PR will take the initiatives that your business is doing and make them newsworthy, building trust and enhancing your reputation – and I’d argue that the real-life Santa Claus and his companion Rudolf – made up by a creative store copywriter - are perfect examples of the contrast between PR and ‘spin’. The stories show just how PR, advertising and spin evolve over the years and amazingly, how many of our current Christmas traditions were borne from very clever marketing brains.

How ‘natural’ PR built Saint Nick’s reputation from 280 AD to 1773

According to and St. Nicholas Center, St. Nicholas was a monk, born around 280 A.D. near Myra in Turkey.  He became a bishop after giving away his inherited wealth to help the poor and sick.  Tales abound of his kindness and wisdom, from sourcing food in a famine to rescuing women from slavery, and his reputation spread long after his death, reaching around the Globe. 

St. Nicholas’ following was particularly strong in Holland.  He was named a saint and to honour him, people would leave Christmas sweets, nuts and fruit on the family hearth or in shoes.

Now, I doubt St. Nicholas employed a PR – but if he had one, the campaign was a resounding PR success.

When Santa came to the West

New York patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas in 1773 to honour the city's Dutch heritage. In 1804, John Pintard distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the New York Historical Society annual meeting. The engraving showed stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace.

Fellow Society member Washington Irving popularised the Sinter Klaas stories in 1809 in his satirical book, Knickerbocker's History of New York. Irving claimed St. Nicholas was ‘the patron saint of New York and the USA’.

How Santa changed his look for a new audience

Historical accounts of St. Nicholas describe him in a long, green winter cloak, but Sinter Klaas evolved his appearance. Early New Yorkers described him as a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings. Irvine later described him as an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.

The real-life story of St. Nicholas faded into obscurity as Santa became the property of advertisers - Christmas shopping adverts started around 1820.

In 1822, Minister Clement Clarke Moore penned a Christmas poem for his daughters describing Santa Claus as a “jolly old elf” with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head, flying from house to house on Christmas Eve in “a miniature sleigh” pulled by flying reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children. 

By the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for seasonal advertisements, featuring images of the newly-popular Santa Claus.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew inspiration from Moore in 1881, drawing 'modern' Santa with his full, white beard, a laden sack of toys and a bright red suit trimmed with white fur, complete with a North Pole workshop, elves, and a wife.

A 1930 Coca Cola advert cemented the look – the advertiser’s Santa was born.

Rudolf, the Copywriter’s Reindeer

I love this bit of the story for one man's creativity. Rudolf, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was the 1939 creation of Robert L. May, a department store copywriter who wanted to boost Christmas sales.  May’s story sold over 6 million copies over two releases. Now, Rudolf is part of the legend – despite never existing.

Meanwhile, we ironically tell older children that Santa isn’t real and the real-life monk, St. Nicholas, whose kind deeds were recalled for over a millenium is long forgotten in just over a century of spin.

PR should be fact, Spin can be momentary hype 

Santa’s story illustrates the real difference between PR and spin.

PR is all about sharing interesting knowledge from your business that is interesting to others, gaining media coverage and building your reputation. As the story illustrates perfectly, the value of trust and a great reputation will see your business recognised and remembered for all the right reasons.

Spin, on the other hand, can be good for short-term gain and unlike St. Nicholas, you do not want your brand to get lost in the hype.

Other forms of marketing can be important, but for longevity, sustainability and reliability, (you won't be surprised to know) I’d always choose PR - digital and traditional - to build and maintain recognition and trust.

At PR in HR, we work hard on building trust through PR using our positive, trusted media relationships. Want to know more? Do get in touch, it’s always good to chat.


Kay Phelps