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History of Public Relations

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Like anything else, to describe the history of an object you must first be able to identify that object in the different forms that it adopts through time. What is PR? What is it that brings each of our seemingly independent and chaotic actions together under the one idea which we call PR?

Public relations is a broad term, to say the least. Taken literally it can encompass anything from multimillion-dollar publicity stunts to what you and your friends talk about during lunch. Of course, the latter is not PR. So, we are forced to take the term somewhat figuratively.

To go back in time and take anything that might fit the description and call it PR would be irresponsible. It is only those things that would themselves PR that we can take into the historical account of PR. This way we reject rewriting history and might come as close as possible to an accurate description. For that, we must look back at the genesis of the term…

That means skipping past the earliest forms of public influence used by countless religious and political institutions and finding the beginning of publicity as an independent and specialized profession.

You might find discussions on the topic of publicity that date back as early as 4th century B.C. Greece. But it was in the 1900s that The Publicity Bureau, founded in Boston, became the first PR agency on record. Interestingly enough, it was founded by former journalists, including Ivy Lee, often referred to as the father of PR. Lee was influential in establishing PR as a professional practice.

According to PR legend, the first press release was born following a train wreck on October 28, 1906, in Atlantic City, N.J., that sadly killed more than 50 people.

The train’s owner, Pennsylvania Railroad, was one of Lee’s clients. He convinced his client to respond to the tragedy by issuing a statement. By doing so, he created a standard for companies to address issues to the public and offer an explanation, if applicable. The New York Times was so impressed by the statement that they printed Lee’s release verbatim.

The Publicity Bureau was doing something unique in that its claim to knowledge was of nothing other than the dissemination of knowledge. This obscure skill, something between rhetoric and journalism, came to be quite valuable in an increasingly information-driven economy. Consumers were all of a sudden being presented with countless options of things they would have formerly purchased down the street from a local craftsman. A good product wasn’t enough. Anyone who wanted to compete on a larger scale needed exposure.

Fast forward 20 years. They needed some kind of systematic approach to public opinion. The psychological works of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud opened up the irrational and herd-like collective unconscious to the theorizing of PR professionals like Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud, who wrote the first textbook on publicity along with other works including: Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928) and The Engineering of Consent (1947).  Bernays and the like seemed to be a big success. The way we thought about public opinion had been revolutionized.

Then the “herd-like” public caught wind of what was being said about them.

Opponents of the psychological approach to PR were not happy, given the fact that the entire psychological project was to somehow plant a product into a series of “irrational” decisions people will inevitably make.

By the 1940s, PR was being taught in universities across the country as a professional occupation. Yet, it failed to obtain complete recognition due to past abuses and exploitative behavior.

The 1950s saw a swell of wartime propaganda talent moving into the private sector, the establishment of PR associations like the Public Relations Society of America and the Institute of Public Relations, and the founding of two of today’s largest PR firms: Edelman and Burson-Marsteller.

By the 1980s, advancements in communication technologies allowed PR agencies to set up international networks. The boundaries on who and where a company could reach were slowly disintegrating. An expanding global market meant that PR was not just favorable, but necessary. Yet, a tangible form of feedback was hardly available. Maybe companies were profiting from the money spent on publicity, but it was hard to tell what was bringing profit and how much profit it brought.

By 1991, the World Wide Web was introduced to the public, the most drastic gamechanger of public relations to date. The web has changed the way we communicate with each other – and thus, deliver the news. Instead of making countless phone calls, an email would suffice. Publishing also changed. Welcome to the world of fact checking on the internet. The way that the public consumed information was altered completely, which made PR agencies quickly play a game of catch up to learn how to promote their clients on the internet. It widened PR’s scope with the introduction of online news and even soon after, bloggers.

Public Relations Today

I include this section maybe prematurely. Social media has brought great change to the professions dealing with publicity. Change that we may not entirely comprehend up to this point. Corporate communication has gone from a monologue to two-way, conversational communication. Consumers have become users. They have accounts to post on and opinions to voice. Potential buyers can see what their friends are buying and what they think about what they have bought.

The chain of communication has and is quickly being flipped on its head. It’s an everchanging industry.  Formerly, PR was thought of in terms of who says what, in which channel, to whom and with what effect. These days, the complexity of PR is greater – it’s all about user-based search results. People hop on their computer and look for what they want. They don’t wait for advertisements to tell them what to buy. It’s more like, who seeks what, in which channel, from whom, and with what effect. 

The industry has evolved, that’s for sure, but what hasn’t changed is the necessity for public relations. In this age of transparency, consumers want to hear from brands. They demand authenticity and to know the backstory of a brand. They crave storytelling and what makes a great product a great product. How is a company giving back to the community in which they serve? Believe it or not, these factors go into consumers’ buying decisions. I know they go into mine.