Public relations is both a profession and discipline. The field has a rich history coinciding with the birth of industrialization in the United States and the dramatic growth in mass communications technology. At its best, public relations historically served as a catalyst for openness and change. At its worst, public relations created a fog of disinformation shrouding the abusive nature of modern corporations.
Currently, the field’s history does not exist as a coherent whole, thus leaving it devoid of a sense of heritage that defines the profession’s culture. Unlike other disciplines/professions, there is little sense of pride or honor derived from understanding where the public relations came from or its overall importance in transforming American culture for more than a century.
Without a history, the field proceeds based on the fragmented experiences of individual practitioners, not the collective knowledge acquired over the past 150 years. There is a need for current professionals and students to learn from history’s successes and failures, which will help build a stronger profession overall. What is needed is an honest, well-researched history of public relations that will provide readers with insights and methods to deal with today’s (and tomorrow’s) challenges.
Robert E. Brown says, “Today, we need to ask not only when and how did public relations arise, but what really is it? Without a deeper sense of history and culture, we have no foundation on which to build better theories.” Brown sees current scholarly interpretations of PR history lacking “a passionate engagement with culture and aesthetics.” This neglect undercuts the field’s critical place in the nation’s history.1
In most American universities, public relations majors receive virtually no information about the field from a historical perspective. Usually one lecture in a semester-long course is set aside to introduce students to the topic. In the typical “Introduction to Public Relations” course, this lecture is based on one of the poorly researched and written “The History of Public Relations” chapters in the leading textbooks. The authors attempt to boil the entire history of the field down to a whirlwind overview taking the reader from pre-Colonial history to the present in approximately 20 pages.2
In today’s textbooks, the historical chapter is not only poorly researched and written, but is ill-conceived from the start. Most authors spend a significant part of the chapter building PR’s history on propaganda/press agentry roots that should not be part of the field’s history. These writers mistakenly place publicity under the umbrella of public relations. Publicity, however, is a separate field. (The same holds true of political “Spin Doctors” who exist on ammunition of distortion and lies.)
A new history of public relations must shake publicity from PR’s coattails by redefining what public relations is and has been in modern American history. By looking at the broader societal aspects of PR, the project places the field within American business, cultural, and political history and gives it a legitimacy that it currently does not possess.
Another aim is to provide the field with a supplemental text for introductory and advanced public relations courses that more fully explains PR’s rich history. The history is not hagiographic, nor is it completely evil, but it is entirely necessary. A robust PR history will strengthen the drive toward establishing PR theory, because theory must be grounded in history.
What is required of a new history of public Relations? First, the study draws from multi-archival primary sources, interviews with leading practitioners, and the existing secondary research. The work builds strong ties to affiliated fields such as business history, economics, popular culture, political science, and labor history. The project applies intellectual rigor necessary for compelling interpretations of the subject and its wider importance. What is also a necessity is capturing the collective knowledge of industry leaders, like Fleishman-Hillard’s John Graham, Edelman’s Richard Edelman, and others of this echelon.
Because the history of public relations has been neglected, sensationalist interpretations gained a footing without real counterbalance. For example, the two most prominent recent trade books about public relations are harangues against the field, emphasizing the role of Edward L. Bernays as “the father of public relations.”3 Bernays is an easy target for these writers, particularly since many of the most famous incidents in his career were actually publicity stunts.
The only favorable book-length history of the field is little more than a narrative listing of episodes in the profession’s history (including publicity) from the seventeenth century to early twentieth century. The book is rarely used by public relations professors and made little impact on the broader historical field.4
In the end, a new history of public relations should be accessible and a learning tool for students, professionals, and academics. Without such a history, public relations will continue its current state – beating itself up over questions of whether or not CEOs allow professionals “at the table” and which academic theory best interprets the discipline.
1. Robert E. Brown, “Myth of Symmetry: Public Relations as Cultural Styles,” Public Relations Review 32 (2006) p. 206; 212.
2. For example, see Don Lattimore, Otis Baskin, et al. Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice. 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 20-40.
3. Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. (New York: Crown, 1998); Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin. (New York: Basic, 1998).
4. Scott Cutlip, Public Relations History: From the 17th to the 20th Century. The Antecedents. (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994).