History of Public Relations

Posted on: October 21, 2007

The History of Public Relations special issue in the Journal of Communication Management is now online. Go to this posting, History of Public Relations – JCOM Special Issue Preview – to read all about it and get the link to the articles.


I’ve been asked by one of the leading public relations academic journals as to whether I would guest edit an edition on the history of public relations. This is an emerging area of public relations scholarship and so I’m making what we is a “Call before the Call for Papers” to test the level of interest.

In the UK, Jacquie L’Etang has written a pathfinding history of the discipline and a Social History of PR was written in the US in the mid-1990s. As well, there are occasional articles in Public Relations Review. In most general public relations texts, there is a chapter or section on history of public relations, which reaches back to ancient times to show that empires and religions used strategies and tactics, mainly events, to communicate and engage support. This is followed by a gallop over the centuries until the end of the 19th century. In general, the beginning of PR as a defined discipline is either set at the turn of the 20th century or after the first world war. My view is that there was developed practice in what we now call public relations a long time before the supposed start date. It’s a rich and exciting topic to explore with the potential for journal articles, books of readings and histories.

In thinking about the journal special edition, Here is an initial list of topics:

– Public relations in history, before it became a named or defined discipline

– Archival sources for the history of public relations

– The evolution of public relations in nations or in parts of government or industry

– Key personalities or events that shaped the formation of public relations as a discipline

– Key books or articles that have influenced public relations

– The evolution of public relations theory over time

– Influences on public relations practice, such as in government, industry and consultancy

– The formation of industry and professional bodies and their impact, over time, on public relations practice and education

– The evolution of public relations education, training and continuing professional education

– How technology has shaped public relations practice and theory

These are just some initial thoughts and I would welcome feedback on these as well as suggestions of other themes. My own interest has been sparked by reading over many years and recent research into the application of sophisticated public relations strategy and tactics in 10th century England (before William the Conqueror arrived in 1066). My paper on the formation of the cult of St Swithun will appear shortly in the Winter 2007 edition of Public Relations Review.

Please contact me via comments on this blog or directly to


7 Responses to "History of Public Relations"

I’m a huge fan of the Thousand Mile Trial as an example of early UK and automotive public relations.

The purpose of this event, conceived by Claude Johnson, was to gain public acceptance of the motor car way back in 1900. Johnson understood how to engage influencers perfectly and it is hard to think how this event could be improved even today.

Johnson later became known as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce – where his genius for creating the luxury reputation for the company included naming the Silver Ghost and commissioning the artist Charles Sykes to produce the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot.

I don’t think he has ever been recognised as a pioneer of public relations, but should be.

This is an important area for research. The fixation with Post 1945 PR is a mistake and excludes so much we can learn from the past.

The real problem is in deciding which domains of practice are relevant. If one goes down the relationship management route, the history of practice is fascinating.

We can go back to government PR of Mesopotamia civilisations when kings had big poster campaigns (i.e. strictures carved into stone) and leafleting (clay tablets inscribed with government policy) and many practices we know today have echoes going back a long way in Sumerian texts. The use of admonitory histories, satirical edubba texts, debates, proverbs, and wisdom literature at the time sounds a bit like the case studies, media, and influences we attempt today.

Sumerian ‘brochures’ included information about the crafts of scribes (was this the pre-cursor to the CIPR ‘Writing skills’ course?), builders, leather makers, wood and copper workers, to the perceptive ear, giving of judgments, and the making of beer.

The political campaign run by Moses was epic and Genghis Khan was pretty good at using psychology long before Bernays.

There is a rich media relations history going back to the 18th century in the UK alone (Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was ace at media relations).

B2B PR in the 18/19th centuries was extraordinary and included the use of a range of media to raise money, identify vendors and create joint ventures (the Joint Stock ventures 200 years earlier are in the same vein). At that time the use of pressure groups and co-operative movements (now considered ‘the establishment’) has resonance today and, of course, The Royal Society had pre-cursors prior to 1660.

The Vatican has produced a lot of communication theory to support its various campaigns for centuries.

Because we have been seduced into thinking PR is ‘new’ we have failed to develop theory and practice using this rich history. Its a bit like physics ignoring the work of Newton because he worked more then a 100 years ago.

Talking of Sumerian texts, the battle between the plough and the hoe gives us a wonderful insight into another way of dealing with modern day opinion forming (say, between Microsoft and Google) would that we could be as lyrical. The translation is here:

It’s all well and good to talk about Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Rome, etc., in tracing the roots of public relations, but that is really its pre-history.
Public relations is a 20th-century invention, an almost completely commercial enterprise that transformed press relations, promotion and propaganda into a lucrative business. Talking about ancient antecedents won’t make public relations any more respectable, nor will it add much to our understanding. It might be useful in helping to decide what public relations actually IS, i.e., whether it operates according to a persuasion model or a so-called “symmetrical” model.

Thanks to those who have contacted me by the blog, email and phone call about the proposed ‘History of PR’ journal edition. The responses have been almost all positive and include this posting from Bob Batchelor of South Florida U,

More news soon on the special edition – and let the dialogue roll along. It’s very evident that the vast majority of respondents don’t see PR as a “20th century invention” but as the inheritor of practices that had been going on for millennia.

If you look through another lens, the encouragement and influence by nobility of the works or Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and other artists was a significant way to influence public sentiment in a time when very few people could read.

The use of educational and religious institutions to influence and control perception and behaviour over the centuries is another example of early PR.

Not to mention early military propaganda. None of this is new stuff, and a lot of it was very deliberate and structured.

[…] History of Public Relations October 2007 6 comments 4 […]

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