History of PR
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Public relations is a relatively new concept compared to other professions such as law or medicine. The idea of PR stems from the concept of communication, which dates all the way back to the philosophers of Ancient Greece. Most of us know about Socrates and Plato, and we’ve used Aristotle’s art of rhetoric (Ethos, Logos, and Pathos) to write a persuasive speech for school.

But many people don’t know that Ancient Greece is in fact the foundation of PR. The idea of using communication to persuade is one of its first practical uses of public relations.

The idea of spreading communication (or persuasion) to the masses comes from the early 15th century and Pope Gregory XII, who coined the term “propaganda” as we know it today. The term was repurposed from a Latin word used to describe a commission of cardinals tasked with spreading Catholicism to non-Catholic countries.

Fast forward to the birth of America, where mass communication was used in full swing to gain independence from the British Empire. Founding Father Samuel Adams spread political messages to oppose the British monarchy, inspiring the famous anti-tax protest now known as the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Three years later, Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” a pamphlet meant to persuade the masses to support the American Revolution from Great Britain. And, just months later, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

Then came 1829, with Amos Kendall—a forefather of modern-day journalism—emerging as an influential member of President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet. Kendall drafted much of President Jackson’s political messaging to transform his public image from a Southern-born war hero into an intellectual worthy of being president. Today, we call this intentional shaping and re-shaping of a person’s public image: “Personal branding.” Many PR agencies offer personal branding services, just like how Marshall Communications does through The PR Maven®.

As the decades passed, PR continued to develop. In the late 19th century, Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, a publicity showman, created the “Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” circus. To promote the circus with publicity stunts, Barnum used a circus elephant to plow his front yard, attracting newspaper editors to inquire about advertising. He also approached reporters with news about actors in his show, laying the foundation for press agents to publicize their clients. (Fun fact: Elvis’ manager was previously part of the circus.)

When the Barnum and Bailey circus came to town, a parade would be held on the morning of the event, spreading the word and enticing local residents to attend. Eventually attracting millions of attendees, it was one of the most effective uses of PR in history.

By the 20th century, Ivy Ledbetter Lee had changed PR forever. One of the industry’s founding father, Lee was hired by John D. Rockefeller in 1903 to advise the family. In his “Declaration of Principles,” he stated that the public should receive accurate,timely information on a company’s actions, specifically in light of Rockefeller’s unpopular reaction to strikes in his coal mines. Lee suggested that Rockefeller visit the mines and interact with the miners, and he successfully boosted his public image by doing it. In 1906, Lee also wrote what is thought to be the first press release ever, responding to a major railway crash in Atlantic City. The press release was written on behalf of Pennsylvania Railroad to ensure that the company’s reputation would not take a hit, and it was published by The New York Times—word for word.

Not long after, Edward L. Bernays presented the “two-way-street” concept between a company and the public in his book, “Crystallizing Public Opinion.” Before Bernays, many believed that PR deceived the public, but he emphasized the importance of accountability and transparency, tearing down much of the wall between companies and everyday Americans. Bernays also believed in using behavioral psychological theories developed by his uncle, Sigmund Freud, shaping his PR methods with a keen understanding of human behavior. (Another fun fact: In 2011, Nancy was honored to be the recipient of the Maine Public Relations Council’s Edward L. Bernays award, the highest honor bestowed on a single practitioner.)

By the end of the 1920s, some of the world’s largest companies—including GM and AT&T—began relying on internal PR counselors. But it wasn’t until the height of the Great Depression that the first PR department was created—namely, by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). With its new department, NAM launched a 13-year campaign that included movie shorts and leaflets, influencing public opinion about the U.S. manufacturing sector. Soon after World War II hit, the United States created the Office of War Information, which acted as a central means for the government to communicate to the public about the war effort. And, after the war ended, PR inevitably blossomed into an industry with agencies from coast to coast—and around the world.

As time has passed, the industry of PR has evolved, adapting to rapid technological change and the emergence of the internet. Today, agencies like Marshall Communications continue to innovate and expand, responding to relatively new trends like social media. Social media platforms now present new marketing concepts, such as content creation. And PR agencies have become experts on content creation as a result, leveraging a wide range of content for the sake of branding (just like Nancy’s personal brand, The PR Maven®).

As PR expert Brian Hough put it, “Public relations has moved into an era of independent news creation, and social media has created a culture of endorsement-driven influence by way of utilizing people with large followings to promote products, brands, and ideas, instead of the generic marketing tactics of the late 20th century.”

And that’s only the latest evolution of PR! Judging by history, more change will come. And the most successful agencies will use that change to their advantage—serving their clients better than ever before.