Persuading others, promoting ideas and thoughts, and creating and guarding one’s image are long-practiced activities in our society. It could be said that public relations has existed since early man, when Eve persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Much of the history of public relations, however, centers on the developments and industry pioneers of the 19th and 20th centuries, with the exception of one invention, introduced to the world a few centuries prior: the Gutenberg Press. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith and inventor, created the printing press, which was a hand press with movable and replaceable wooden letters. Printers would set the letters to create the words they wanted to form, roll ink over the letters, and then press them onto sheets of paper to create text. Text that had once been painstakingly written by hand, often taking months or years to finish, was now produced within days. The printing press enabled faster and wider distribution of books, thus creating more communication among people and a better-informed public.
The typewriter and the telephone were essential, indispensable, early tools of the public relations practitioner. The typewriter put the power of communication into everybody’s hands, no longer just the printers’. Christopher Sholes, a mechanical engineer, invented the first practical typewriter in 1866. His partner, James Densmore, solved the key-jamming problem that had plagued the machine by suggesting splitting up keys for letters that were commonly used together, to slow typing down—thus the “QWERTY” keyboard was created. Sholes sold the rights to the typewriter to the rifle manufacturer Philo Remington, who put the first commercial typewriter on the market in 1874. In the years that followed, Remington engineers made improvements to it that increased its marketability and boosted sales.
As with the typewriter and other inventions, many individuals laid the groundwork for the telephone. For instance, Antonio Meucci is credited with inventing what he called the telettrofono around 1854. In 1860, Johann Philipp Reis produced an electromagnetic device that could transmit musical notes and some speech—he called his creation “telephon.” But it was Alexander Graham Bell who, in 1876, obtained the first patent for a vocal- and/or sound-transmitting device after conducting various experiments with spoken sound waves and electricity. Two years later, Rutherford B. Hayes was the first U.S. president to have a telephone installed in the White House, and his first phone call was to Bell. Patent lawsuits and corporate maneuvers followed in the years after the invention of the telephone. Western Union Telegraph Company hired inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to develop telephone technology to compete with the Bell Telephone Company. Bell Company (now AT&T) sued Western Union over patent infringement and won, as it did in the more than 600 other legal challenges from other companies in the years that followed.
Facsimile (fax) machines became an all-important piece of equipment in public relations offices in the 1980s. Before faxes, public relations professionals relied on the mail to get their press releases and announcements out. The fax machine speeded the process and made their work more efficient. Many inventors also laid the groundwork for the fax machine: Elisha Gray created a facsimile transmission system in the 1800s; Arthur Korn invented telephotography—transmitting still photographs via electrical wires—in 1902; Edouard Belin devised the Belinograph in 1907, in which an image is placed on a cylinder, scanned with a powerful light beam, then converted to transmittable electrical impulses, which is the basis for the fax transmission process. In 1934, the Associated Press debuted the first system for transmitting “wire” photos. The Xerox Corporation introduced the Magnafax Telecopier in 1966. The machine weighed 46 pounds and was smaller and easier to use than its predecessors. It took six minutes to transmit a one-page, letter-sized document. Japanese companies entered the fax market in the 1970s and started developing smaller and faster fax machines.
By the late 1980s, fax machine prices had dropped. The machines were used widely into the 1990s and “junk faxing”—unsolicited ads sent by fax—became a problem. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) (1991) outlawed junk faxing, which included sending unsolicited faxes from computers and other devices aside from fax machines. The TCPA required faxes to include the source phone number and the name of the transmitting organization or individual on each page. The U.S. Congress amended the TCPA when it passed the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005, allowing for unsolicited fax advertisements if the sender has an established business relationship with the recipient. In 2006, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made further changes to the TCPA by adding such rules as requiring fax senders to include information that allows recipients to opt out of future transmissions. States also have their own laws on junk faxing.
Fax machine use has faded this past decade. Public relations professionals still use the telephone in their work but in combination with computers, laptops, and handheld devices. The first desktop-size computer for personal use was introduced in 1974 by Micro Instrumentation Telemetry systems, which then sold the system as a mail-order computer kit called Altair—public demand for the kits was overwhelming. In 1976, engineer programmers Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs started their computer manufacturing company, Apple Computers, and in 1977, introduced the Apple II, the first personal computer. IBM debuted the IBM PC in 1981, with a 16-bit microprocessor and an operating system that other computer makers could replicate, leading to standardization in the industry.
The development of the Internet and Web in the 1990s has led to diverse communication forms. As Donald K. Wright and Michelle Drifka Hinson wrote in their article for the Public Relations Journal (vol. 4, no. 3, Summer 2010), “How New Communications Media Are Being Used in Public Relations: A Longitudinal Analysis”: “It’s an understatement to suggest that a variety of new communications media have had an impact on the practice of public relations since the first weblogs, or blogs, appeared more than a dozen years ago. Since then these new communications media have developed into a number of different forms including text, images, audio and video through the development of forums, message boards, photo sharing, podcasts RSS (really simple syndication), search engine marketing, video sharing, Wikis, social networks, professional networks and micro-blogging sites.” In the authors’ research over the years on how new technologies affect public relations practice, findings showed that the technologies “empowered a wide variety of strategic publics by giving them dynamic new media [that] many are using to communicate effectively with a variety of internal and external audiences.” Today, many corporations and organizations use social media sites and are measuring the effectiveness of social media communication efforts.
Social media has also had a powerful impact on the public relations field since the 2000s. In 2005, only about 5 percent of Americans used a social media platform; as of 2021, more than 72 percent use some form of social media, according to Pew Research Center. Social media is online communication that enables people to create networks and communities through which they can share ideas, thoughts, content such as articles and photos, and other information. Six Degrees and Friendster are considered the first social networking sites, developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s but no longer in existence today. MySpace is another pioneer in social media, founded in 2003 for people to share personal profiles, photos, music, etc., with their friends. MySpace still exists but its popularity has faded as other social media sites have gained strength. The top sites that public relations professionals use in their work today include Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, LinkedIn, X, among others.
Facebook and Twitter (now known as X) were introduced to the public in 2006. Instagram launched in 2010. These sites, as well as others such as LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, etc., now have billions of users around the world, and these numbers will only grow in the years to come. For the PR practitioner, social media has added other elements to their practice, for good and bad. Social media is 24/7, and thus PR professionals must now constantly monitor social media content to stay informed and respond immediately if needed. Social media has enabled them to proactively create messages for their clients, brands, and even their own businesses. They can build positive relationships with customers and the general public through their social media postings. When bad news goes viral on social media, however, PR practitioners must have a strategy in place to clean things up and get the right message out there for image recovery.
Another aspect of the growth of social media is that everyone can use it, and they do. PR practitioners' clients may be on Facebook or Instagram, for example, at all hours of the day and night, posting things that may damage their reputation or their company's image. It is now part of the PR professional's job to advise and guide their clients in social media usage. Social media can also cause PR crises and PR practitioners must be nimble and diplomatic in resolving things quickly. One example is when the Red Cross experienced a rogue, personal tweet that posted on the company's Twitter account. The tweet was "Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer... when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd". The Red Cross responded with humor and grace: "We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."
Whereas communication was once one-sided in the PR industry, social media has created immediate conversations. PR professionals must be able to think on their feet now more than ever in crafting messages that connect with audiences. Two examples that proved to be successful public relations campaigns were "Victory Fridge" and "Philly Philly," both by 3PM Agency/Weber Shandwick and both Clio Award winners in the PR Social Media categories. Victory Fridge was created in 2018 to honor the underdog position of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL, by creating "Instagram-worthy bright orange and electric blue refrigerators, stocked with limited-edition Bud Lights." These fridges were sealed with smart-tech electronic locks, all of which were WiFi unlocked for fans then the team won its first game in 635 days in the 2018 season. The Victory Fridge was all the buzz in NFL conversations and content that was shared everywhere online and in the media. The Philly Philly campaign came about when the Eagles were in the 2018 Super Bowl, and fans used it as their rallying cry (a play on the Dilly Dilly of Bud Light commercials). Bud Light public relations caught on immediately, and changed the Bud Light catchphrase to Philly Philly in its social media posts. It also tweeted a promise of free beer to all if the Eagles won. Bud Light made good on this promise and gave free beer to all fans at the parade.
The people who helped shape public relations techniques include P.T. Barnum, Ivy Lee, and Edward Bernays. P.T. Barnum (1810–1891), an American businessman, founded what became the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He’s remembered most for his sensationalistic publicity, e.g., when Jumbo, his circus’s famous elephant star, was killed along with a smaller elephant in a train accident, Barnum told the press that Jumbo had died while protecting the smaller elephant, and thus was a hero. The story circulated and drew enormous crowds to the exhibition that featured the stuffed Jumbo. Today’s public relations practitioners adhere to a strict code of ethics, which didn’t exist in Barnum’s day; however, his understanding of how human-interest stories attract attention still sets a good example in business practice. He also changed advertising and promotion by approaching it strategically. Whereas advertisements had once been simply a series of announcements and/or lists, Barnum created themes and storylines about events and people to capture attention, and he carefully timed his promotions in the weeks and months prior to events, and the promotions often culminated in a combination of advertising and publicity, tied in together.
“The public be damned!” That’s what William Henry Vanderbilt said to a reporter in the late 1800s, when asked why he’d discontinued a train that was popular with the public. Vanderbilt wasn’t alone in this attitude: The robber barons, as they were known, did what they wanted without explaining themselves. Newspapers and magazines were growing, however, and investigative journalism revealed corporate activities, mistakes and accidents, and abuses of power, which increased the general public’s hatred of and hostility toward wealthy business owners. During this time, former newspaper reporter Ivy Lee (1877–1934) worked in the crisis management area of public relations. It wasn’t officially known as this back then but he helped give shape to it in his counsel to companies trying to avoid and handle strikes. He considered himself a “physician for corporate bodies,” and counseled railroad executives on making their business more transparent to the public by sharing information with the press. In 1906, he issued what is considered the first press release, providing information to the press about a fatal train accident of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This same year he distributed to the media his Declaration of Principles, to explain his views on the field of public relations, to help journalists understand it was a legitimate business practice: “In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business and concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.” Despite the controversy of his handling of the violent strike at the Rockefeller-owned mine, Colorado Fuel and Iron, in 1914, Lee expanded the role of the public relations practitioner to go beyond writing press releases and arranging special appearances and events in his work for John D. Rockefeller. For instance, he advised Rockefeller about building a better public image through business decisions and management policies that took workers into account, e.g., addressing their grievances, choosing favorable new plant sites, setting employee wages, etc. Throughout the years Lee helped transform the public image of Rockefeller from that of a tyrant to one of a caring employer and generous philanthropist.
Edward Bernays used what he learned about human behavior from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and applied it in his public relations work. Among Bernays’s clients were presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, the U.S. War Department, the American Tobacco Company, General Electric, The American Dental Association, Dodge Motors, and the NAACP. Bernays thought of the practice of public relations as an applied science. In his book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1922), he expressed his belief that the average man was limited intellectually and it was thus the intellectually elite’s responsibility to “mold” public opinion. He pioneered the public relations practice of corporations using social causes to promote their agendas. He said that he helped his clients “create events and circumstances from which favorable publicity would stem.” An example of his successful “public service” work is his campaign in the 1920s for Venida hairnets. At this time hairnet use had faded as women were cutting their hair shorter. Bernays promoted the hairnets as necessary for cleanliness and safety, which sparked passing of legislation that mandated factory and restaurant workers wear hairnets on the job. He also frequently surveyed the medical community to get support for his clients’ products and services, knowing that the public trusted doctors’ opinions. And rather than taking the common approach, such as advising clients to boost sales by slashing prices, he saw the bigger picture and understood what motivated people to respond positively. For instance, in 1934 he helped Lucky Strike cigarettes boost sales to women, who’d been averse to the packaging (in forest green) because it clashed with their outfits, by changing fashion instead of the package. He created a letter-writing campaign to the design and retail communities, as well as to prominent society women, touting green as the hot new color trend, which it in fact became.
Other developments in the 1900s that shaped the industry revolved around manufacturing and business practice laws and corporate compliance. The creation of the Federal Food and Drugs Act (1906), which required manufacturers to list their products’ active ingredients on labels, and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914), which controlled agencies by restricting business practices that were unfair to competitors, caused businesses to pay more attention to their communications. Three former newspapermen established the first U.S. publicity agency, in Boston, in 1900, called the Publicity Bureau, to help organizations stay compliant. Railroad companies and other organizations concerned about facing government regulation hired the Publicity Bureau to manage their publicity issues. Soon, more PR agencies opened and several organizations, including the United States Marine Corps and the University of Pennsylvania, established their own publicity offices.
Wars have also influenced and continue to shape the public relations field. Walter Lippmann, an American writer and activist, once said, “We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace.” The U.S. government began using public relations extensively during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to garner support at home and abroad for the war effort. The committee’s PR activities included organizing public rallies, reaching out to non-English-speaking men eligible for the draft, and creating newsreels encouraging people to contribute to the war effort. The Office of War Information (OWI, later named the United States Information Agency, which was then folded into the State Department in 1999) was created during World War II to disseminate war information and propaganda. Public relations efforts throughout this war focused on creating hatred for the enemy and support for U.S. allies, urging greater war production, selling war bonds, and persuading people to scale back on their material needs so that more could be given to the war effort. OWI workers used a variety of tools to get their message to the American public, including through television, movies, radio, animation, and print media such as posters, comic books and cartoons, leaflets, and books, magazines, and newspapers. In the years since, every U.S. war effort, and near-war effort, e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, among others, has created public relations challenges and required PR management. Public relations agencies have also become involved in ethics controversies because of their PR tactics regarding wars. For instance, Hill and Knowlton created a group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait, which appeared to be a grassroots organization in support of the war against Iraq. It was later revealed that the $11 million account was mostly funded by the Kuwaiti government.
- Art Directors
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