A discipline’s coming of age

One of the marks of the maturity and health of any area of historical inquiry is the extent to which it is subject to ongoing bouts of revisionism.

British social, political and economic history probably reached this stage when the eruptions about the rise (or fall or stagnation) of the late 16th century and early 17th century gentry attracted a bevy of high profile historians including Tawney, Stone and Trevor-Roper. While it is now fashionable to see the controversy as more representative of the eminence of the protagonists than the issue itself, it was about big issues like the emergence of the middle classes, whether economic factors underlay the British Civil Wars, the role of the aristocracy and precursor indicators of 18th century social change. Revisionism over the British Civil Wars is now almost continuous and the blog expects that one day someone will claim that Charles 1 died of a shaving accident.

What is fascinating about the growing inquiry into the history of public relations is the extent to which revisionism is becoming common – as indicated by the program for the International History of Public Relations Conference to be held at Bournemouth University on July 8 and 9 this year. Abstracts for the papers to be delivered can be found at https://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/historyofpr/

The field itself was a product of revisionism, largely driven by Conference chair, Professor Tom Watson, and a number of other academics who began questioning the US centric view of public relations history and thought that the discipline required more than searches for first uses of the term PR if the subject was to be more than some sort of analogy to amateur genealogical researches.

This year an example of a form of revisionism will be a paper for the July conference by Vincent Hazleton and Melissa Dodd which “suggests that a history of the feminisation of PR based on published scholarly research and the trade press might in fact draw an inaccurate and misleading picture of what has actually occurred.” In similar vein Jacquie L’Etang will present a paper on gender and PR in post WW2 Britain offering “fresh historical data on gender issues in British PR history” and looks at the opportunities the industry offered women as well as the problems.

Continuing the growing interest in gender issues Thomas H. Bivins looks at women’s suffrage cartoons as early public relations. This paper could well be read in conjunction with Jill Lepore’s brilliant book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which examines the links between the Wonder Woman comic books and US suffragists and feminists.  Another paper, addressing the vexed question of when public relations began, by Karen Miller Russell and Margot Opdycke Lamme proposes theorising public relations history by looking at strategic intent as a defining characteristic. By focussing on strategy rather than tactics they aim to deal with the problem that all communication could be regarded as PR while simultaneously allowing “scholars to learn from the grassroots social and religious movements, reform efforts, labour organising and other bottom-up communication campaigns where the tactics of public relations campaigns apparently first developed.”

Well the blog is not too sure about the ‘apparently’, even though it has written a lot about 18th and 19th century reform movements’ campaign strategies, and thinks the view probably has to be put into the context of another conference paper on the history of donor portraits by Jan Nikla Kocks, Angelica Lanzilotti and Kim Murphy. Art historians have long examined how artists incorporated details of the people and families in religious paintings. The paper’s authors are taking this perspective to look at the usual suspects – Van Eyck, Van der Goes, Botticelli – in Flemish and Tuscan painting and how the people who paid for them are depicted. It’s not quite a ‘lost root’ of public relations history as the paper’s title suggests, but it is intrinsic to the work of Peter Burke et al,  and is on to something important.

Other papers will look at German propaganda in WW1; the history of Capitol Hill’s press secretaries; Brazilian electricity PR; disaster communication PR; the role of Sidney Rittenberg in the history of Chinese PR (a ‘useful idiot’ as Stalin and Mao might have put it although not just an idiot like that other foreign interpreter of China, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci); a paper on 19th century UK lobbying campaigns focussing on the Test and Corporation Acts;  BBC PR for itself as a template for other broadcasters (although perhaps a guide to what not to do in the case of the Saville disclosures and Iraq War coverage); the British military recruitment campaigns in 1914-15; Israel’s Government Press Office 1948-2014 (which has, surprise surprise  “struggled to remain relevant among its relevant stakeholders, a task which has grown more and more difficult over the years”); and, the symbiotic relationship of PR and journalism in 19th century German-speaking countries.

For Australians the paper on the 1924 British Empire Exhibition by Jeffrey R. Patterson ought to be of interest because of the significance of Empire Marketing to the development of Australian PR as Mark Sheehan and the blog have discussed, in various papers and articles, as an antidote to the view that Australian PR started with General Douglas McArthur or Hollywood press agents.

The blog is looking forward to seeing the various papers on Turkish PR, particularly B.Pinar Ozdemir’s paper on the way Miss Turkey contests were used between 1929 and 1950 to create a ‘western’ image of the country and discovering what one of the blog’s great heroes, Ataturk, thought of it all. Did he personally interview the competitors? Did he invite them to his drinking parties?

For monarchists who keep, in the face of reality, talking about the dignity of the British Royal family and its history the paper by Virginia McKendry on the Regency controversy and demonstrations around Princess Charlotte and that rogue and libertine, George Prince of Wales should be a delightful corrective. Oh, how so like the family of our own dear Queen.

Lastly there is not enough irony in politics, business, the media and especially PR.  Jacquie L’Etang will be presenting a paper on The Society for the Discouragement of Public Relations, a “loosely knit informal grouping of journalists including Nicholas Tomalin, Robert Robinson, Bernard Levin, Cyril Ray and Michael Frayn….. (and  saying)…something very telling and distinct about British cultural response and its deployment of comedy through techniques of satire, irony and lampoonery”, which will inject some into Bournemouth proceedings.