Another piece in the Australian PR history jigsaw

The distinguished historian, John Poynter, has added another piece to the jigsaw which is Australian PR history with his new biography of L.L. Smith.

The book, The Audacious Adventures of Dr Louis Lawrence Smith, is another example of how mainstream historians are including depictions of how people, regimes, organisations and power are represented through strategies and tactics which Dr Tom Watson has dubbed proto-PR. The Poynter biography is of a remarkable Victorian who was, as Poynter says, “a doctor, an art collector, politician, writer, publisher, speculator, vigneron, farmer, breeder and rider of racehorses, and finally, guiding hand got thirty years of Melbourne’s great exhibition complex.” He was also a gifted publicist whose often brilliant promotions marked every stage of his career.

L.L.Smith first established himself in Victoria in the 1850s as a medical practitioner who offered consultations in person and by mail. One pound enclosed in a letter brought medical advice returned by the next post. He promoted his services and his patent medicines through massive, for the day, advertising spending, media publicity, lectures, books, publications and a series of medical journals. It should be stressed in all this that Smith was not some quack promoting useless remedies because much of his advice was well in advance of much other 19th century medical practices. He also specialised in advice on s.xual matters and, as National Treasure Barry Jones said at the book launch, he promised to “revive and perhaps even exhume” that capacity in men.

The book is a great insight into 19th century Victorian life but it’s also an insight about how a high profile public figure of the time promoted his activities, enhanced his profile and managed his reputation in the face of criticism from medical, political and other opponents. Poynter says: “He was a master of publicity, and his relationship with a number of newspapers – especially The Argus, David Syme’s The Age and Melbourne Punch – was such that they emerge as characters playing roles in his story, and not merely sources for it. In an age when print journalism is said to be dying it is a pleasure to revisit it in its prime, when Australia was, in George Sala’s words ‘the land if newspapers’.

As Chairman of the Exhibition Building (now a World Heritage site) Trustees in Melbourne he promoted a female tug of war match at the building amidst outrage from conservatives and the tug of war was re-enacted at the book launch. His politics were liberal in that great Victorian tradition continued today in the State’s distaste for politicians such as Tony Abbott although he was, like many mid-Victorian liberals, suspicious of the anarchic ‘mob’ particularly when they failed to vote for him.

The book is a great tale well worth reading in its own right. But for the growing number of PR academics interested in PR history it is an important mainstream reference for the Australian PR story. Along with Henry Reynold’s History of Tasmania recounting of the early promotional campaigns undertaken by Tasmania to foster economic growth and encourage investment and immigration it provides new information about Australia’s proto-PR.

In Australia the work of Deakin’s Mark Sheehan and former Age editor, John Tidey, has mined the 19th and 20th century sources to re-write some of what was the conventional wisdom on Australian PR history. Tidey in particular looked at distinctively Victorian (geographic rather than regnal) PR development to counter some Sydney-centric views. All in all the belief that it all started with some publicists for Hollywood films and the arrival of General Douglas McArthur is simply no longer tenable.

As Mark Sheehan and the blog have argued in a recent Asia-Pacific Public Relations Journal article there is a growing need for PR historians to look more closely at what mainstream historians are doing in the field. Tom Watson’s annual International History of PR conferences and the papers flowing from them are also showing how productive this can be. The 2014 conference, held on July 2 and 3, has featured a fascinating range of papers ranging over Turkish PR; the experiences of a liberal newspaper in the Deep South; the anti-slavery campaigns; classical antecedents of the practice; and, the role of PR in the early 1800s and the ‘age of reform’. Tom Watson and Jim McNamara also delivered a paper on the emergence of Australian PR on the international scene in the second half of the 20th century. When full papers become available the blog will feature a more detailed discussion of the program.