The pre-history of PR

Except in a few pockets of US practice, as the blog has mentioned previously, hardly anyone still subscribes to the once dominant view that PR was a US invention which developed through schematised stages from the 19th century to a globalised industry today.

One of the major figures in making that happen has been Professor Tom Watson of Bournemouth University who is not only a distinguished PR scholar but also the organiser of the International History of PR Conference held in Bournemouth each year. Proceedings of the 2013 one are available at  The next conference will be held on July 2 and 3 this year.

One of the issues with which historians of PR are grappling is how to describe, without being anachronistic or engaging in post hoc analysis, all those things in history which look and sound like PR but aren’t quite like what we think of PR as today.

In his keynote speech in 2013 Tom said: “Before then (the late C19th), there is much evidence of communication activity which had some characteristics of public relations. This has, however, often been deduced by post hoc analysis. There are numerous examples given which range from Adam and Eve, as ironically suggested by Nessman (2000), to evidence from Sumerian walls, Greek rhetors, Roman emperors, early saints, crusades, and so on. I have contributed to this field through a study of the formation of a saintly cult in 10th century Anglo-Saxon England (Watson 2008). These examples are not public relations, because they were, and I quote myself, not “seen as strategically planned activity in medieval times and … did not use the framing of language and accumulated best practice that are applied now” (Watson 2008, p. 20). They were PR-like but were not PR.”

“For some time, I have proposed the use of the term, proto-PR or proto-public relations. It is based on “proto” meaning “original” or “primitive” (OED, 2005, p.601) and draws to mind the term “prototype” – “first or earlier form from which other forms are developed or copied” (ibid). I suggest that this separation between proto-PR and PR itself will aid research and scholarship without diminishing interest in either category.”

Tom points out that the concept of proto-PR has also been advanced, quite separately, by the Indian academic John Vilanilam in his ‘Public Relations in India’ (2011, Sage) but it seems to the blog that this use of the term ‘proto-PR’ is not quite as robust or as closely defined as Tom’s version. The blog has also written about what it tends to regard as the ‘pre-history’ of PR in the book, How PR works but often doesn’t, available as a free download on this site.

What is clear is that both PR academics and mainstream historians are using the concepts we associate with PR in their analysis of history. The blog has referred to his colleague Professor Peter Horsfield’s pioneering work in media and religion and there are historians such as Peter Burke, the late Kevin Sharpe and Tim Harris who show how rulers and ruled used systematic communication strategies to influence public opinion. There is even the beginning of some cross-fertilisation and co-operation in the fields. For instance the 2013 IHPRC proceedings include a terrific paper by Jordi Xifra from Pampeu Fabra University Barcelona on the Annales school of history and the light the school throws on the pre-history of PR. The paper’s analysis of the implications for the field of the work of historians such as Jacques Le Goff, Bernard Guenee, Claude Gauvard and Roger Chartier is a wonderful illustration of Bentele’s (2012) view that, as Xifra puts it, “the history of public relations cannot be considered independently from different forms and structures of societies, political and economic systems, and the structure of the public sphere. Rather, PR historiography must be embedded within a theoretical framework of social history, national histories, and world history.” The blog, along with Mark Sheehan from Deakin, has a modest contribution to this process in the forthcoming issue of the Asia-Pacific Public Relations Journal.

There is much of enormous interest in the proceedings. Richard Bailey has a nice piece on the 500th anniversary of the publication of Machiavell’s The Prince and also discusses it in the context of Castiglionie’s Book of the Courtier. Whatever it takes was around long before the New South Wales Labor Party Right. Dr Thomas Beke contributes a revealing piece on UK litigation PR and how it has differed from US litigation PR, demonstrating how different legal and cultural traditions produce different sorts of PR. Professor Thomas Bivins looks at the history of press criticism of PR, particularly from the early-20th century when the press had little enough reason to be proud of its own record.

Toni Muzi Falconi, a famous Italian practitioner and academic, reminds us of the pitfalls of memory and oral history (on which much PR history and case studies rely) have for reconstructing events. In this case Toni bravely reviews his own memories of the notorious 1982 Ambrosiana Vatican finance case and the murder/suicide (?) of the banker Roberto Calvi and lays bare how we need to be careful of even our own memories in reconstructing PR history. Incidentally, more than 30 years later, cleaning up Vatican finance and money laundering is still on the Vatican to do list although Pope Francis seems to be addressing it. Indeed, inaction on Vatican money laundering and dodgy finance has been around for even longer than Vatican inaction (other than cover ups) of child abuse.

Indicative of changing attitudes to PR history in the US, M.Case Myers of the University of Gorgia, has a paper which challenges the US-centric view of corporate PR history. Another fascinating US paper is by Professor Ed Adams and Tyler G. Page of Brigham Young University on the communication strategies and tactics of the 1816 American Colonisation Society which campaigned for ‘free people of color’ in the US to be relocated to Africa. The campaign had some impact as among those who, some decades later, seemed to favour the idea was Abraham Lincoln. Comparing and contrasting the Adams-Page paper with the Adam Hochschild Bury the Chains book on the abolition of slavery is also a revealing take on the pre-history of PR.

A first-rate Australian contribution is by Emily Robertson, a doctoral student at the University of NSW (ADFA) which is a re-assessment of the ethics of WWI atrocity propaganda. The blog looked at this recently when commenting on David Welch’s new book, a catalogue for the recent British Library exhibition on propaganda. With the centenary of the war’s outbreak rapidly approaching it provides some useful context to how people today might react to the propaganda which we will be getting from various governments and groups.

And, to strengthen Tom’s point about saints and proto-PR, it is instructive that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reads Bede’s famous Ecclesiastic History of the English People as a strategically purposeful text.