What the history of PR can teach us

One of the most productive changes in the study of PR in recent years has been the new emphasis on both the history of the industry and how it relates to broader approaches to history.

For many years the standard PR historical summaries emphasised its US origins, a few ‘Great Men’ who acted as pioneers and the antiquarian search for the first uses of the words ‘public relations’. This was forced into an artificial evolutionary model progressing from press agentry to publicity to profession. It was the PR industry’s version of the Whig interpretation of history.

Needless to say much of this was nonsense and ignored much mainstream historical research into representation and image throughout the world and throughout the ages.  Some of this I discussed in the section on PR history in my most recent book (available on this site) but many other people have also been writing and talking about some of the issues involved.

The cornerstone of much of this new approach has been the International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) organised by Professor Tom Watson. This year’s will be held on June 24-25, 2013 at Bournemouth University, England. (http://historyofpr.com). There is also to be a special issue of Public Relations Review which will focus, among other things, on the historiography of public relations: building on IHPRC 2012’s keynote speaker, Prof Dr Gunter Bentele’s presentation, a paper by Profs David McKie and Jordi Xifra, and subsequent discussion ( http://historyofpr.com/proceedings).

There are any number of mainstream historians who have been, in writing about representation and image through the ages, effectively writing a history of PR which has largely been absent from the history of PR being written by PR people. These historians include Peter Burke, Kevin Sharpe, Lisa Jardine, Nicola Greenspan and Natalie Zemon Davis who inspired much of the work undertaken in recent decades. Similarly, understanding how communication networks have developed is difficult without thinking about the work of Robert Darnton.

But why study the history of PR? At first it was probably a reaction to the intense feelings of insecurity PR people felt about their status and role. Trying to establish a history for the industry (or profession as they insisted on calling it) and a model for its evolution was a means of elevating the status and role while conferring some legitimacy. Now, it is useful for realising that much of what PR people do is not that new. Moreover, the basic principles for promoting Louis XIV and a multinational oil company are not that different. The tools and context may change a bit but the strategies and messaging do not. Realising this helps put the enthusiasm for new forms of media into context – the principles apply whatever the delivery methods and whether they be coinage and statues or modern social media. Incidentally, Robert Darnton’s books on pre-Revolutionary France suggest that social media has always been around and it is the technology which has changed not the principles. The new technology has simply amplified the word-of-mouth and communication networks rather than changing basic humans communication characteristics.

And of what uses are the study of PR history? Well there are a few actually. First, the obvious benefits of knowing what happened in the past can sometimes throw light on what we could do in the present or help us understand how we got where we are. But, second and more importantly, it helps us guard against the fads and fashions which skew PR practice. Third, it helps correct the fallacy that PR is a recent US invention and that the development of the US PR industry dictates the development in the rest of the world. Indeed, a former American colleague who fervently believed in the fallacy even said to me once that globalisation was really Americanisation. Instead, the reality is that PR has always been diverse, multinational and multicultural. It’s a pity that this reality still hasn’t got through to many Australian and US practitioners who seem to think societies are made up of Anglo-Celtic people in traditional nuclear household formations.