A quick primer on the history of PR

A Quick Primer on the History of PR

The modern practice we know as public relations has existed since the early 1900s. But like everything, it has evolved in a multitude of ways over time.

If you really want to go back to the beginning, the Museum of Public Relations in New York City credits cave drawings as the earliest forms of communication. The Museum then notes hieroglyphs and public opinion in the Age of Empires, the creation of the printing press in 1440, original communications for the White House in 1829 and the entire Age of Mass Media as being influential in crafting the tools and the need for public relations.

In the early to mid 1900s, PR outlets consisted of print media and radio stations that relied on postal mail and limited telephone access to get stories from PR firms. Compared to today’s use of email, cell phones and social media, these stories were often shared too late and didn’t hold as much relevance anymore.

Ivy Ledbetter Lee issued the “Declaration of Principles” which stated the press and public should receive accurate information in a timely manner when it came to a company’s actions. A decade later in 1917, The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created by President Woodrow Wilson to change the opinion of the U.S. entering World War I. CPI was led by George Creel, Edward Bernays and Carl Byoir, who used techniques including posters, billboards and speakers.

Bernays, the nephew of famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, is known as the “father of public relations” and proceeded to present the concept of a “two-way street” between a company and the public in his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion. He believed that PR can change behaviors of the public and that communication and feedback from the public was most beneficial for organizations.

According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the earliest definitions of public relations emphasized press agentry and publicity, while current definitions include engagement and relationship building. In 1982, PRSA said “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” Years later, the definition evolved into “public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

The rise of internal corporate public relations functions started in the late 1920s. Television then delivered news and advertisements into the home, and the profession bloomed into an industry by the 1950s. From there, PR was forced to evolve as social change became prominent starting in the 50s and continues today.

PR was forced to evolve again with the introduction of social media and how successful social media tools can be for marketing, storytelling and engagement.

If you look at the evolution and growth of the PR industry, much has changed since the early 1900s. However, one thing that has remained constant is the need for communication, storytelling and relationship building that will remain to be the foundation of public relations.

PR continues to bridge the communication gap between organizations and the public. Like they have in the past, public relations professionals will need to adapt to emerging technologies and innovate new strategies to best serve both the public and their organizations or clients.


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