Origins of public relations

Who exactly is responsible?

Whilst attending a recent networking event I was asked a question which, to be honest, I’d not only never been asked but which I’d actually never given much thought to – who invented PR?  I consulted some sources (yes, I Googled!) and discovered that there is a bit of a battle which has been raging (quietly) over the decades as to who exactly can be merited with the introduction of both the service and the terminology.

History books make reference to some very early adopters.  The importance of communication with the public and maintenance of positive public image was understood pre-Middle Ages but the emergence of ‘directed’ PR was first evident in 18th century London – Georgiana Cavendish(the Duchess of Devonshire) heavily campaigned for Charles James Fox and his Whig party for example.

The 20th century is perhaps where we find the closest links to PR as we would recognise it today.  Even at this point we are faced with the choice of two gentlemen who each have their supporters arguing that they should be given the accolade as being the true inventor of PR.

The first of these was a chap called Ivy Lee (1877-1934) who helped his client John D. Rockefeller promote the products and services of The Standard Oil Company.  He is believed to have coined the phrase Public Relations and may even have been the originator of the press release as we would recognise it – in his case using it mainly as a one-way channel to get his client’s information out there.

In some other quarters ‘The Father of Public Relations’ is believed to be Edward Bernays (1891-1995).  Bernays, who was the nephew of Siegmund Freud, wrote a number of books in which he made the case for PR being more of a social science than a profession.  In his opinion PR manages and manipulates the public opinion by using disciplines such as sociology and psychology of the masses.  One of the books written by Bernays was called ‘Propaganda’, an interesting choice since the public themselves were already making a very close association between PR and propaganda.  In hindsight this choice of title perhaps did nothing to help both his and Lee’s successors in changing the profession’s growing poor reputation.

Regardless of which of these marketing pioneers we choose to crown Father of PR, we should admire their collective efforts to change the way that products and services were presented to target markets everywhere.  In this modern age we have so many on-line tools and opportunities to extend our reach but I for one suspect that the ‘sell’ of early PR campaigns must have come with many challenges.  I’ll try to think of that next time I’m talking social media with someone who believes that the world-wide-web is witchcraft…

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