The history of public relations began with PT Barnum parading elephants through small town America in the 1800s – with the famed huckster the cause of the ongoing misunderstanding of the profession. That’s the simplistic narrative found in the majority of PR text-books – alongside the tale of Eddie Bernays and his Torches of Freedom suffragette smoking campaign, Ivy Ledbetter Lee‘s Declaration of Principles and Arthur W Page demonstrating PR’s strategic role at AT&T. Neatly presented since 1984 within the framework of the Grunig & Hunt four models of PR practice, it is easy to recite this as THE PR history.
The first International History of Public Relations Conference held at Bournemouth University proved the importance of discovering and analysing the many histories of public relations – as well as a need to revisit and reinvestigate the largely US history that has become myth in the retelling. As Dr Robert L Heath noted, the conference was welcome revisionism and it clearly shone light on aspects that have been framed to present public relations as either hero or villain in the story of (primarily) the 20th century.
Embracing the Embarrassing
By those who champion it, Public Relations has been proposed as evolving towards the ideal of open, dialogic communications and relationship building between organisations and their publics. Others see it as adopting a cloak of ethical practice, whilst in reality retaining its historical foundation of propaganda and manipulation. The conference sought to reclaim history from Dr Karen Russell‘s opening keynote: Embracing the Embarrasing through other papers which considered the role of PR in terrorist organisations, as well as countries with fascist, communist or nazi histories. Other participants looked to original records (from Bernays to Page), with Dr Patricia A Curtin investigating the fascinating history of the Harvey Company which, she argued, reflected a level of social responsibility towards Native Americans albeit in the context of its times.
Something that is lacking in the history of PR to date, according to Dr Jacquie L’Etang‘s keynote address, is the author’s voice – and this is perhaps reflected in the fact that the focus has too often been on “great men”. One fascinating discussion was around the role of Doris Fleischman who is sadly often only known in reference to her husband (Bernays). This was enlivened by the personal recollections of living British PR legend Professor Tim Traverse-Healy who confirmed that Doris was the driving force with a liberal arts educated background, whilst Bernays was a “pirate” of other people’s ideas.
It was apparent that there are too few ordinary PR practitioners evident in the history of the profession – and little is researched about everyday work, as case histories tend to focus on specific incidents or high profile organisations. There is clearly much potential for greater investigation – and comparative reflection – something noted in a call for the conference to become an annual event. The good news is that Professor Tom Watson is keen to establish such an opportunity at Bournemouth.
What I hope will also come through more strongly in future years is a variety of methodology for looking at history of PR, particularly ethnography of practice. As Dr Vince Hazleton observed, there is a need to seek original and contemporary data and reflect the complexity of PR’s role in society. I look forward to both studying and participating in such a call.
Revisiting the Model of Excellence
We undoubtedly have to revisit the history that we are told in PR texts – and by that I include the work of Grunig and colleagues from the 1970s/1980s. Models dating from that time are rarely put into the wider social context of their origination – whether that is the liberal agenda of the US education establishments in which they were conceived or the development of communications theories during the 2nd world war to post-Cold War era.
For me, the dominant paradigm espoused in the Model of Excellence should be reviewed alongside Tom Peters’ Search for Excellence and the corporate agenda of the 1980s/1990s. Of course, the beauty of looking back is that it provides an impetus for moving forwards. Public Relations needs this to prove that claims for evolution are not an embarrassment.
This was a brilliant conference – not least for the opportunity to meet in person many of the authors whose papers and textbooks have formed much of my own discovery of public relations. In particular, I had the chance to have dinner on the last night of the conference with Phillip Young, Karen Russell, Jacquie L’Etang and Vince Hazleton.
During informal dinner chat, I not only learned how PR in the US is developing in new directions – something that isn’t always apparent from the published literature – but also of the dangers of kissing an alligator. The personal anecdote related to how Vince had sold small alligators as pets whilst at school and one childhood friend reported being bitten after apparently trying to kiss the critter. It might seem common sense not to seek affection from a sharp-toothed reptile but clearly this child decided to learn from personal experience. In PR, the hands-on approach is often believed to be the only way to learn, but there is much to discover from our antecedents, and much promise for revisiting our own practices, no matter how recent history they might be.