Archiving the future of public relations

The International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) at Bournemouth University again delivered much fascinating and thought-provoking insight into our past, present and future. None of the papers could be presented without extensive research – whether that involved interviews with those whose experiences are now valuable archive material, or investigating existing resources.

It is also interesting to think about how we continue to create history and that even material such as PR Conversations itself could be a research source for historians seeking to understand the field, the development of blogs, and many other possible topics. With nearly 500 posts, and more than 3,500 comments, a content analysis of the past six years may identify some trends or at least provide insight into those of us who engage here (not least our frequent engagement with Jim and Lauri Grunig).

IHPRC is an increasing repository of historical insight. The History of PR micro-website contains links to presentations and proceedings from the past two years (2011 and 2010), with this year’s materials to be uploaded shortly. The video of Karen Russell’s inaugural opening presentation: Embracing the Embarrassing is another interesting piece originating from IHPRC, with Günter Bentele’s keynote presenting a historiography from this year also available.

Links to other archive materials can also be found at the IHRPC site. Two projects worthy of specific mention are the (where researchers are also able to register their own work) and the amazing work of Joe Saltzman (University of Southern California). This second resource includes a searchable database of nearly 82,000 items featuring reference to journalists, the news media and public relations practitioners in films, television, novels, cartoons, commercials and other aspects of popular culture. The Image of the Public Relations Practitioner in Movies and Television (1901-2011) contains more than 11-hours of video compilations of 326 clips. This is an incredible source for future research as well as enabling students to engage with how others have seen our occupation.

I was fortunate to access the History of Advertising Trust in Ravenham, Norfolk for my own paper – which contains materials from the Institute of Public Relations archive as well as books and other papers. We also have a Special Collection of seminal texts within the library at Bournemouth University – a resource that has stimulated me to begin my own library (which includes a copy of Constance Hope’s Publicity is Broccoli).

I’ve also been thinking about cataloging materials I have from the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association which go back several decades and so offer insight into practice in the sector. This raises the question about what resources other organisations have and where these are kept and managed. I know that most major companies used to have internal archivists, but I expect lots of those have since disappeared and materials have been re-homed where perhaps they are stored in boxes with no-one paying much attention to the delights they contain. How can we discover what organisations have available and ensure that it is preserved somewhere for posterity?

One observation at the conference was the importance of accessibility to archives for those conducting research – and an aim was expressed to connect collections to enable threads to be explored across the various materials.

Another thought occurring to me is how history can be recorded going forwards given the ephemeral nature of our modern world. We can look at printed copies of past correspondence and often files remain of carbon copies, brochures and other materials that are probably treated as disposable today. The challenge of online also needs to be considered. In theory everything online remains online – but the truth is that much will be overwritten or deleted – and so disappear entirely. Then again the volume of what is created will make the task of tracing conversations and researching other key aspects of modern PR almost impossible, although technology itself will probably enable easier analysis in many ways. I can imagine a future research paper on the PR implications of Lady Gaga’s social media presence in the early 21st century, for example.

Perhaps it is a good idea for us all to consider how we can archive our personal and professional engagement in public relations along with ensuring our clients and employers recognise the value of ensuring they also create an archive in whatever form. Although of course, the conscious collection of such historic materials may not reveal the type of insight that can be obtained from the more exploratory research that turns up gems of information which have been forgotten or thought to be lost forever.

And this is just talking about print and multimedia materials – what about actual artifacts? As much as I applaud the resource at the Museum of Public Relations, I confess that I was disappointed it wasn’t an actual collection of artifacts in the style of a more traditional museum. I love the idea of glass cabinets containing little bits of PR history that we could possibly even touch and feel. Or maybe a Museum for PR would be more like Ripley’s Believe it or Not! – a collection of the weird and wonderful world of public relations.


I didn’t realise that the PR Museum in New York (see our Private Viewing post from 2011) is more than the online website, with a physical presence at 61 Broadway in New York (where Ivy Lee opened his first office).  Many thanks to Shelley Spector for pointing this out to me and also extending an invitation to PR Conversation readers to arrange a visit or at least join its Facebook group (  Had I done that first, I would have noticed the glass cabinets containing the Edison lightbulb replica handed out for the 1929 Light’s Golden Jubilee.  This is one of the highlight items alongside news articles of the event, Bernays’ 1923 “Contacts” newsletters, first edition books and manuals on war propaganda.  There is also a library of some 400 volumes and much more – with recent donations by the families of Chet Burger and Marilyn Laurie.  Once again, apologies for my ignorance – but thanks to Shelley for the opportunity to promote the collection.

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4 Replies to “Archiving the future of public relations

  1. Bill – I don’t disagree with you over the entire professional argument in that era – Ivy Lee has also been rather over-presented in those terms in my view. There was some discussion at the IHPRC this year about practices in relation to the US utility companies in the early 1900s who were fighting against legislation. Payment of journalists etc underlines your observation that they were hardly respectable – or ethical on the whole. I remember a paper also from last year about how press releases used to be delivered by hand by pretty young women which apparently used to help with them being printed.

  2. In delineating the differences between press agentry and journalism at the end of the 19th century, Karen Russell appears to overestimate the professional and social status of journalists. Journalism was not considered a respectable occupation, and its practitioners were considered suspect, if not downright lowlifes.

    In fact, business figures like J.P. Morgan considered journalists messengers and errand boys, and many of them obliged.

    In his great book, “Money and Class in America (1988),” Lewis Lapham recounts the following story:

    “During the panic of 1894, at a time when people literally were killing one another outside the New York Stock Exchange, the press sent a delegation of reporters to receive a statement from E.H. Harriman and J.P. Morgan. The reporters waited for three hours in the anteroom, their hats balanced politely on their knees. A secretary eventually brought them a single sheet of paper bearing the message, ‘The United States is a great and growing country,’ and then, below the signatures, a further advisory, ‘This is not for attribution.’ The reporters accepted the news with the humility becoming their station, much in the manner of Heine’s stockbroker bowing to Baron Rothschild’s chamber pot. Finding their ways back to their offices through crowds rioting in the streets, the reporters reassured their readers that prosperity was at hand.”

    Very interesting video, thanks.

  3. Shelley Spector kindly pointed out that the Museum of PR has a physical as well as an online presence – see Update for future details and an invitation to visit it or join the Museum’s Facebook group.

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