Looking backwards to move forward in PR
The world’s eyes were on the British Royal Wedding on Friday with a million people on the streets of London, two billion watching live with 24:7 television coverage, tens of thousands engaged through social media or catching up via on demand after the event. This was a world event where the opportunity for public relations was evident at every turn – not least to showcase British pageantry, with a contemporary twist.
Perhaps the sight of Royal guests disembarking from a fleet of minibuses was a little awkward as a symbol of austerity. But the horse drawn carriages and mounted soldiers provided enough pomp and ceremony to attract future tourists, whilst the informality of the newly wedded couple in Prince Charles’ wine-powered 1969 Aston Martin DB6 Volante emphasised the quirky British sense of humour (another long-standing worldwide export).
We also do eccentricity rather well, so there are some great Royal Wedding memes of British characters via social media – the “frowning flower girl“, Princess Beatrice’s hat, a dancing policeman and somersault turning verger.
Of course, nostalgia, heritage and echoes of the past provide great vehicles (literally in this case) for the narratives that are at the heart of public relations activities. A key element of understanding and positioning any organization or brand has to be “a searching look backwards” (as advocated by Cutlip et al) and having a historical perspective on the story to be told.
The global occasion of the Royal Wedding reminds me of a similar international event, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London in 1851 (which is today recognised by a Google doodle). Of course, there is the Royal link as the Exhibition was the idea of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert and it proved a distraction in trying political times.
Such events also focus attention through carefully told stories. The Wedding is a showcase for modern Royalty and Britain itself. Much of the media interest has naturally been nostalgic – in records and personal memories of Princess Diana to film of the Queen’s own wedding and programmes looking at monarchs of much longer ago. Love matches or strategic alliances, all Royal weddings provide an opportunity for showcasing a particular message.
Likewise, the Exhibition was intended to showcase a message – one of innovation and a modern industrial world. It enabled hundreds of organizations to promote their inventions – from a printing press and steam engines which foretold the world to come, alongside weirder exhibits, questionable representation of some nations and items that today are contentious (such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond).
Purbick notes this era combined education with entertainment – and it was this atmosphere of increased literacy, industrialisation and a need to engage the common man that saw the birth of modern public relations in both the UK and the US.
I have been researching some of the pioneers of public relations from this time for a paper I am giving at the 2nd International History of Public Relations Conference taking place on 6-7 July, at Bournemouth University. My interest is in the origins of careers in the field – and this has meant a need to understand the tapestry of social and cultural influences, as well as personal circumstances and motivations.
It is interesting to look at those involved in public relations activities around events such as the 1951 Great Exhibition and its successors; for example:
- Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 (for which the Eiffel Tower was built as an entrance)
- World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 (which Applebaum claims featured “the most high-powered publicity department in history, which ceaselessly churned out literature to familiarize the country and the world with the progress of the fair preparations”)
- New York World’s Fair in 1939 – where Bernays was the publicity director and used the opportunity to link business with democracy
However, one of the issues with researching such histories (especially the corporate and individual kind) is that they are revisionist, being retold for particular purposes. I am conscious of the temptation to use information to fit ideas about careers and public relations myself.
In histories of public relations it is evident that authors often want lessons to be learned from the heroes and villains who are used for illustrative reasons. The message seems to be that “we” do things the right way by following in the footsteps of the good guys (yes, it is mainly a male dominated history) and must distance public relations from those who we now judge as villains. Books that critique PR turn heroes into villains by interpreting the same activities in a totally different way.
Reading beyond such texts also reveals our field has a selective approach, with many people being appropriated into public relations when their biographers often present different impressions of the lives they are telling. Mind you, many of these have their own agendas to be deciphered.
As we saw with the careful presentation of the Royal Wedding, along with those who have commented on it (from editorial articles to Twitter to online media comments), all communications reveal as much about the beholder as those who are beholden.
I believe we can tell as much about modern PR, and its future direction from looking backwards. But I like to be guided by the message : “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear” since much which seems to have occurred a long time ago has surprisingly modern echoes. But I’m also aware the image in the rear view mirror is my own perspective and I that I consequently make a personal decision on the direction ahead. Nevertheless, looking backwards does offer a viewpoint for moving forward in PR.