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.

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8 Replies to “Looking backwards to move forward in PR

  1. Heather, for your research on Bernays and the New York World Fair I suggest you contact prof. Ferdinando Fasce from the University of Genova (nando.fasce@unige.it) who dedicated an entire chapter of his excellent 2000 book ‘democrazia degli affari’ to that event and had the privilege of seeing Bernays private papers before they were released. He speaks english and actually co-authored with me a paper we presented in Bornemouth last year. here is a link http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/content/88/4/1574.extract

    As for the theme you propose in your post, in my opinion, you touch on a very sensitive and timely issue.
    From a more general perspective it is clear that our professional body of knowledge also needs a historical perspective and of course Tom Watson’s inititiave is possibly the most important step forward in that direction.
    As you well know there are many facets to the fullfillment of that need.
    On one side it is relevant to ensure that those of us who teach make every effort to prepare researchers who are aware of the fundamentals of historical research, otherwise as you suggest, we will be telling our own stories by using the past to legitimate them.
    On the other side we also need specialists in historiography (the history of historic research in a determined field) to explicit the sources and bias of what has and is being written.
    Just to give you an example when I wrote the chapter on Italy for the Global Handbook I wrote what I knew (or thought I knew) and from my perspective.
    A professional historian would have certainly taken a different approach.

    If, as you say and I entirely agree with you, one needs to know the past to understand the present and hope to imagine the (near) future… the knowledge of the past must go well beyond the oral, visual and even textual recollections of professionals, and this requires dedication, research abilities and time (possibly the most important).

    My sincere hope is that the Bournemouth second conference (to which unfortunately my nyu courses will forbid me from participating) will disseminate many seeds so that our profession may reinforce itself and count on narratives which are truly historic (not necessarily true, that’s another issue as we know only too well) and related to the impact of the profession on social, economic, political, technological dynamics of our societies.

    One final thought: you are certainly aware that in many cases historiography studies have dubbed historians as being public relations advocates in their recollection of many events, even contemporary ones. Maybe we should also advocate with historians that hyping events is propaganda and not public relations??

    1. Thanks Tony. I’m most interested in placing such activities into someone’s career path, but will contact Ferdinando who I heard at Bournemouth last year.

      There certainly is a lot of propaganda in many historical writing and I also like your reminder that robust historical research is a skilled area. Sometimes, a little like PR, everyone thinks they can “do” history because we can research the past or seek recollections.

  2. It’s interesting with social media (or digital PR) how the “looking backwards” and revisionist history are sped up…by mere years. Or by “comparison” between the way one company acted versus those who had a crisis beforehand.

    To wit, check out this article, Apple gets poor marks for handling iPhone concerns (by AP), whereby Domino’s Pizza is suddenly a social media “best practices” company regarding crisis communication. Yet so many of the social media “gurus” and “pundits” were dumping all over Domino’s in the time and months following….

    1. Judy – the relationship of social media/digital PR to history is going to be very interesting. On the one hand, everything is immediate and may not have longevity – as you note, views turn round and round without much reference to what was previously stated. But then again, perhaps we’ll have access to more materials and opinions going forward. It is notable when trying to research PR’s history that relatively few people are featured and it is hard to access materials without having budgets to visit archives or buy books (which again is now more possible via the marvellous online 2nd hand booksellers).

      One other point regarding revisionist history in case examples you cite – are any of the organizations themselves taking ownership of their narrative or allowing the ‘gurus’ and ‘pundits’ to produce the ‘case study’? Of course, any corporate narrative may well be one sided, but when you hear the story from the inside, it gives a very different perspective quite often.

      What we really need is holistic research of such cases – ideally as they happen and subsequently – to include the internal and wide ranging stakeholder perspectives, not the limited and rather superficial records that will remain if it is only the Twitterati-type whose views form the basis of history.

      1. Considering that the article I pointed to originated from the Associated Press, my guess is that in doing research on online crisis communications, the AP journalist found the cover article published in the Public Relations Society of America’s The Strategist (and reproduced online), Domino’s delivers during crisis: The company’s step-by-step response after a vulgar video goes viral.

        Ergo, I would argue that public relations association’s and relevant bodies have an obligation to undertake, document and share (balanced and objective) digital PR case studies (preferably open access to all), such as this one.

        To this day, I think it is the most powerful case study I’ve read in The Strategist….particularly as it quite resoundingly proved the “conventional (online) wisdom” wrong.

        1. I agree with you that it is a really useful case study that provides the inside story. Of course that is from a particular perspective, but this seems a genuine reflection rather than being a lot of company puff. I recently heard the social media manager at Toyota GB describe their side of the 2009 crisis, which again gives much more context and perspective than the “conventional (online) wisdom”.

          But as we know, those who claim to know exactly what should be done aren’t those handling the issues as they develop. I did like the quote in the Strategist piece about being expected to talk about what you’re doing as you’re handling the PR crisis. That does seem to be the view – not good enough to be doing things, but you’ve got to be seen to be doing things.

          Personally, I take the bigger and longer term view over such issues – but the immediate judgement on any case fits much better with the social media chattering classes.

    1. Thanks Karen – shame you won’t be there, but I’m sure there’ll be opportunities to write more about my research and of course, I’ll be tweeting from the conference this year.

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