Never kiss an alligator and other lessons from PR History

AlligatorThe 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.

Real voices

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.

Brilliant conference

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.

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4 Replies to “Never kiss an alligator and other lessons from PR History

  1. Toni – My reference to an ethnography of practice relates to how I would like to see research providing a more detailed desciption, and analysis, of PR practices using methods that are common in ethnography. Indeed, I support the call for anthropological reflection on PR proposed most recently by Carrie Hodges and Jacquie L’Etang (at a seminar I attended also at Bournemouth University ahead of the History of PR conference).

    We are really lacking in a robust cultural interpretation of PR – from the basis of participant observation and other methods of determining the “insiders’ point of view”. Yes, there are many stories of PR, as well as research projects, but they often look at what people say they do (or did) and there is little (Carrie’s PhD is an exception) that gets under the skin of PR in the way that is common in anthropology/ethnography.

    This may also relate to your other points since we need that depth to be able to reflect on what has happened or is happening in relation to PR practice historically and today based on more than anecdotal case studies or the recollections of a small, select group of practitioners (often those “great men” or self-publicists).

    1. Thank you.
      Fully agree on your search for a cultural robust interpretation of pr.

      I was not however clear (my fault) in my quest that has to do with day-to-day practice and how the public relations infrastructure of a given territory needs to be also analysed from, at least, a contemporary history (history, not public relations history) perspective.

      An example: understanding the electoral system debate in the UK today has little sense if not in the context of the first past the post or proportionary systems as they have developed in recent history in Europe.
      This, for any public relations professional who wants to interpret the social and political environment to his/her boss.
      I wonder how many of our UK colleagues could clearly spell out to their clients or employers the actual differences in position on this issue by UK and other major European political parties…
      Only a silly example…

      Bottom line is that I believe that the infrastructure analysis based on the six legal/institutional, political, economic, socio cultural, active citizenship and media systems should add a seventh dimension on contemporary history….. and wonder if Bournemouth could not be the right place to start from…

  2. Thank you Heather for this quick implosion of such a fascinating conference.
    I was not able to make it and in reading y anour comment and reviewing the availble materials I realize I missed one very well construed exchange of knowledge.
    I very much encourage an ongoing effort to keep this interest in our professional history alive and I would also be more than willing to participate.

    Heather, could you please be more specific when you say ethnography of practice?

    It is probably unrelated, but one of the things that bother me in our constant elaboration of a model to analyse the public relations infrastructure of a territory is the, only indirect and generic attention we give to the history of that territory, as if it was only a byproduct of political, economic and socio-cultural developments.

    In practice this does not work, as those developments are very much the fruit and consequence of at least the recent history of that particular territory.
    I am terrified when I speak with colleagues, even when educated in that territory, who haven’t the slightest idea of what has been going on in the last fifty, one hundred years.
    How can they begin to understand what is going on now and where things are liable to go? How can they support our client and employer’s legitimate request to operate in a comprehensive framework?

    Maybe we can learn from this much needed revisitation of our own professional history and devote at least one part of the next conference to the issue I raise here?
    Would be very happy to chip in.
    Thank you Tom Watson for your effort.

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