Compiled by Ron Smith (Updated Fall 2004)

Premise: Public relations is a natural and recurring element of human social interaction

Public relations is both old and young. It is ancient in its foundations, rooted in the earliest interactions of people in societies long gone. It is contemporary in its expression as one of society's emerging professions.

Rooted in antiquity is an important lesson for today's practitioners: What we now call public relations is an essential and natural aspect of human society. It has occurred throughout history. It has been part of societies separated by miles and centuries. Whenever we look at social interaction, we find elements of today's public relations practice: information, persuasion, reconciliation, cooperation.

Ancient Origins of Public Relations

Ancient civilizations and medieval society offer glimpses at public relations-like activities.

Ptah-hotep, the advisor to one of the ancient Egyptian pharoahs, wrote about 2,200 BCE of the need for communicating truthfully, addressing audience interests, and acting in a manner consistent with what is being said.

Archeologists have found ancient bulletins and brochures in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) dating to about 1,800 BCE. These publications on stone tablets told farmers how to sow crops, irrigate their fields, and increase their harvests. These were important goals for monarchs who wanted their followers to be well fed and prosperous, both requirements for a stable empire.

In 5th Century BCE Greece, the practice of democracy required that citizens could effectively argue their point of view. The Sophists taught the skills of public speaking, often arguing whichever side of an issue that hired them. Protagoras (right) is one of the best-known Sophist teachers.

Later, in the 3rd Century BCE, the philosopher Socrates of Athens taught that, rather than the relativism of the Sophists, effective communication should be based on truth. His student, Plato, carried on Socrates' work. But it was Plato's student, Aristotle of Athens (left), who has contributed most to contemporary communication thought. Aristotle analyzed persuasive communication and taught others how to be effective speakers, specifically by developing compelling and ethical arguments to offer verbal proofs. Aristotle's book Rhetoric remains influential to this day.

In the civil realm, Philip of Macedonia had conquered the whole of Greece. His son Alexander the Great (right), was a student of Aristotle. Philip extended his rule throughout Northern Africa, Asia Minor and India. Both rulers had gold and ivory statues of themselves placed in towns and temples throughout the conquered lands as constant reminders of their presence – a common technique associated with public relations, still practiced in examples such as commemorative stamps, monuments, stadiums, named buildings, and so on.

Elsewhere in the classical Mediterranean world, others were also studying communication. In Sicily, Corax of Syracuse wrote a book about persuasive speaking. In Rome, Tullius Cicero (left) developed the earlier Greek rhetorical method for presenting persuasive arguments in public, and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus taught about the ethical content of persuasion.

The Roman general Julius Caesar, in the mid-First Century BCE, sent public reports back to Rome about his military and political victories in Gaul. Later, as ruler of Roman republic, he ordered the posting of Acta Diurna, regarded as the first public newsletter, to keep the citizenry informed.

After a lengthy civil war that destroyed the 500-year-old Roman republic, Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 BCE. Augustus courted public opinion, realizing that he needed the support of the people in order to reign successfully. One of his tactics was to commission the poet Virgil (right) to write The Aeneid, an epic poem that identifies Rome as the fulfillment of a divine plan and which depicts Augustus as being ordained by the gods to save and rebuild Rome after the collapse of the republic.

Class Activity: Identify and discuss contemporary parallels to some of these examples of the ancient origins of public relations.

Public Relations in Religious History

Much of the pre-history of public relations is linked with the growth and maintenance of religion, one of the most basic and cohesive aspects of society throughout the ages.

John the Baptist (right) is recognized in the social history of Christianity as the precursor or advance man who was effective in generating among his publics an anticipation and enthusiasm for Jesus Christ.

In the mid-First Century, Peter and Paul led the Christian Apostles in their use of many persuasive techniques, such as speeches, staged events, letters and oral teaching. Their aim was to increase interest in Jesus and his message, to increase membership in the new religious movement, and to maintain morale and order among church members.

Paul of Tarsus (left) and the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used the strategies of interpretation and audience segmentation, each presenting essentially the same story, as it developed through a process of telling and re-telling, writing four different versions to appeal to the interests and needs of four different audiences.

The Roman Emperor Nero (right) used the strategy of orchestrating events when he blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians. It is an example of telling your side of the story first so that any other versions are received as being different from what people already have heard.

The early Christian Church preserved and enhanced the concepts of rhetoric. In Roman Africa, the 5th Century philosopher-bishop Augustine of Hippo (left) developed the art of preaching, insisting that truth is the ultimate goal of such public speaking. Later in Northern Europe, the 8th Century Saxon theologian Alcuin reinterpreted Roman rhetorical teachings for the Emperor Charlemagne.

Use of public relations strategies and tactics was not limited to the Christian church. In 6th Century Northern Africa, the prophet Mohammed sometimes retired to an out-of-the-way place to ponder problems facing his people, eventually to emerge with writings that he identified as the word of Allah. These writings, eventually assembled as the Koran (right), thus received a credibility that led to easy acceptance by his followers.

In the Middle Ages, the church applied principles of persuasive communication in an effort to recapture the lands of Christian origin. Pope Urban II (left) in 1095 sent his message throughout Europe using the efficient communication system of monasteries, dioceses and parishes. He used a sustained approach that involved all the communication tactics of the times, including writing, public speaking, word of mouth, slogans and symbols. His persuasion to influence public opinion was effective, as he attracted thousands of volunteers for the first of a series of Holy Crusades.

In 1215 the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, used tactics of lobbying and government relations as he persuaded the influential English barons to join him in demanding that King John recognize the rights of both the barons and the church. The result of this successful persuasion was the Magna Carta (right), the document that laid the foundation for constitutional government not only in England but eventually around the world.

Later in the 13th Century, the philosopher-monk Thomas Aquinas (left) revisited Aristotle to study the persuasive nature of religious communication. Throughout the centuries, the various branches of the Christian Church developed the apologetics, the systematic attempt to assert the reasonableness of faith and to refute opposing arguments. Modern-day preachers and evangelists continue this tradition in persuasive communication for religious purposes.

In England, John Wycliffe (right) courted public opinion when he took his campaign for church reform to the people in 1351. He used illegal street lectures, pamphlets and books to win over the common people to his cause. Capitalizing on his success, the priest became a writer for English royalty in its on-going feud with the clergy over church-state issues.

Three hundred years after Wycliffe, another priest, Martin Luther (left), courted public opinion through similar means and for similar purposes – and with greater success – when he posted his ideas on a church door in Germany, igniting what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Much of the success of Luther's reform movement was bided by two developments in technology and economics. The technology was the newly invented printing press with movable type; the economic development was the emergence of an increasingly literate middle class, which could read the mass produced Bibles and religious tracts.

In response to Luther and his colleagues, the Catholic Reformation similarly used persuasive communication techniques. Much of the Catholic Reformation was fostered by Ignatius Loyola (right) who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Both sides used common public relations strategies such as appeals to both positive and negative values, third-party endorsement, orchestration of the message, use of popular spokespersons, and so on, as well as public relations tactics such as speeches, letters, books and pamphlets.

Pope Gregory XV popularized the word "propaganda" in 1622 when he established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith) to spread the church's message into non-Christian lands. The term then was an honorable one. It did not take on negative connotations until three hundred years later, when the Nazis used it with a monumental disregard for honesty and ethics and later when it became associated with the 20th Century Cold War between communist and democratic nations.

One of the major religious events of the 20th Century was the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which among other things led to the de-Europeanization of the church and its adaptation to the cultures of its members in Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere – another public relations strategy of segmenting the audience and developing a message approach based on the wants, interests and needs of each particular public.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, religious organizations continue to use public relations strategies and tactics. Groups translate the Bible and other religious books into the language of the people, often paraphrasing the message or revising it with contemporary experiences. Churches and synagogues, as well as religions organizations such as dioceses and districts, employ their own public relations people, have interactive Web sites, and function at a very high level of professionalism. The Religion Communicators Council (formerly the Religious Public Relations Council) is the oldest professional association of public relations practitioners in North America, older even than the Public Relations Society of America.

Class Activity: Identify and discuss contemporary parallels to some of these examples of public relations in religious history.

Public Relations in Colonization

A more light-hearted detour on the road of public relations history lies in some of the exaggerations, often not even plausible, that have accompanied what today we would call real-estate promotion.

Erik (The Red) Thorvaldson (right) discovered an uninhabited land of ice and snow in the North Atlantic. Recognizing the power of words, he named it Greenland to attract settlers, whom he led there in 985. The name was indeed misleading, for the ice melts for only a few months a year even in the southern coastal land.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh (left) sent glowing reports to England about Roanoke Island off present-day North Carolina. Compared to England, this new land had better soil, bigger trees, and more plentiful harvests, as well as friendly Indians – so he said, as he aimed to persuade other settlers to join this first British colony in North America. But the wildly exaggerated promotion, while successful in attracting settlers and financial backers, didn't match reality. The island was largely swampland, food was scarce, sickness was prevalent, and the colony was abandoned within two years. Virginia led the colonies in both the number of promotional leaflets and in the degree of exaggeration within them.

In another effort to encourage European colonization in the New World, the Spanish explorers and conquistadores (left), sent back to Spain enthusiastic reports of a Fountain of Youth in Florida and of Seven Cities of Gold in Mexico. Though they never found either, their stories helped spur immigration to the Americas.

Later the press in the Eastern United States promoted westward expansion with a glorified view of life on the frontier. The legend of Davy Crockett (right) and later stories about Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody were among the persuasive messages developed to encourage expansion. The Southern Pacific Railroad hired a publicity to promote South California. Land companies hired promoters to attract settlers, and the government hyped the California Gold Rush to foster public opinion for the war against Mexico. In 1880, the Burlington Railroad spent less than $40,000 to promote land sales out West that brought in almost $17 million. The Northern Pacific Railroad, meanwhile, promoted land grants for Civil War veterans along its route in the northern plains and mountain states; it even hired agencies and took out newspaper ads in Germany, Scandinavia and The Netherlands to attract European immigrants.

One can imagine future generations greeted by similar exaggerations about undersea colonies or the first settlements on the moon. Hopefully tomorrow's public relations practitioners will exercise more ethical control than some of their earlier forerunners.

Class Activity: Identify and discuss contemporary parallels to some of these examples of public relations in colonization.

Public Relations in Colonial America

American colleges have led the way in the use of publicity to promote higher education.

Harvard College in 1641 developed the first fund-raising brochure, New England's First Fruits, as part of the first fund-raising campaign. Three Harvard preachers on a begging mission to England for support for the college had asked for a pamphlet to explain its financial needs.

King's College (left), now Columbia University, sent out an announcement of its 1758 graduation ceremonies – the first anywhere in the colonies – and several newspapers printed this information-apparently the first instance of a new release. Princeton, meanwhile, was the first to make it a routine practice to supply newspapers with information about activities at the college, particularly information of interest to prospective students.

Persuasive communication has been at the heart of much of Western social and political development. It is a fundamental element of democracy that played a major role in the American campaign for independence from Britain, perhaps the best early example of a comprehensive use of public relations techniques.

Samuel Adams (right) is credited as the chief strategist of the movement for independence. His legacy, and that of this revolutionary associates, includes the following public relations strategies and tactics:

Public Relations Strategies during the American Revolution

Use of an organizing group, first the Caucus Club and later the Committees of Correspondence in each colony

Creation of activist organizations (Sons of Liberty - left) and support groups (Caucus Club)

Staged events such as the Boston Tea Party (right) and hangings in effigy. (The Boston Tea Party was a pseudo-event designed to shock and satirize the British tea tax, and to symbolize colonial defiance. In fact, many colonists themselves were shocked and outraged by the act, but this internal dissent was not reported.

On the contrary, the "official" version of the story was the first to arrive in England, thanks to a sailing skill of a sympathetic ship's captain, and in London Benjamin Franklin (left) lost no time in being first to circulate the revolutionary version of the event, especially among the many American sympathizers in the British government.

A sustained campaign lasting several years

A series of communication strategies using persuasive messages, including the use of songs of protest and patriotism, symbols such as the Liberty Tree (left), and slogans such as "Taxation without representation is tyranny."

Orchestrating the message, with a strategy of "Put your enemy in the wrong and keep him there" One example of this is the promotion and elaboration of events such as the Horrid Boston Massacre (right). A British sentry fired into a riot caused by a drunken mob. Said one historian: "...turned the dead port troughs into martyrs, orating and thundering how they had been shot down in cold blood by hireling troops." Essays, poems and engravings followed. The story was widely circulated, and the date of 5 Mar 1770 was memorialized throughout the colonies – except in New York, where continuing rivalry between Boston and New York City caused the colonial leaders to suppress the story of the Boston Massacre.

A campaign theme of "the doctrine of natural rights"

A strategy of demonizing the enemy, such as the ridicule of King George (left) and other attempts to misrepresent and malign the British crown and Parliament

A similar strategy of ostracizing sympathizers of the enemy, such as plays and poetry by people such as Mercy Otis Warren (right) ridiculing loyalists in the colonies, and the Patriot Committees in each state that kept legal and social harassment of loyalists (and even suspected loyalists), including confiscation of their land and money.

A negative strategy of capitalizing on people's fear and bigotry, such as the anti-Catholic prejudice fanned in the colonies after England promulgated the Quebec Act (left). The law allowed Catholics in the former French colony of Quebec the right to practice their faith, something not allowed in most of the American colonies. The colonial leaders fueled the revolutionary sentiment against English by playing to the anti-Catholic bigotry in what essentially were Protestant colonies.

Public Relations Tactics during the American Revolution

There was some pro-loyalist propaganda, such as Jonathan Sewall who wrote pamphlets against the move toward independence, and John Mein and John Fleming who used publicity and propaganda to campaign against the Non-Importation Agreements. But alas, their side lost, and they ended up exiled from the newly independent United States of America (and exiled from American history as well).

Consider the following points:

  1. Despite the political rhetoric, the colonists were not an oppressed people. Because of distance from Mother England, they were already autonomous in most practical day-to-day matters.
  2. Most of the colonists were not in favor of separation from England. In fact, many families and even entire communities moved through New York and across the Niagara River into Canada in order to remain part of Britain and avoid continued association with the American rebels. About 100,000 colonists fled to Canada or to England, the Bahamas and other British territories.
  3. The colonies were not united. Indeed, there were serious and deep divisions among them. For example, the Boston Massacre was not reported in New York because of inter-colony rivalry.
  4. The colonial experiment had not been about freedom and equality for everyone, and the American Revolution did not seek to change that. After all, slavery had been introduced by the very people who founded the colonies; Revolutionary leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves. Most colonies excluded Jews and Catholics, either by law or by consensus. Voting and other legal privileges were denied to everyone except white male Protestant landowners.

Conclusion: Public opinion is stronger than legal right or military might

Class Activity: Identify and discuss contemporary parallels to some of these examples of the political and military significance of public relations

Common Public Relations Techniques

Throughout history, there have been examples of successful public relations campaigns. The following strategies and tactics are common to all effective campaigns:

Public Relations Strategies

Public Relations Tactics

Class Activity: Identify a contemporary social movement, and discuss how it uses these examples of typical public relations strategies and tactics.

Modern History of Public Relations

Based on their research and theory, James Grunig and Todd Hunt presented four models of public relations corresponding to four periods in the modern development of public relations (Grunig & Hunt, 1984. Managing Public Relations. Holt/Rinehart/Winston). These models and eras are:

Following is a historical development of contemporary public relations based on the Grunig and Hunt models.

1 - Publicity Era (1800s)

In the 1820s, Amos Kendall, a Kentucky newspaper editor, became essentially the first presidential press secretary. He worked in support of Andrew Jackson during Jackson's election campaign and his term as president. Kendall conducted polls; wrote speeches, news releases, pamphlets; distributed reprints of other favorable articles reprints; and advised Jackson on image and strategy.

The opening of American West provided many opportunities for public relations messages to influence people living along the Atlantic coast to migrate west. Many of these messages were exaggerated, such as the legend of Daniel Boone, so important to the settlement of Kentucky, and later the stories of Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane that induced settlers to the territories west of the Mississippi.

Social reform in the second half of the 19th century also relied heavily on classic public relations techniques. The movement to abolish slavery included strategies such as personalizing the issue, as Harriet Beecher Stowe (right) did so well with her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. It also used the strategy of social activism, such as Harriet Tubman (left) who lead midnight escapes of slaves and then spoke about it in the North). The abolition movement involved other strategies: third-party endorsement, appeal to justice and moral authority, etc. It employed tactics such as publications, public speaking, rallies and so on.

The temperance movement to abolish liquor and the suffrage movement to gain women the right to vote were other successful social reform movements that employed similar public relations strategies and tactics.

The Bryan-McKinley presidential campaign of 1896 was the first to mount an all-out effort of public opinion. It used posters, pamphlets and news releases; it used public meetings and speeches at whistle-stop train visits throughout the country.

2 - Information Era (early 1900s)

The public information era of public relations saw the founding of many agencies and departments whose purpose was to provide the public with accurate, timely, honest, and favorable information about an organization or client.

A pivotal figure in this era was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, known as the first public relations practitioner. Among his contributions to the field was his "Declaration of Principles," which called for honest communication with the public on behalf of a client.

During this period, the following "firsts" were observed:
1900: First public relations agency (Boston)
1904: University of Pennsylvania publicity bureau
1905: YMCA publicity bureau
1906: Penn Railroad & Ivy Lee
1906: Standard Oil hires publicist
1907: Marine Corps publicity bureau
1908: Ford employee newsletter
1908: AT&T public relations department
1908: American Red Cross publicity program
1914: Colorado Fuel & Iron hires Ivy Lee
1917: Creel Committee on Public Information
1918: National Lutheran Council press office
1919: Knights of Columbus press office
1921: Sears & Roebuck public relations

3 - Advocacy Era (mid 1900s)

During the middle and latter parts of the 20th Century, much of public relations activity, both research and practice, was built on the advocacy model, in which organizations tried to influence the attitudes and behaviors of their publics. Much of the communication research was related to the war-time interest in propaganda, brainwashing and social manipulation. In the post-war era, many researchers and practitioners continued to explore their interests in persuasive communication.

Following are some of the highlights associated with this era:
1922: Walter Lippman wrote Public Opinion
1923: Edward Bernays wrote Crystallizing Public Opinion
1922: Bernays taught the first college class in public relations (New York University)
1939: Rex Harlow became the first full-time college professor of public relations (Stanford University)

Social reform continued to be a key impetus for public relations activity, and many techniques were successfully employed on behalf of issues such as child labor, workers' comp, prostitution, regulation of big business, food safety and other early consumer issues.

Government also was using public relations techniques. Th Committee on Public Information headed by George Creel (left). This committee was active during the First World War. It was replaced during the Second World War by the Office of War Information. The OWI was a precursor to the United States Information Agency (USIA), which later became the Office of International Information Programs (OIIP) of the State Department. The Voice of America radio system was established.

Meanwhile, the era saw the development of many public relations agencies and departments. Among the better known historical figures are agency founders Edward Bernays, Carl Byoir, Leona Baxter and Clem Whitaker (political public relations), and Henry Rogers (entertainment public relations).

The advocacy model continues to be used in many siguations. Most public relations agencies provide advocacy services for their clients, particularly those with products or services in competitive environments. the advocacy model is prevalent in political public relations, as well as in cause-related promotions of many types, from promoting citizen support for military campaigns to generating public support for health, safety, welfare, and other public issues.

4 - Relationship Era (late 1900s and beyond)

The latter part of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st has spawned a new approach to public relations, which complements the earlier three approaches of publicity, public information and advocacy. This new relationship model is built on the principles of communication as listening and on conflict resolution and the search for mutual benefits for both organizations and their publics.

In the civil world, this relationship approach has been seen in concepts such as détente and rapprochement. In the religious world, the ecumenical movement and interreligious dialogue are examples of the relationship model. In the business world, public-private partnerships and the courting of consumers are becoming common.

In all of these situations, public relations is becoming more research based and more a function of the management and leadership of an organization, rather than simply the implementation of communication tactics. Meanwhile, new technologies such as the Internet that allow organizations to communicate directly with their publics, combined with the fragmentation of the so-called mass media, are creating new opportunities for public relations practitioners.

Trends within Public Relations

At the beginning of the 21st Century, public relations is evolving in several ways:

... from manipulation to adaptation

... from program to process

... from external to internal

... from technician to manager

... from firefighting to fire prevention

... from mass media to targeted media

... from isolation to integration

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