Updated Summer 2011 as a supplement to Professor Ron Smith's textbooks,
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).



Premise: Public relations is a natural, essential, 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. Throughout history, public relations has been part of societies separated by miles and centuries and has been practiced within many different cultural and social contexts. Whenever we look at social interaction, we find elements of today's public relations practice: information, persuasion, reconciliation, cooperation.




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:

ˇ Publicity (or Press Agentry model, in Grunig & Hunt's terms)

ˇ Information (Public Information model)

ˇ Advocacy (Asymmetrical model)

ˇ Relationship (Symmetrical model)


Following is Professor Smith's overview of the historical development of contemporary public relations, based on the Grunig and Hunt models.


1 - Publicity Era (1800s)

ˇ Focus: Dissemination and attention-getting

ˇ Nature of Communication: One-way

ˇ Research: Little

ˇ Current Use: Entertainment, Sports, Marketing

In the 1820s, Amos Kendall, a Kentucky newspaper editor, became (in the legend of public relations hisory) essentially the first presidential press secretary, though with much more power and influence that is associated with that position. Kendall worked in support of Andrew Jackson during Jackson's election campaign and his terms as president. Kendall conducted polls; wrote Jackson's speeches; wrote news releases, editorials, and pamphlets; distributed reprints of other favorable articles reprints; and advised Jackson on image and strategy. Kendall was able to help Jackson play to populist elements and overcome his most controversial issue, his brutal and life-long campaign of ethnic cleansing against Native Americans and his aggressive enforcement of Indian removal. [See another take on the press secretary claim.]

The opening of American West provided many opportunities for persuasive 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 socially influential novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.


The abolitionist movement 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 movement also involved other strategies: third-party endorsement, emotional appeal to virtues such as 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)

ˇ Focus: Honest & accurate dissemination of info

ˇ Nature of Communication: One-way

ˇ Research: Readability, Comprehension

ˇ Current Use: Government, Nonprofit organizations, Business organizations

The public information era of public relations saw the founding of many public relations departments and agencies 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 and often called the "father of public relations." Among Lee's 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 department



3 - Advocacy Era (mid 1900s)

ˇ Focus: Modify attitudes & influence behavior

ˇ Nature of Communication: Two-way

ˇ Research: Attitude & opinion

ˇ Current Use: Competitive business organizations, causes & movements

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.

This era is associated with a second founding figure, Edward Bernays. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays gave public relations a base in social psychology as he applied the new profession of public reations to national and international clients.

Following are some of the highlights associated with this era:
1922: Walter Lippman wrote
Public Opinion
1922: Bernays taught the first college class in public relations (New York University)
1923: Bernays wrote
Crystallizing Public Opinion
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. The Committee on Public Information headed by George Creel (right). 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 Advocacy Era saw the development of many public relations agencies and departments. Among the better known historical figures are agency founders Bernays and his wife Doris Fleischman, 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 situations. 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)

ˇ Focus: Mutual understanding & conflict resolution

ˇ Nature of Communication: Two-way

ˇ Research: Perception, values

ˇ Current Use: Regulated business, government, nonprofit organizations, social movements

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 business world, public-private partnerships and the courting of consumers are becoming common. In the religious world, the ecumenical movement and interreligious dialogue are examples of the relationship model.

In all of these situations, public relations is becoming 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 associated with the Internet allow organizations to communicate directly with their publics. These technologies, combined with the fragmentation of the so-called mass media, are creating new opportunities for public relations practitioners.



Contemporary Trends in 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

... from secret to transparent
... from closed to open