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A Brief History of Public Relations


In an era of technological advancements occurring at an exponential rate, and the potential to instantaneously communicate to audiences of millions, the strategic management of communication is a critical aspect of the art and science that is Public Relations (PR). Rooted in a dark and controversial history, PR too has made many improvements since the days of Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Associated with words such as “propaganda” and “spin,” it is no wonder that PR continues to bare the weight of its history. Believed by many to be the art of deception, PR is a very misunderstood practice. As defined by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
The first PR firm was established in Boston in the year 1900, but it was not until half of a century later that the PRSA adopted the Code of Professional Standards, and 50 years after that a Code of Ethics was revised. In its early years, the study of PR held promises of many possibilities, yet the level of required responsibility that came with such possibilities remained unrealized. Some would argue that the practice of strategic communication is borderline manipulation, however, those within the practice know that with advancing communication technologies, the fight to remain relevant and transparent is one that requires strategy and cunning.
Considered by many to be the founder of modern PR, Ivy Lee began his career in journalism at prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times, the New York World, and the New York American. In 1905 when he opened his PR firm, Parker and Lee, he opened the door to a new model of practice: public information. Lee chose to focus on the dissemination of accurate information rather than distortions, hype and exaggerations.
One of Lee’s more notable PR accomplishments was his campaign for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Shortly after being hired as a “publicity counselor,” a rail accident occurred. In the past, management policy dictated a near-blackout of information to the media, fairly common to large companies of the time, but which fostered ill will and subsequently resulted in bad press. Lee successfully convinced the corporate management of a more open and transparent strategy. During this crisis situation Ivy Lee wrote what is considered to be the first press release, additionally he set up press stations and showed the accident site to the reporters. As a result, the railroad received more factual and fair comment than it had in the past, as well as generally more favorable publicity.
Nearly 20 years later, a different approach to PR would take root. Edward Bernays, the nephew of psychology professional Sigmund Freud, led the world of PR toward the concept of “scientific persuasion.” According to Wilcox, Cameron and Reber, he believed that PR “should emphasize the application of social science research and behavioral psychology to formulate campaigns and messages that could change people’s perceptions and encourage certain behaviors.” This is the part where PR becomes a bit controversial. One of Bernays’ most successful campaigns was the “Torches of Liberty.” Shortly after the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, it was still considered taboo for many women to be seen smoking in public. Upon being hired by the American Tobacco Company to awaken the women’s market for cigarettes, Bernays made a move that is considered to be one of the most controversial to date. That year, Bernays hired fashion models to walk in the New York Easter Parade waving cigarettes and carrying signs that declared them as “Torches of Liberty.” By branding cigarettes as a symbol of liberation, the sale of cigarettes skyrocketed. In his later years, Bernays claimed that he would never have promoted the sale of cigarettes if he had known the health risks.
More recently, the introduction of social media platforms and instantaneous communication has managed to both complicate and simplify the lives of many PR practitioners. One of the major benefits of public relations is the quick and easy access to a majority of publics. However, this has also created a unique problem for the industry. It is not only the PR strategists that have access to social media sites, but nearly everyone has the ability to utilize the benefits of such resources. With such ease of accessibility comes a great responsibility, sadly it is not a responsibility understood by all. Such instantaneous communication has led to sloppy reporting and dissemination of information. There is no longer a security barrier between the organizations and the public. Previously it was easy to monitor that was disseminated to the public with the use of editors and such. Now it is much more difficult, furthermore, once information is released online, it can never really be deleted, the evidence can always be retrieved.
In the face of advancing technologies, PR has made leaps and bounds from its early beginnings. Founding fathers Lee and Bernays, may not always be shed in the most favorable light, but the practice of PR has grown in to a respectable career which serves a necessary function. As technologies continue to advance, the tactics of PR practitioners will adjust. It is up to themselves and organizations such as the PRSA make sure that these practices remain ethical.


"About Public Relations." What Is Public Relations? PR Definition: PRSA Official Statement. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <>
Bates, Don. ""Mini-Me History"- Public Relations from the Dawn of History." Institute for PR. 2002. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <>.
"CIPR." What Is PR? Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <>.
"History of Public Relations." InfoRefuge. 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <>.
Wilcox, Dennis, Glen Cameron, and Bryan Reber. Public Relations Strategies and Tactics. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson College Div, 2015. Print.