Most people, even those in PR, probably think of public relations
as a young industry. But as our feature to mark the last issue of PR
Week of the millennium shows, its origins go all the way back to the
start of the 20th century.
The feature is the result of a long dig through British Library,
company, and trade association archives, and tracking down some of those
who have links with the forefathers of the industry in the UK and its
real birthplace, the US.
One of the most forceful impressions it leaves is that during the early
years, the tools and techniques we now group together under the banner
of public relations were a serious matter, with an impact on significant
The fight for votes for women; the first and second world wars; the
nationalisation and then privatisation of industries; the rise and fall
of governments and the Royal family: their successes and failures all
relied at least in part on how publicity was gained, and more
importantly, how messages were managed, and public opinion was
There is so much talk these days about PR being taken seriously and
being seen as a strategic function, and getting PR into the boardroom.
It seems we have forgotten that essentially, that’s where it came from
in the first place.
It’s difficult to identify when or why PR, or aspects of it, started
being a derogatory term, or being seen as a peripheral activity, but one
thing is clear. No one in PR who finds themselves battling against
negative and ill-informed perceptions of what the industry is about need
think that it’s to do with the industry not yet being mature.
The industry came of age a long time ago, and the practitioners of today
owe a great deal to those pioneers, mainly from in-house and public
sector backgrounds, who laid the foundations for its success. We all
know that PR has suffered, particularly in recent years, from spending
so much time managing other images and issues that it has failed to do
the same for itself.
But in the cyclical nature of things, it looks like at this fin de
siecle, public relations is again coming out on top.
With the current trends of globalisation, consolidation and evaluation
in PR, the industry is getting better at proving it’s doing a good and
important job. The extent to which PR is brought in at the beginning of
company launches and product development also shows that, once again, PR
is at the heart of corporate and political life.
It looks as if the next 100 years will be as interesting and significant
for public relations as the last.