It is not entirely fanciful to suppose that centuries from now
historians will look back and define the 100 years leading to the new
millennium as the public relations age. Certainly this has been the
century in which PR as we understand it today was born and, fed by the
explosion in mass media, grew to become a discipline with a vital role
to play at the very heart of politics, commerce, entertainment and the
For many, the temptation is to define PR as a product of the late 20th
century. But that is far wide of the mark. In fact, its corporate
origins stretch back much further; as long ago as 1910 Theodore Vail,
president of American Telephone and Telegraph, laid the foundations for
his company to introduce a PR policy by declaring that the public had
the right to be given ’full and correct information.’
But PR techniques were being used even earlier than this outside the
corporate sphere. The campaign to win equal voting rights for women
employed many of the methods for generating publicity and influencing
public opinion that were later to become commonplace tools for the
In 1907, for instance, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst helped set up the
weekly publication Votes for Women as a vehicle to push for change. The
following year, an estimated 250,000 people thronged to Hyde Park as
participants in demonstrations against inequality. The tide for
electoral reform was not to be turned back, with British women finally
achieving voting parity with men in 1928.
However, to classify the campaign for women’s suffrage as being PR alone
is to misrepresent it. It was a democratic groundswell, efficiently
organised, that, while making use of PR devices, also resorted to more
desperate means such as hunger strikes and arson to achieve its ends. So
if we are looking for the roots of pure PR, it is to the other side of
the Atlantic that we must go.
As the 1910 recognition by AT&T of the need to communicate better with
its public pinpoints, the beginning of the second decade of this century
was when corporate communications began to be taken seriously in the
During this decade a number of gifted communicators emerged whose
efforts and achievements were to lay the groundwork for the creation of
a new industry.
In his 1938 book, Profitable Public Relations, Bronson Batchelor argued
that PR was then no more than 25 years old. He wrote: ’Its pioneers were
less than a dozen, mostly young and just out of college, who began at
different places more or less simultaneously the experience of
attempting to build closer relationships between business and the
Pre-eminent among these trailblazers was Ivy Lee, who persuaded client
Pennsylvania Railroad that the public was entitled to ’accurate and
authoritative information’ and notably helped oil magnate John D
Rockefeller out of a crisis. Workers at Rockefeller’s Colorado Coal
Mines had gone on strike over pay and conditions, with a large amount of
public sympathy on their side. Lee arranged for Rockefeller to visit
some of the miners’ homes and see conditions at first hand. This led to
the instigation of an industrial relations policy and favourable
headlines for the tycoon that greatly improved his reputation. Lee also
identified ’30,000 leaders of opinion’ for his clients to target and
wrote a Declaration of Principles that extended the scope of PR far
beyond the function of press relations.
Another innovator was James Ellsworth, who established a PR operation
for AT&T which drove home the message that a ’unified system (for
telephony) is as necessary to the nation as a common language’. Later,
AT&T hired Arthur Page, considered in some quarters the PR counsellor
who had the greatest impact on the practice in modern corporations. In
1927 Page became the first ever vice-president for corporate PR. Other
pioneers included James Keeley, who resigned as managing editor of the
Chicago Tribune to organise the public information department of the
Pullman Company, and Guy Emerson at the National Bank of Commerce. In
1917, Emerson and his team launched a magazine aimed at interpreting the
bank’s policies to its customers. The magazine had a staff of 35 and a
budget of dollars 250,000 - a massive amount in those days, even for a
Within a few short years, PR in the US became comparatively
In 1923 Edward Bernays published his seminal work Crystallizing Public
Opinion, a book that today still offers many valuable insights into the
practice of PR. Bernays has frequently been described as the ’father of
spin’, but this vaguely pejorative title masks a massive contribution to
After spending the early part of his career as a Broadway press agent
Bernays moved, via a First World War stint in propaganda at the
Committee on Public Information, into corporate and brand PR for clients
such as Procter and Gamble and Lucky Strike. For the latter he devised
the famous - some might now say infamous, given what is known today
about the perils of smoking - Torches of Freedom campaign. This called
for women to be allowed to smoke in public without being stigmatised -
one could almost say this was an inchoate example of cause related
marketing. It also proved highly effective for Lucky Strike.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, PR remained more or less
the exclusive preserve of the Americans. The UK had a handful of press
agents of dubious quality, but nothing that resembled the more strategic
and sophisticated operations evolving on the other side of the
From 1926 onwards that picture began to change. That was the year that
civil servant Sir Stephen Tallents was appointed secretary of the Empire
Marketing Board, a position that required him to develop PR skills. In
essence, Tallents became the first bona fide PR practitioner in the
country and is often referred to as the ’father of PR’ in the UK.
At the EMB he created a film unit and promoted the skills of, among
others, documentary film maker John Grierson, who was later to become
UNESCO’s first director of mass communications and public information.
When the EMB was abolished in 1933, Tallents moved to the General Post
Office, taking the film unit with him. It was to make the classic
documentary Night Mail that glorified the overnight mail train service
from London to Scotland.
’Night Mail was intended partly as an exercise in internal
communications as well as publicity. In terms of PR technique it was
therefore a truly innovative creation quite apart from its aesthetic and
promotional value, and was regarded by Grierson as empirical proof of
the value of PR to organisations as well as countries,’ says Jacquie
L’Etang, member of the Stirling Media Research Institute and director of
the MSc in Public Relations at the University of Stirling. L’Etang has
written several academic papers on this period and considers Grierson,
whose name is far less well known than that of Tallents, to be one of
the unsung players in the development of the UK’s fledgling PR
After the GPO, Tallents moved into a PR position at the BBC. He
subsequently became the first director general of the Ministry of
Information, where before World War II (see panel on PR and war) he
helped build the propaganda machine that was so sorely needed during the
conflict. By the 1930s there were also a few home-grown PR agencies,
such as the London Press Exchange and Sir Basil Clark’s Editorial
Among the other important figures of the time was Edward Rawdon-Smith,
who became the first PRO of the London Passenger Transport Board in
1934, before moving to airline BOAC. After the war, he played a key role
in the nationalisation of electricity in the 1940s, as PR counsel to
Edmondsons Electricity Corporation from 1944-48 and then adviser for PR
to the English Electric Group.
World War II proved to be a watershed for PR in the UK. In its aftermath
the industry was galvanised as new talent poured in, some of whom had
picked up valuable communications skills working in Government
departments or in intelligence for the allied forces.
One of those who went into PR after the war was Tim Traverse-Healy. He
recalls: ’At first there were just a dozen or so so-called consultants.
I saw the job as being a strategic counsellor. I looked at it as being
the same sort of job as intelligence, informing our masters about what
was over the next hill.’
Traverse-Healy went on to become one of the outstanding PR figures of
his generation. As did Alan Campbell-Johnson, who built up a roster of
blue chip corporate clients after having served as Mountbatten’s press
attache in the Far Eastern theatre of the conflict. Meanwhile, head of
the Government’s newly created Central Office of Information, Sir Tom
Fife Clarke, set to work on fine-tuning communications between the state
and its publics.
The post-war years were a time of extensive social and political
The newly installed Labour Government under Prime Minister Clement
Attlee embarked on a massive programme of nationalisation, which
included the creation of the National Health Service, which celebrated
its 50th anniversary last year with a huge PR campaign. While many areas
of policy were broadly welcomed by the public, there were some
deep-seated fears about nationalisation among business people. This
sparked a growth in corporate assignments for the burgeoning band of PR
Among Traverse-Healy’s clients at the time was sugar giant Tate and
Lyle, which was under threat due to the Government’s plans to
nationalise the sugar industry. One of the tactics used to scupper the
proposals was to lobby key figures in the US to exert pressure on the UK
At the time, the UK was heavily reliant on US loans to finance its
reconstruction and US public opinion was staunchly against anything that
smacked remotely of Communism.
By 1948 PR had become so firmly established that leading practitioners
began to get together to discuss setting up a trade body. Intriguingly,
the prime movers behind what was to become the Institute of Public
Relations were from the public sector. ’The people who really took the
initiative in founding the institute were local government people
because they felt they didn’t really have a voice,’ says
In particular, Norman Rogers and Alex Spoor of the National Association
of Local Government Officers and Roger Wimbush of Westminster Council
were instrumental in pushing for, and shaping, the IPR. At the time,
local government was being reorganised extensively with a greater number
of specialists coming into the fold. Against this background, public
sector PR practitioners felt that their own status and promotion
opportunities would be improved if they belonged to a professional
It is therefore not surprising that the IPR should have come into being
with an ethos a little like that of a public sector body. Says L’Etang:
’Apart from their bureaucratic skills which made it possible to run the
newly formed IPR in 1948, NALGO members replicated patterns of
organisation that had already been established in the Institute of
Public Administration: a journal, summer conferences, a thesis
Sir Stephen Tallents was persuaded to become the IPR’s first
But it wasn’t until 1956 that the IPR had its first female council
member - Joyce Blow, of the Council of Industrial Design.
’It wasn’t a female profession at all in the 1950s,’ says Blow. ’But
today PR is a different story as many women have got to the top,
especially in consultancy.’ Blow played an important role in developing
the IPR’s educational function, helping set up the first comprehensive
UK course on PR practice at Regent Street Polytechnic. One of the first
attendees of this course was Colin Trusler, who by the 1990s had risen
to become the managing director of the UK’s largest consultancy,
On its 10th anniversary in 1958, the IPR published a book called A Guide
to the Practice of Public Relations. In its introduction, Tallents
wrote: ’PR work today is an adventure - to my mind an exciting adventure
- in a field as old as human nature, the modern surface of which even
our fathers would not recognise.’
PR was behind another enduring institution in 1951, when Mecca’s
publicity officer Eric Morley invented the Miss World beauty contest to
publicise the Festival of Britain.
But change was continuing and indeed accelerating. The rate at which the
media was requiring and disseminating information was getting ever
faster. Advances in communications were shrinking the size of the world,
and US consultancies were beginning to see opportunities overseas.
By the mid-1960s, US agencies Burson-Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton
had significant operations in London. ’In those days you could do under
pounds 200,000 in billings and be a top 10 agency,’ says Bob Leaf, who
as international director of B-M oversaw its London office after the
purchase of UK agency C-S Services, B-M’s first overseas acquisition.
’Salaries were very low, budgets were very low, but even then the UK was
the second most sophisticated market after the US. However, some of the
in-house PROs thought of PR consultancies as a threat.’
At that time, B-M and H&K were still under independent ownership. The
leading consultancies in the UK during the 1960s belonged to the large
advertising agencies: Planned Public Relations, a subsidiary of Young
and Rubicam, and Lexington, which was owned by JWT.
’From the mid-1950s through the 1960s the consultancy business was
dominated by the ad agencies,’ says Michael McAvoy, who was managing
director of PPR, which by 1970 had fee income of pounds 250,000 and 70
staff. ’About 75 per cent of our business was undoubtedly of a product
nature, working for clients such as Procter and Gamble and Heinz.’
In 1969, the growing importance of the consultancy sector was
underscored when McAvoy instigated the formation of the Public Relations
Consultants Association and became its first chairman. That same year
also saw the birth of one of the most influential financial PR agencies,
when Roddy Dewe and Nico Rogerson teamed up to form Dewe Rogerson.
Dewe had started out in financial PR in 1960 working for Philip Syrett,
who had left JWT to run his own consultancy after planning the
promotional activities of the Stock Exchange. For many years Charles
Barker, then a leading financial advertising agency, had been a dominant
player in the field, offering PR services as a free bolt-on to its
advertising work for clients.
PR continued to grow during the 1970s, albeit not dramatically, due to
difficult economic circumstances, such as the oil crises and lack of
confidence among business. Fittingly perhaps, it was the period when
crisis communications emerged, most notably with the Bantry Bay disaster
in which 53 people lost their lives after an explosion on the ship
Betelgeuse at Gulf Oil’s terminal in Ireland.
’It was a coming of age of crisis PR,’ says Peter Hamilton, who managed
the crisis as director of public affairs at Gulf Oil. ’It was a very
high profile disaster and I suppose it has become a landmark event in
the history of PR.’ Hamilton’s number two at the time, Mike Regester, is
today one of the industry’s most eminent issues management
practitioners, running specialist agency Regester Larkin, and is still
applying lessons learnt from the disaster.
The 1970s also marked the rise of the pressure groups, which forced
companies, and political administrations to respond to concerns about
the way they operated, morally and environmentally. The destruction of
the rainforests, nuclear testing, human rights atrocities worldwide, and
ozone pollution have been just some of the targets of these groups over
the past 30 years.
Pressure groups are now often just as skilled in PR as the objects of
their wrath. Two significant successes in recent times were Greenpeace
pressurising Shell to rethink its disposal of the Brent Spar oil rig in
the North Sea, and Friends of the Earth ensuring that commercial science
companies and governments could not make advances in genetic
modification without the public’s approval.
Come the dawn of the 1980s, with the Thatcherite commitment to the free
market in full cry, there was an upsurge in PR activity. Market reforms
and a rash of privatisations and IPOs created work for an array of new
specialist financial agencies.
The 1980s may have been the decade of greed, but they also marked the
start of the trend for celebrities to turn endorsement on its head and
set up their own charities. Live Aid and Comic Relief have been the most
prominent of these, although during the early 1990s the sheer number of
worthy causes mounting appeals led to some cries of ’compassion
Growing maturity in the PR sector in the 1980s was shown by the arrival
of consultancies specialising in specific practice areas, notably
technology, healthcare, public affairs and internal communications. This
in turn raised the bar for the full-service generalist agencies, who in
order to compete with the expertise of the niche players began to build
up practice area divisions housing their own specialists.
One of the new specialisms to emerge was internal communications. Smythe
Dorward Lambert was a pioneer of this new discipline, beginning life as
part of design group Wolff Olins in 1984 before becoming independent
later in the decade. Director Colette Dorward says: ’The attention was
moving very much away from communications channel management to how you
really motivate and involve people in rapidly changing structures.’
Alongside this new discipline, the late 1980s were when corporate
reputation first became a serious issue for companies. This, alongside
the flotation on the London Stock Exchange of Good Relations at the
start of the decade played an important part in establishing the
credibility of the PR sector in the eyes of investors and the business
Burson-Marsteller had what was thought to be the first client paying
pounds 1 million in fees by the mid-1980s: Unilever. A further boost to
the status of the sector came with the 1984 launch of PR Week - at last
the industry was receiving the serious analytical coverage it deserved,
even if in its early days the publication was on occasion cavalier with
the facts. The history of PR Week, and an overview of the major PR
events and the people who have shaped the industry since its launch,
were outlined in the anniversary supplement on 1 October.
This was also the decade where the Royal family’s media problems
The balcony kiss on the Prince and Princess of Wales’ wedding day
sparked a media obsession with Diana which led to much negative press
about the rest of the Royal family. Diana’s advisers included Jane
Atkinson. The Windsors were forced to rethink the way they were managing
their image and relating to their public when Diana died in 1997.
Modern governments have also not always been quick to embrace the need
for effective public relations, despite events such as the poll tax
riots and the bitter strikes of the 1970s and 1980s which showed the
extent to which their publics needed to be brought on-side. But PR has
found its way right to the heart of the Government in the last couple of
years, with Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell building on
the reform of the Labour party instigated by Peter Mandelson to put in
place a powerful political communications machine. So pivotal has
Campbell become to the Labour project that satirists have taken to
referring to him as the deputy prime minister. The Government’s apparent
addiction to ’spin’ has caused something of a backlash, however.
As this current decade hurries to its close, not enough time has yet
elapsed to be able to consider it with total dispassion. Yet three words
that typify trends apparent in recent years will be familiar to all PR
practitioners: globalisation, consolidation, and evaluation. Client
companies have become increasingly global, requiring many in-house teams
and agency staff to acquire the skills to run programmes across many
countries. The internationalisation of media, including the arrival of
the internet, has boosted the need for communicators to ensure message
consistency across different markets.
Plenty of acquisition activity has taken place in the consultancy
sector, with advertising agencies and marketing services groups such as
Omnicom keen to add successful PR companies to their stable of
businesses. Consolidation has also taken the form of consultancy
mergers. Recent years have seen greater emphasis placed on the
evaluation of PR activity as clients - and the more forward-thinking
consultancies -have rightly demanded more evidence of effectiveness. Old
methodologies such as AVEs have fallen from favour to be replaced by
more sophisticated techniques that examine the quality of message
delivered by a campaign and the degree to which PR activity has met its
objectives. There is little doubt that today the best PR campaigns are
more thoroughly planned and judged than ever before and that the
industry is serious about lifting standards.
The last quarter of this century has thrown up so many PR luminaries in
the public, private and agency sectors that it would be difficult to
name them all. These prominent practitioners and thousands of others owe
their success in part to the great strides made by the PR pioneers and
their work earlier in the century, much as the stars of the future will
to some degree owe a debt to the giants of today. As PR prepares to
enter its second century, the omens for its long-term future look very
good indeed. Which is as great a compliment as you can pay to the work
of those practitioners who are sadly no longer with us.
TWENTIETH CENTURY PR LANDMARKS
1923: Seminal book Crystallizing Public Opinion written by America’s
so-called ’father of spin’, Edward Bernays.
1924: Early examples of UK market research as ad agency JWT surveys
consumers of Pears Soap and Sun-Maid Raisins.
1926: Empire Marketing Board, under Sir Stephen Tallents, begins to use
1933: British Market Research Bureau established (spun off out of
1948: Formation of the Institute of Public Relations.
1949: British Association of Industrial Editors formed.
1951: First approved definition of PR adopted by IPR.
1955: International Public Relations Association formed.
1956: Regent Street Polytechnic offers first comprehensive UK course on
1957: IPR membership rises above 1,000.
1969: PR agencies get their own trade body, the PRCA.
1979: Bantry Bay disaster creates a landmark in crisis PR
1981: Good Relations becomes first PR business to float on the London
1983: PRCA introduces Inter-Firm Comparisons.
1984: Launch of PR Week.
1985: PR Week begins its annual Top 150 ranking of agencies by fee
1987: Cranfield introduces an MBA course in PR.
1999: Fee income of top 150 PR consultancies reaches pounds 436
THE ROLE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS DURING A CENTURY OF CONFLICT
The 20th century has been disfigured by numerous wars. But unlike
preceding centuries, these conflicts have increasingly been fought in
the media spotlight, with Government pronouncements and news of
victories or defeats having a major impact on public and military
It was not until the final year of World War I that the British
Government set up a short-lived Ministry of Information under newspaper
baron Lord Beaverbrook, which was quickly disbanded after hostilities
ended. That is not to say that the administration neglected propaganda,
as three Royal Commissions were drawn up on the ’atrocities’ of German
soldiers in Belgium.
These included reports of German troops cutting off people’s arms and
sewing up their mouths, as well as herding them into churches where they
were burnt to death. After the war, it emerged that these supposed
truths were no more than anti-German propaganda with no basis in
In the US, two men who were to become giants of the PR industry - Edward
Bernays and Carl Byoir - helped the war effort by working for the War
Department’s Committee on Public Information.
By the mid-1930s, Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda was firmly
established in Nazi Germany and it was evident to the British Government
that it, too, needed an effective communications apparatus. In October
1935 a Committee of Imperial Defence was set up to establish guidelines
for a new Ministry of Information with the purpose of presenting the
national case to the public at home and abroad in times of war. The
MoI’s five principal divisions were News, Control (censorship),
Publicity, Collecting (intelligence) and Administration.
Slogans such as ’Get to it’, ’Dig for Victory’ and ’Make do and mend’
came out of the MoI, which after the war was shorn of most of its powers
and replaced, in March 1946, with the Central Office of Information,
which remains with us to this day.
In his 1947 book You and Your Public , Verne Burnett wrote: ’The
powerful use of public relations knowledge was developed during World
War II and the period shortly preceding and following it. In dangerous
hands, PR techniques were used to spread harmful doctrines through a
large part of the world. However, the methods were also essential in
selling Government bonds; raising funds for relief; creation of greater
harmony in industry; the increasing of production; improved appreciation
of nutrition and safety; physical and mental health; recruiting,
conservation and many others.’ By the time of the Falklands War in 1982,
however, some of the lessons learned had been forgotten, and a more
demanding media made life difficult for the Government. The MoD did not
want any journalists to cover the story at first, but after days of
negotiations with officials and lobbying senior party figures such as
Cecil Parkinson, Bernard Ingham, who was the Prime Minister’s press
secretary at the time, was able to secure passage with the forces for 29
In October 1997 the MoD was restructured to bring the presentational
work of the department closer to the policy and decision-making
In the past the information function had been regarded almost as a
separate department. ’Part of the explanation belonged to the Cold War
and the fact that people within the Ministry of Defence had grown up
thinking that they should just get on with their job without revealing
too many details,’ says MoD director of information strategy and news
The changes were put to the test during the Kosovo crisis this year,
when NATO spokesman Jamie Shea became the face of the conflict. Muirhead
says: ’The best way of getting the information out to everybody was by
having a daily press conference. Otherwise we would have been deluged by
media enquiries trying to suck information from us, rather than allowing
us to push the information out to them.’
Were there media management lessons learnt by the MoD and NATO from
Kosovo? Yes, says Muirhead, to provide the broadcasters with more
interesting and varied moving pictures. It is all a far cry from the
trenches and sledgehammer propaganda of World War I.
THE INVISIBLE SERVICES THAT PROVIDE THE BACKBONE OF THE PR INDUSTRY
There were PR services before there was seriously organised PR. Press
cuttings bureaux Durrants and Romeike and Curtice started in the latter
part of the 19th century - in fact William Durrant and Henry Romeike
were originally business partners. In the Victorian age and the first
few decades of this century their clients tended to be prominent
individuals in society who collected clippings about themselves as an
exercise in vanity. Durrants numbered among its early clients George
Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Winston Churchill.
Market research in the sense that we understand it now was really a
product of the advertising agencies. JWT was the first agency to have a
research director and in 1912 its first study of the US population
appeared. By 1924, JWT was carrying out research in the UK for brands
such as Pears Soap and Sun-Maid Raisins. Nine years later it launched a
separate market research operation, the British Market Research Bureau.
A lack of familiarity with market research among the UK public during
BMRB’s early days saw interviewers occasionally arrested by the
Universal News Services - set up in 1959 by Alfred Geiringer, who went
on to be Reuters head of economic services - pioneered the concept of a
press release wire service in the UK, taking as its inspiration a New
York operation called Press Relations Newswire that had been launched in
However, until the 1980s press release distribution was a painstaking
affair. ’Prior to the introduction of photocopiers in the 1980s the
principal form of reproduction for paper release distribution was by
litho - a laborious process - and the faithful Gestetner,’ says former
operations director at PR Newswire Europe Richard Greenwood. ’Collating
was done by hand and it was to be some years before pages could
automatically be collated and stapled .’ Larry Moskowitz at Medialink in
the US undoubtedly played the biggest part in establishing the video
news release and broadcast PR services as important parts of the modern
PR arsenal. However, home-grown company Bulletin was in the vanguard in
the UK, setting up in 1989.
’Broadcast PR has really come into its own in the last five years as the
popularity of satellite and cable has taken off,’ says Bulletin
International group CEO Anthony Hayward. ’News in particular provides
enormous scope for PR - there are now more than 1,000 hours of TV news
programming broadcast nationally across the UK every week. In 1980, it
was just 34.5 hours per week.’
THOSE MILESTONE MOMENTS OF THE MEDIA CENTURY
1896: Daily Mail launches.
1900: Daily Express launches and is the first national daily to put news
on the front page.
1903: Daily Mirror launches.
1922: BBC founded.
1923: First outside broadcast.
1929: First BBC transmission of John Logie Baird’s 30-line experimental
1931: Audit Bureau of Circulations is formed.
1955: Independent television begins transmission.
1962: Launch of Sunday Times magazine as Sunday Times Colour
1969: Rupert Murdoch acquires the Sun and relaunches it as a
1973: Commercial radio arrives in the United Kingdom.
1982: Channel 4 gets off the ground.
1986: The Independent and Today launch. Today is the first national
colour newspaper. The debut of Arena paves the way for the creation of
the men’s magazine sector.
1989: Rupert Murdoch relaunches Sky.
1994: Electronic Telegraph launches, becoming the first British national
newspaper on the internet.
1997: Launch of Channel 5.
1999: Internet penetration really takes off: 25 per cent of British
adults are now on-line.