FEATURE: The PR century - Events earlier this century provided the primordial stew that gave birth to the rise of PR. Robert Gray turns back the pages of time to where it all began

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 voluntary sector.

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

voluntary sector.

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

communications practitioner.

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

the industry.

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.


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

PR techniques.

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

PR practice.

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

Stock Exchange.

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 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

Oona Muirhead.

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.


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.’


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.

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