Seventy years ago, in the aftermath of World War II and on the cusp of the Cold War, then-Boston University President Daniel Marsh saw the need for creating an academic institution encompassing all the fields of mass communication and founded on principles of "truth and honor." This institution would include such established university programs as journalism and advertising, as well as the newer fields of radio and television broadcasting, and "motion picture" production.
President Marsh also believed the University should recognize a new addition to the academic family of mass communication based on an emerging profession so comprehensive in its scope that it could encompass elements of all the others. He named the institution after this field of "public relations" because, he contended, any form of mass communication relating to the public was, by definition, public relations.
That vision became the Boston University School of Public Relations, which has evolved since 1947 into today’s College of Communication. The School awarded the world's first academic degrees in public relations and set a standard followed today.
President Marsh insisted that public relations as taught at Boston University wouldn’t be "press agency," "propaganda," or "some high-powered attempt to substitute fiction for fact in public estimation." Rather it would become "a vocation, which should be entered only by persons who have pursued a course of study leading to a professional degree, thus making it comparable with the professions of the ministry, law, medicine, and teaching." He declared that a graduate of this School "must be honest, honest beyond legal requirements…incapable of lying and treachery, of deceit and trickery, of duplicity and chicanery."
The principles enunciated in 1947 remain critically important in an era when such Orwellian terms as "fake news" and "post-truth information" have joined the lexicon. Much has changed in the media over these 70 years, and surely more change lies ahead. What must not change is a commitment by public relations professionals to "truth and honor," as Marsh prescribed.
Thomas Fiedler is dean of the Boston University College of Communication. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Miami Herald.
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