How PR and the world has changed in the PRCA's first 50 years

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the world's biggest PR professional body, with more than 30,000 members, we explore the past, present and future of the PRCA and the industry it represents

1969: the US landed on the moon, an Australian businessman named Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World, the Beatles gave their last ever public performance, the Vietnam War raged on and Leeds United were the champions of English football.

It was a very different world – and a world without the PRCA.

Michael McAvoy FPRCA, one of the PRCA’s founding members and its first chairman, recalls that PR at the time "was dominated by local government officers", who had been "largely responsible" for creating the Institute of Public Relations (IPR, now the CIPR) in 1948.

An IPR Consultancy Committee was set up in 1957. As its chair in 1969, McAvoy was asked to look at what support consultants needed. "I concluded," he says, "that this could only be provided by a trade association, as distinct from a professional institute; hence the formation of the PRCA in November 1969."

The PRCA’s other 11 founding members, which included representatives from US firms such as Burson-Marsteller, Hill + Knowlton and Ruder Finn, were Denis Inchbald, William Fisher, Colin Mann, Sydney Wynne, John Addey, Prince Yuri Galitzine, RE Williams, Eric Buston, Michael Rice, Norman Manners and Denys Scott.

Back to 2019. Current PRCA chairman Jim Donaldson, also the UK and Middle East CEO of FleishmanHillard Fishburn, says: "As we celebrate this golden anniversary, the whole PR industry should acknowledge that this organisation really has been worth its weight in gold – encouraging ethical practice, improving standards, training thousands upon thousands of communications professionals, celebrating great work and, of course, bringing people together and making this a hugely fun and rewarding industry to be part of.

  • Hear more from several former PRCA chairs in the video at the bottom of this article.

Adds PRWeek editor-in-chief Danny Rogers: "Much has changed in the PR industry over the years that I’ve been involved with it. But one constant has been the presence of the PRCA, and its staff and board members who have worked tirelessly in pursuit of higher standards and the health of the PR and communications world.

"Particularly in recent years, few will fail to be impressed by the advances it has inspired both in the UK and overseas."

The 1970s

Early priorities of the PRCA included creating a code of practice and a training programme. Membership was nearing 100 by the end of the decade.

The decade was marked by social change – contraception became free for UK women in 1974, and gender discrimination was outlawed the next year. However, the overwhelming memories are of economic strife - miners’ strikes, the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent.

But historian Dominic Sandbrook says the decade is unfairly maligned, arguing that most British families "were better off than ever", pointing out a rise in consumerism and disposable income - the number of foreign holidays taken by Britons more than trebled over the decade.

The PRCA’s campaign of the decade

"Most of the office is too young to remember any PR campaigns of the 1970s. But the winner surely would be the government-led work that began then to change smoking from normal to socially unusual at best; unacceptable at worst."

Key dates

1970: Four new joiners, including Daniel J Edelman, grew PRCA membership to 16.

1971: The UK tried to get its head around decimal currency. A government awareness campaign included this film, and Max Bygraves’ catchy single Decimalisation 

1975: Britain elected to remain in the Common Market. Big business "campaigned vigorously" for that outcome (despite concerns that this could backfire and alienate the electorate).

1979: 97.5 per cent of UK households owned a TV. The figure had passed 90 per cent at the start of the decade.


The 1980s

Between 1982 and 1987, the average annual fee income of PRCA members grew from little more than £200,000 to in excess of £700,000.

That uptick in fortunes is in tune with the figure who embodies the decade – Margaret Thatcher. Her reforms secured growth (and her privatisation programmes meant big briefs for PR firms), but her unpopularity among many Britons remains to this day.

The idea of globalisation became a common theme, with the opening up of the Soviet Union to private business and advances in technology and infrastructure – 1990 would be the first year in which more than one billion people took a flight.

The PRCA’s campaign of the decade

"When people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, a national panic erupted, and many assumed their maker, Johnson & Johnson, would never recover. In a prime example of best-practice PR, its team ignored the short-term profit loss and issued a complete recall, eventually winning back public favour and strengthening the brand image."

Key dates

1984: Industry bible PRWeek was founded.

1985: The comedian Ernie Wise made the UK’s first mobile phone call in a PR launch for Vodafone.

1986: Colin Thompson joined the PRCA as director-general. He would remain in post for 10 years, remaining second only to Francis Ingham for the longest time spent at the organisation’s helm

1987: The film Wall Street was released. Its central character Gordon Gekko and his "greed is good" line would influence people’s views of the business world of the 1980s, for years.


The 1990s

In the recession in the early years of this decade, big PR firms such as Vallin Pollen and Corporate Communications collapsed. Meanwhile, Brunswick and Weber Group (conceived in the late 1980s) and ambitious accountant Martin Sorrell, who had taken over WPP in 1985, earned their places at their respective top tables during this decade, which also saw Finsbury’s creation in 1994.

Also building its reputation in the 1990s was something called the World Wide Web. Edelman claims to be the first agency to build itself a website, in 1995, as the business world as a whole wondered how this new technology would change how it operated.

The PRCA’S campaign of the decade

"BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign, led by Ogilvy & Mather during the late ’90s and early ’00s, was years ahead of its time. By dropping old-fashioned elements and values associated with big oil companies, they were able to redefine the brand as innovative and environmentally aware while building consumer confidence on a global scale."

Key dates

1990: Angela Heylin FPRCA, the PRCA’s first female chairman, began her two-year term.

1992: Her Majesty The Queen’s "annus horribilis". The royal family’s popularity hit a low ebb.

1997: Labour’s Tony Blair swept to power – the first of two PMs (the next being David Cameron) to focus heavily on PR and media management.

1997: The death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Her "people’s princess" title, coined by Blair, was widely believed to have come from his spin doctor Alastair Campbell – although Campbell denies it.


The 2000s

Just as the previous decade had started with recession, so the 2000s began with the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and related corporate scandals at Enron and elsewhere.

Despite those tech wobbles, the 2000s was the decade in which PR companies began to get themselves, their work and their clients online in a more meaningful way; emailed replaced fax, smartphones began to land in our pockets and now we used them to access newfangled social networks such as Twitter and Facebook (and MySpace, Bebo, Friends Reunited and others).

PR firms founded in the very first years of the new millennium include 3 Monkeys (now 3 Monkeys Zeno), The Big Partnership, Brands2Life, Capital MSL (now MSL), Four Communications Group, Frank, Pegasus and Portland.

The PRCA’s campaign of the decade

"Beginning in Sydney in 2007, WWF’s Earth Hour has grown exponentially over the past decade, with 188 participating countries this year. By asking the public to turn off all non-essential lights for one hour, WWF has managed to achieve the seemingly impossible, and brought the world together to focus on climate change issues, even if only for an hour."

Key dates

2001: The 9/11 terror attacks. The US responded with its War on Terror, resulting in conflicts including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2006: "just setting up my twttr" wrote co-founder Jack Dorsey in the first message on the then-vowel-free social-media platform.

2007: The first iPhone is released. (See its launch below)

2009: The PRCA opened itself up to in-house membership, the first major change at the organisation under new leader Francis Ingham.


The 2010s

The drive to provide integrated marketing services and capture budget from beyond the traditional media relations silos, a highly volatile media environment and competition from across the world have kept the industry busy.

Integrated work from this decade, which made the most of digital campaigning alongside old-school tactics, made history – achieving results such as the legalisation of gay marriage in several countries, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the electoral victories of President Trump and Vote Leave. The PRCA responded to increasing globalisation in the industry by launching a Middle East and North Africa division in 2016, and a South East Asia arm in 2018. Just as PR now knows no bounds – between nations or marketing disciplines – neither does the world’s biggest PR association.

The PRCA’s campaign of the decade

"Despite negative press during the planning period, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games far exceeded expectations upon launch. Many will still recall the wonderfully surreal, meticulously polished opening ceremony, yet it was behind the scenes where the real magic was taking place. From managing public transport to efficiently responding to grievances, the campaign was a showcase in exceptional internal and external comms."

Key dates

2011: Lord Justice Leveson began his public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press (below).

2014: 2014 Online overtook print for UK news consumption.

2016: Brexit and Trump triumph in a year of electoral shocks.

2017: Bell Pottinger was expelled from the PRCA for conduct breaches over a South African client. The storied agency would close soon after.


The future

So, what’s next?

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham sets out his vision: "Over the past 50 years, the PRCA has built a fantastic platform from which to represent our industry. As the world’s largest PR professional body, our plans for the future are ambitious.

"We’re going to continue expanding our range of services, and our range of sectoral and geographical Groups." 

"We’re going to broaden and deepen our offering of training and qualifications."

"We’re going to increase even further our networking opportunities at every level of seniority."

"We’re going to ramp up our thought leadership and research."

"We’re going to extend our international reach, offering members even more links around the world."

"As the industry changes, we’re changing with it, reflecting and leading the blending of disciplines."

"We’re going to campaign on the issues that matter: the gender pay gap; evaluation; broadening access to our industry; the talent challenge; mental health."

"And we’re going to be the world’s loudest advocate for our industry as ethical and professional, where we do the right thing on the very rare occasions when things go wrong."

"Fifty years in, the PRCA reflects the industry we serve: dynamic, agile, growing – and thoroughly confident about the future."

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