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History of PR

The History of Public Relations


Mar 4, 2020

Although public relations wasn’t officially a profession until relatively recently, the practice has been around for thousands of years.

In 50 B.C., Julius Caesar publicised his military exploits in the first known political campaign biography to convince the Romans that he would make the best head of state—a practice which is still used by political candidates today.

The Ancient PR Influencers

Before the rise of the most powerful PR professionals, there were some ancient personalities that influenced and shaped the PR industry.  

So who are the first PR influencers worth mentioning? 

  • Ptah-Hotep (2200 BCE) was an Egyptian literary who wrote the book The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep focusing on the importance of communicating with people. 
  • Socrates (470 BCE - 399 BCE), one of the founders of Western philosophy, was of the opinion that effective communication should be based on the truth. 
  • Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE) whose work Rhetoric dealt with the art of persuasion and shaping the public opinion. 
  • In 50 BCE, Julius Caesar (100 BCE- 44 BCE) publicized his military exploits in the first known political campaign biography to convince the public opinion of Romans that he would make the best head of state – a practice which is still used in mass media by political candidates today. This document is regarded as the first public newsletter.

Every Profession Needs Its Pioneers

The PR industry wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for its pioneers and significant events that laid the foundation of public relations as a notable profession. 

But let us start from the beginning, that is in 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. It caused nothing less than a cultural and social revolution, enabling the sudden widespread of propaganda, journalistic activity, and printed material such as books, pamphlets etc.

Around 140 years later (in 1584), Sir Walter Raleigh decided to do some advertising and sent reports about the beauty of Roanoke Island to England to persuade more settlers. Despite his efforts, his attempt was far from being a success as it turned out that the land was swampy. 

In 1773, Samuel Adams, considered the Master of Propaganda, orchestrated public relations for the Revolutionary War, while 3 years later, Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet Common Sense encouraging people to fight for an egalitarian government. When Amos Kendall became the press secretary of President Andrew Jackson (1820), he was quickly regarded as the one causing public relations to become a career. 

Basil Clark is regarded as the first PR professional, establishing the first UK PR agency Editorial Services in 1924.

However, PR became a profession when Ivy Lee started working as an advisor of John Rockefeller in 1903. The publicity expert was responsible for Rockefeller’s reputation boost after a crisis caused by a series of strikes in the coal mines. Ivy Lee is also believed to be the author of the first press release. 

One of the most important names is the field of PR is Edward Bernays, the Father of Public Relations and author of the influential book Propaganda. Being the nephew of Sigmund Freud, his PR strategies were greatly influenced by his uncle’s theories on behavioural psychology. Edward Bernays was of the opinion that political propaganda used by the governments during WWII, could also be used by corporations to influence the customer and consumer in a more subtle form. 

Businessman Henry Ford started using PR in the 1930’s to publicize his company and boost sales.

As you can see, only through the effort of numerous people who dared to try new approaches, we can speak of public relations as a meaningful profession.  

No PR without Inventions 

PR is a very broad topic, therefore it makes sense to focus on the most important aspects, one of them being inventions enabling the development and progress within the industry. 

History mentions numerous inventions that caused major changes in society, however, we will focus on the ones relevant for public relations. 

  1. Telegraph (1830s)
  2. Daguerreotype (1839): First commercially successful photographic process
  3. Telephone (1876)
  4. Phonograph (1877)
  5. Gramophone (1887)
  6. Motion picture camera (1892)
  7. Wireless telegraphy (1896)
  8. Tesla coils (1897): Electrical resonant transformer circuit. It is used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity.
  9. Long distance radio communication (1901)

But what affected the modernization of PR? Once again, the answer is innovation.

It started with the birth of the Internet (1969), followed by the phenomena that the world wide web became accessible to the public (1991) and Hotmail was defined as the first web-based email service (1996). 

Soon after, in 1999 to be more precise, first bloggers emerged and were finally able to share their content on Blogger, the first free blog publishing platform. 

5 more years have passed before the world witnessed the explosion of social media platforms with the launch of Facebook and Twitter. They attracted more and more customers each day, advertising became easier and we could go on an on about the impact (positive and negative) the platforms have on society.  

Consumers, as well as technology enthusiasts, could buy their first iPhone in 2007 and the number of Apple customers is still growing, which can be attributed to effective PR including advertising, media relations, well thought through marketing concepts etc. 

People have been using PR (and PR’s sister occupation, content marketing) to capture the public’s attention and spur them into action since the beginning of time. The channels have changed a bit here and there with various inventions such as the printing press, followed by the Internet and social media (can you imagine how the American Revolution would have been different had Twitter existed?), but the basic strategies and principles remained the same.

People have been using PR (and PR’s sister occupation, content marketing) to capture the public’s attention and spur them into action since the beginning of time (yes, we are suggesting that cavemen probably had some sort of PR campaigns). The channels have changed a bit here and there with the invention of the printing press, and now the Internet and of course social media and sophisticated media monitoring tools; but the basic strategies and principles are the same.

Check out this cool infographic from Max Borges Agency to see how public relations has evolved over time:

Infographic the history of public relations