Public Relations Through Time


Early History

Public relations (PR) is not a recent invention. The importance of communication with the public and maintenance of positive public image was known as early as in the antiquity but the beginnings of modern PR are traditionally dated in the 18th century London. One of the first PRs was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire who heavily campaigned for Charles James Fox and his Whig party. PR in the real meaning of the word, however, dates only to the early 20th century. The first real PR specialist was according to some Ivy Lee (1877-1934), while the others see Edward Bernays (1891-1995) as “the father of public relations”.

Ivy Lee or Edward Bernays?

Whether the founder of modern PR is Ivy Lee or Edward Bernays remains a matter of debate. Both historians who consider the first PR specialist Ivy Lee and those who see Bernays as the founder of modern PR have strong arguments to support their views. We will not get into the debate who of the two men had a greater influence on the future development of PR. Instead, we will take a closer look at the work and contribution of Lee and Bernays to the modern PR.

Ivy Lee is best known for his services to Standard Oil and its founder John D. Rockefeller. But those who are familiar with PR history know him better for introducing the term “public relations” and for pioneering the modern press release although he mainly used it as a one-way propaganda for his clients.

Edward Bernays refined Lee’s press release as a PR tool but he also contributed a lot to the development of the theory of PR. He is said to be influenced greatly by his uncle and professor Siegmund Freud in his concepts of PR. Bernays has written several books on PR, of which are best known ”Crystallizing Public Opinion”, ”Propaganda” and ”The Engineering of Consent”. In his works, Bernays argued that PR is an applied social science which manages and manipulates the public opinion by the use of sociology, mass psychology and similar disciplines.

PR and Propaganda

Although Lee, Bernays and other PR pioneers such as Carl Byoir and John W. Hill played an important role in modern PR, they were also responsible for the profession’s close association with propaganda by the public. As a result, their successors did not have an easy job in changing the profession’s ”bad” reputation and even today, PR is sometimes equated with propaganda.

PR After the Advent of the Internet

The Internet has changed communication dramatically. The public is increasingly turning to the world wide web for information and as a result, PR must keep up with the changes in transmission of information if it wants to retain its role as a communicator between the public and organisations. Modern PR thus besides the traditional tools also implements online tools and tactics, including social media such as blogs, content publishing, search engine optimisation (SEO), podcasts, etc.. If you find yourself looking for a PR agency to help with you build your online precense, check out our list of the best PR agencies now.