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Summary: The History of Public Relations

Posted by Eric Callaghan on Oct 14, 2015 9:30:00 AM

Public relations is considered to be a relatively modern business venture, only really picking up in the past few decades. The reality however, is far from the truth. PR dates back all the way to the Romans and Egyptians, with a lot of the same general practices as we see today. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ himself are all public relations practitioners that we can look back and trace our roots to. That's an alright group of leadership wouldn't you say? Anyway, without further adieu, let us meander through forgotten eras with a quick summary of the history of public relations. We'll try to keep it brief. 


"The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people." -Edward Bernays

PR In Ancient History


By the definition above, public relations has been a tool in politics for thousands of years, so that's where we'll begin with our walk though history.  Take Cleopatra and Julius Caesar for example. Those two lovebirds had massive PR success without the internet or a smart phone at their disposal, gasp! 

In Egypt, PR made its home as early as 2,200 B.C.. For the mathematically challenged that's over 4,000 years ago. An Egyptian politician by the name of Ptah-hotep wrote about the need for honesty, addressing an audience's interests and for acting in a manner consistent with both. That's about as close a definition to public relations as you can muster. Fast forwarding about 2,000 years to a marginally popular pharaoh by the name of Cleopatra. Cleopatra learned Egyptian despite her Greek ancestry to better connect with the people she ruled over. In addition, she built relationships with other powerful nations such as our next one.

The Roman Empire was hugely involved in public relations from as early as Caesar's rule (not technically the Empire yet). Caesar, in addition to his love affair with Cleopatra that connected the two most powerful nations in the world at the time, would report military victories back to Rome in order to boost public favor. The Gallic Wars were commentaries written by Caesar. Also under Caesar, the Acta Diurna, the first public newsletter, was released to citizens in order to keep them updated on affairs of the empire.  It would be posted in popular areas of town such as the Roman Forum so citizens would be more likely to see it.

In all of these ancient societies (Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc.) and to a point even today, statues, temples and monuments of rulers and gods in every city and town square remind the public of their presence and influence. Likewise, artworks throughout history have been huge PR tactics as traditionally they were one of the only ways to send a visual message to a large group of people.

PR in Not-So-Ancient History


Religion and PR have been intertwined since the beginning of time, The Bible being no exception. In the Middle Ages, religion was perhaps the biggest tool for PR practitioners (monarchs, clergymen, the Pope, etc). Martin Luther, if you remember from history class, was the man responsible for kicking off the Reformation in the 1500's. He famously posted his 95 theses on the Wittenburg All Saints' Church door, disputing practices of the Church that he disagreed with. In doing so, Luther was bringing his argument to the people and giving them what they wanted to hear: an answer to their troubles. This event sparked the Reformation and led Luther to become the father of Lutheranism.

Monarchs all over Europe during the 17th and 18th century also used religion as a PR tactic. Look no further than the "divine right of kings," which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica website,  "asserted that kings derived their authority from God and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament." Kings and Queens knew that their subjects honored religion over everything, and be making such a decree, they were playing on their audience's interests and beliefs to assert their authority as a legitimate political entity.

Time and time again, the world's most powerful organizations used Public Relations, whether they called it that or not. If you look at almost any powerful leader, monarch, dictator, Pope, etc. PR is one of the most important aspects of their strategy.

PR in the 20th century


Fast forwarding (a lot) to the 20th century, we can see how modern PR has become what it is today. Believe it or not, it mostly started with cigarettes. Edward Bernays (hey! We quoted him earlier!) is referred to as the father of public relations. It was Bernays who led the PR and marketing campaign to get more women buying Lucky Strike cigarettes in the early 20th century. He started a movement for it to be more socially acceptable for women by dubbing Lucky Strike cigarettes, "torches of freedom," and having groups of women smoke them on street corners in popular areas of cities. He was also a pioneer of the celebrity endorsement and using opinion leaders to sway audiences.

While certainly not the first case of war and PR merging (see Caesar above), WWI and WWII played host to immense public relations campaigns by both the axis and allied powers. Both sides succeeded in dehumanizing their enemies and boosting patriotism for their causes. The famous  Uncle Sam, Rosie the Riveter and even Bugs Bunny were all key figures for the Allied PR campaign to boost support for the war. The war was considered a huge PR success for the U.S. and the allied nations, and terrifyingly, Hitler utilized propaganda to grow his forces in Nazi Germany. War has proven to be a major platform for political bodies and their PR strategies.

Postwar U.S. saw PR begin to grow outside of politics. The PRSA was formed in the late 40's and continues to this day to be a huge and large agencies begin to form: Burston-Marseller, Edelman, Hill & Knowlton. The business world of the late 40's and 50's began to implement PR and hire these agencies to grow their businesses. This period planted the seed for PR in the business world.

PR Today

PR is ingrained in everything today. Social media, global news cycle, everything has an element to PR to it. Marketing and PR are merging closer by the day to ensure that no shortcuts are being taken or content is being pushed out that may offend. Crisis management plans are a must as well, as a BP oil spill or a Volkswagen emissions scandal can hit at any moment, and Public Relations Companies have to be on the lookout to try and stop the practices that cause them before they occur, if possible,  or make amends after the fact. The key to connecting with your audience, either through marketing, PR or essentially both with Inbound, is to create great content. Find out how to do it by downloading our FREE eBook below, "Create Lovable Marketing." 

Create Lovable Marketing CTA

photo credit: The Giza pyramids via photopin (license)

photo credit: Rome, Day 7 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Luther95theses (labeled for re-use with modification)

photo credit: 1942_JHowardMiller_we_can_do_it via photopin (license)

Photo credit: Like_digging_a_foxhole via US National Archives 

Topics: PR

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