An open letter to Tom Watson
The First International History of Public Relations Conference you organised in Bournemouth last week was an important event for public relations education. The conference was large enough to have critical mass and small enough to be focused and friendly.
I detected a consensus around the need to revise the standard approach to the history of PR (from Barnum to Bernays via Ivy Lee). We clearly need more than a solely US perspective on the development of the practice, though this isn't to make an anti-American point. Your conference was notably well-attended by US academics and their contributions were vital to its success.
I found the German perspective particularly valuable (we were fortunate to have three opportunities to listen to Gunter Bentele). In a short space of time (about 150 years), Germany has experienced industrialisation, unification, fascism, communism and liberal democracy. Debates around the role of public relations and propaganda in society have particular resonance here.
But why is history important and why should it be studied and taught? Ultimately we are all history and all generations struggle with the contradictions and confusions of their times. We are no wiser in 2010 than were intellectuals living in the European Enlightenment – or those living in classical antiquity. History teaches perspective – and humility.
Claims of novelty are usually exaggerated (and not just in news releases). While the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility may have been first used in the 1950s, it's not a new concept. Similarly, public relations-like behaviour long predates the emergence of a public relations industry.
Public relations practice depends on context. History teaches a broader understanding of the forces at play (Kaja Tampere categorised these as 'economic, social, cultural and political'). When we teach students, it's context and analysis we should be teaching rather than a canon of facts. That way, we can avoid the impression that 'history's just one fucking thing after another', to quote from Alan Bennett's The History Boys.
Vince Hazleton rightly said there are two processes in historical research: information gathering and making sense of the information gathered. There were papers that presented new information based on archival and other primary research methods. And there were revisionist approaches to many well-known figures (Edward Bernays, John Hill). There is so much more potential here: I was amazed for example that no one mentioned Machiavelli in any of the papers.
Too often I heard people explain that they read history books but were not historians. This is not a useful distinction. Any academic who has written a literature review (and that's any academic) has researched and written history.
So where should we teach the history of public relations? It clearly belongs in our introduction to public relations theory and practice. It also opens up possibilities for dissertation research and could be taught at a higher level, perhaps as an elective.
Yet public relations can also be taught within the broader field of the history of ideas – and I recommend your colleague Kevin Moloney's Rethinking Public Relations: PR Propaganda and Democracy as the key text that maps out this intellectual terrain.
There are still few books in this field (here's my selection) but your conference and the resulting papers will add to this corpus and will surely spur more activity.
Thank you for this.