Why history matters

12 Jul

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.

5 Responses to “Why history matters”

  1. Mediations 12/07/2010 at 10:48 am #

    I posted a few notes from Karen Russell’s opening keynote, Embracing the Embarrassing, including a couple of links to journal articles she cited at http://bit.ly/9dEBNN

  2. Heather Yaxley 12/07/2010 at 9:35 pm #

    Richard – agree with you entirely and it was a really great experience. I found the revisionist consideration of previous work particularly valuable, in terms of how revisiting source data provided a different focus on many of the interpretations of PR history (and historical context told by PR practitioners) – whilst remembering of course, that it is now being presented within the context of our times.
    A highlight was meeting so many people who I knew only from books – and it was in the discussion that their ideas really came to life (or didn’t in some cases).
    I am motivated to act on much of what I heard (I’ve already been Googling the Harvey Company which I’d never come across).
    But, what it made me thing about most of all is that so much of what is written and taught in standard PR textbooks needs to be reconsidered in its own historical context.
    The four models from Grunig & Hunt and the Model of Excellence for example need to be considered as historical constructs themselves and not presented and critiqued as we so often do as some abstract (or practical) theory.
    PR practice may not be evolutionary, but it is alive, and focusing on history, was valuable as well as fascinating.
    If we just keep on focusing on the same tired historical cases, we won’t gain a real insight into our work today. Let’s have more history, from more perspectives, more countries, more people, more organisations, but most of all, let’s have it based on real experiences from those involved, instead of the presentations and representations of those with agendas in the retelling.

  3. David Phillips 13/07/2010 at 3:53 pm #

    This conference, which I could not attend except in Twitter and through blogs like yours Richard, is important for many reasons. In some ways it slays the dragons that had, for so long, held PR as the kidnap damsel held hostage.
    When I was in my teens I worked as a volunteer for an organisation. Its members met each week. We spend a lot of time on internal communication. We worked at getting our members to keep coming back. We listened to speakers, and listened to members and so we also ran dances and earnestly discussed the issues of the day (this before the Beatles and when most of Europe stared in terror from two sides of a wall in Berlin!).
    We spent a lot of our time inviting other people to join us. We had a life outside and were able to evangelise and encourage more young people to join with us and encouraged them (endlessly) to get involved.
    From time to time our press releases provided column inches in the Hunts Post and our ‘letters to the editor’ were published.
    One in a while, we took all these ideas out to the public. We organised leaflet drops and canvassed door to door. We held open meetings and helped others in the same cause, from Knights of the Realm to the local Butcher, to get their message across and fed back the response we got from the interested and disinterested public.
    The people who ran and held sway were differentiated from those who enjoyed the camaraderie of being out and about. The leaders had decisions to make and opinions to be heard.
    This was 20 years before James Grunig published his first book.
    The activity I describe was, to me, public relations.
    It was how, at a very local level, the youth movement of a British political party was run. I was 16.
    A decade and a half later I then did almost exactly the same thing for a company.
    The company was (always is) its employees and PR, as practised, did things that were essential for each person’s job and things that made it good to do. With response, support, interest and engagement of our colleagues we reached out to vendors, dealers, distributors, prospects and customers and, of course, a range of media and many influencers of every kind and stripe. We prospered. It was what I knew as public relations.
    That is not to say it was one big cuddly experience. It definitely was not. It did include some (very) robust exchanges with board members – a straight put down of one FD who ‘only had to keep the books in order’ as I recall, even now it makes me wince. It did include some rough times. Redundancies and shipping jobs abroad are not easy and were no less so then. But we always looked each other in the eye. We always told it as it was – and straight. Short term, the results were often not what today would be called ‘good PR’. Long term we gained trust and a tradeable reputation. Reputation meant preference to buy and at better margins; a ready pool of prospective employees and that magic ingredient the better quality from highly regarded suppliers.
    Obfuscation and spin has its place, but only to protect the very weakest of minds.
    Meanwhile, in the dark lands, the dragons captured public relations. Publicists, who did not walk the factory floor or the Whitehall corridors to easy the way for export licences made good photography seem like some form of magic, press releases became a stream of staccato adjectives, relationships were replaced by meetings.
    Someone (an FD perhaps?) suggested PR was only about press relations, ‘CSR’ and lobbying at a fraction of the cost and time hitherto spent by senior mangers working at their PR duty the end of the pointy PR stick.
    How deathly boring, trivial and narrow.
    Now, with the efforts of Tom Watson and his colleagues and contributors, I can have my version of PR back. It is much easier, because the advent of internet mediated public relations and because it is PR that is interesting enthralling, fun and testing.
    It does leave a big hole in theory, as taught. PR is very broad in what its practitioners have to know and do well, and, of course, it is a practice that does not have to be of the so called ‘C’ suite because it always has to rise above the mundane.
    Only the very best of students will ever practice PR and there will always be the experts in staccato adjectival trivia. These are artisans to be admired. But for the future perhaps we can, through the historical lens, learn to differentiate and give to PR what it surely deserves.

  4. Karen Russell 15/07/2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Lots of good points here, Richard. I too especially appreciated the opportunity to meet the German scholars, who are making big contributions which deserve to be more widely known. I feel fortunate to have been part of this first conference and was glad to meet you and so many others I’d only known online or in print and add my kudos to Tom for getting us all together.

  5. Paul Seaman 31/07/2010 at 11:35 am #

    PR and propaganda? Will we ever learn how to break the link in practice? I think not when the Stockholm Accords positions PRs as ideological governors of value networks.

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