It was during the final session of the second annual International History of Public Relations Conference (#ihprc2011) when event organiser Professor Tom Watson said something explosive.
While cantering through his 'evolution of evaluation' talk, Watson said that public relations had begun as a holistic activity in the early twentieth century, but during the second half of the century had become a narrower publicity function driven by the rise of the consumer society.
Watson did not have time to elaborate – nor did he need to given the audience he was addressing. But I'd like to offer my own interprepration in the hope that this will reach a few more people beyond those who attended.
I call this explosive because it reverses the widely-cited and therefore presumably broadly-accepted depiction of PR as having emerged from one-way publicity before developing into professional two-way communications.
Watson suggests we're in danger of going the other way. Other speakers at the conference showed that 'the more things change, the more they stay the same' and keynote speaker Ray Hiebert (starts after 13 mins) comprehensively demolished the certainties of the Grunigian world view (note that he had hired James Grunig to the University of Maryland) when he dismissed the idea of a 'general theory of public relations'.
The tension between PR-as-craft (exemplified by Ivy Lee) and PR-as-strategic-management (Edward Bernays) has been there from the early twentieth century.
Public relations examples can be found further back in history (one paper contrasted More's Utopia with Machiavelli's The Prince – which was, as I suggested, to compare a saint with the devil incarnate), though Gunther Bentele rejects as unhistorical the use of the term public relations to describe these early examples. He suggests they are rather examples of public communication.
History illuminates our understanding of the present, and international perspectives refresh our narrow world view. (The more positive perspective on PR going backwards is that we're revisiting and reinterpreting our roots.) I hope to be back for more next time round (and am already planning some archive research) – and look foward to meeting more people at the next conference. There's so much to be researched and written about:
- Corporate and institutional histories
- Non-corporate uses of PR
- Country cases (and multi-country comparisons)
- Thematic perspectives (how about public relations and religion?)