The history of Public Relations: early years

“If your stories are all about your products and services, that’s not storytelling. It’s a brochure. Give yourself permission to make the story bigger.” - Jay Baer

What is public relations?

When I first began my studies at Boston University, I had always associated PR with a spokesperson, which is somewhat true, but also very much not true. Some hear the term PR and think of public manipulation (and in the wrong hands this may be true). Others hear it and think PR is just another name for marketing, advertising or sales—this last one, however, is a giant "no"; with one of the most common misconceptions being that public relations efforts automatically equal overnight sales. More on that later..

The most noted individual in the field’s history is Edward Bernays. Known as the father of public relations, Bernays set the tone for PR by utilizing third-party influencers. For instance, he introduced Russian Ballet to Americans by showcasing the dancers through sports magazines. He also featured the costumes, music and set through influential art figures. Third-party influencers included the media, prominent figures and the government. It's safe to say, at that time, these were influencers that the public trusted. Bernays' most famous and successful stunt - albeit rather unethical today - was promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes to women. During the 1920s, it was social taboo for woman to smoke in public or even in the company of men. A woman smoking was seen as unsavory, unladylike and characterless. Thus, when Bernays was hired by Lucky Strike to increase brand awareness, he decided to target women. He did so by labeling the cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom,” calling on young debutantes and feminists to march in the NYC Easter Sunday Parade of 1929 to break the social taboo. Soon after, cigarettes became synonymous with the emancipation and made way for the women’s movement.

Ivy Lee, another pioneer of public relations, advised the Rockefeller family and many other big-name industry leaders in steel, automobile and railroad associations. He helped cement media relations into the practice, believing in transparency and truth, especially in times of crisis. When the Pennsylvania Railroad suffered a fatal train accident in 1906 the executives wanted to keep the incident quiet; however, Lee persuaded them to invite journalists to the derailed train where he would explain to them the accident, the measurements the company would be taking to prevent this from occurring once more. Lee’s press conference earned high praise, allowing the Pennsylvania Railroad to maintain the public’s trust. He has since been credited with the creation of the press releases. Today, we would call this work "crisis communications".

These men played key roles in the creation of modern day public relations. They understood the importance of crafting a narrative and expanding its reach. After all, just selling your client’s features doesn’t cut it. Every company can claim to have the “best” customer service or “high-quality” products. But by aligning your PR efforts with the moral, self-expressive, and/or emotional needs of an audience, your client can make a successful impact.

Next time, we'll cover exactly what you can expect from your PR team, and explain why we never promise clients an over night boost in sales!

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