Gini Dietrich

PR: A History Lesson in How We Got Here

By: Gini Dietrich | March 10, 2014 | 

PR- A History Lesson in How We Got HereBy Gini Dietrich

Consider this: The public relations industry might have begun in 1800 BC.

Back then, the Babylonians used stone tablets to educate farmers on how to sow and harvest crops.

In Egypt, scribes documented the deeds of the pharaohs; in Rome, leaders, such as Julius Caesar, wrote biographies to persuade the public to support their political aspirations.

There are numerous examples of persuasive speaking, the art of rhetoric, reputation building, and mediating between rulers and subjects.

Among the most famous was the use of public relations to promote Roman Catholicism during Europe’s Counter-Reformation. Pope Gregory XV coined the term “propaganda” when he created Congregatio de propaganda fide (Congregation for propagating the faith), which trained missionaries to spread Catholic doctrine in the face of rising Protestantism. The term did not carry negative connotations until it became associated with government publicity around World War I.

Edward  Bernays, the father of public relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud, worked on the women’s cigarette smoking campaign in the 1920s. He helped the cigarette industry overcome a social taboo: Women smoking in public.

His client? Lucky Strike.

His campaign? He persuaded fashion designers, charity events, interior designers, and others to make the color green trendy. Because a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes was green, women would be more likely to carry them because the color was fashionable.

He is reported to have said, “The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: Informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people.”

It’s no wonder the industry has the perception of being full of liars and spin doctors.

What is PR?

The official definition of public relations, as redefined by PRSA in 2012, is: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

But try to explain that to someone not in the industry and it goes above their heads (heck, I’m not entirely certain what it means).

People understand what is tangible; media relations—when a story runs in print or airs on television or radio about you, your company, or your product or service—is easy to understand. You can see it, touch it, feel it. It’s not something that feels like magic so it’s often what is thought of when explaining public relations.

The truth of the matter is, while media relations is an important part of a communications program, there are many other tactics used in a cohesive strategy: Content, email marketing, social media, crisis and reputation management, events, social advertising, investor relations, lobbying and regulatory work, and more.

The Industry Has Changed

Hollywood has not been kind to the PR industry. Wag the Dog depicts a “spin doctor,” (played by Robert De Niro) who distracts the public from a sex scandal by hiring a film producer to construct a fake war with Albania.

Samantha Jones of Sex and the City fame was a publicist who threw elaborate parties and spent her evenings club hopping from fabulous event to fabulous event.

And reality TV star Lizzie Grubman did the work of celebrity publicists in Manhattan while the world watched. She and her team of assistants planned nightclub openings, launched albums, and mingled with celebrities and the media.

It’s no wonder when interviewing soon-to-be college graduates, you hear reasons they want to go into PR that run the gamut from, “I’m good with people” and “I love to plan a party” to “I’m a night person” and “My family doesn’t mind if I go to events and clubs with clients.”

What Now?

However, if you run an organization, are on the executive team, or have (or need to have) communications professionals or a firm reporting to you, it’s time to prepare your business for a marathon.

You should build a communications program that can withstand the constant changes at Google.

You should consider how ethics may not get you short-term results, but will provide a long-lasting  effect.

Learn how the lines between marketing, advertising, digital, and PR are blurring.

And figure out what to do when negative criticism happens online (and it will).

Though academics credit the PR industry for being around since 1929, it’s pretty much remained the same for more than 70 years. The real changes came when social media took hold of organizations and changed the way we communicate forever.

It’s time to understand those changes, be willing to do things differently, take some risk, and beat the competition.

You can do that with PR.

A highly modified version of this first appeared on the VXSuite blog.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Hey, I think I’ve read this somewhere; if it were me I’d probably make a book out of it….just sayin’….:).

    Definitely changing, good and bad; and now more integrated with other disciplines and platforms now more than ever. 

    It’s nice to see you are carrying the banner for the ‘good guys.’

  • bdorman264  Shhhhh!

  • I was watching a documentary on Caligula last night. When his beloved father Germanicus died (or was murdered, probably by the family, depending on which camp you belonged to), a man who was branded the killer (though was most likely a scapegoat) conveniently committed suicide before the trial. The trial became instead a ‘public inquiry’. They still have the bronze plaque detailing the result of this inquiry, where in 20 AD, the inscription basically sealed the fate of the deceased man, and cast him, without question, as Germanicus’s killer. What’s interesting is, this ‘report’ HAD to be inscribed and made public in the chief city of every single province of the Roman Empire. It was mass communication, as only the Romans could do – and an attempt to ensure that this “spin” around Germanicus’s passing, unequivocally clearing Caligula of any involvement in his father’s death, was known to everyone, everywhere, as the *official version* of events. Amazing PR, wouldn’t you agree?

  • belllindsay  That IS amazing PR. Kind of scary, too. But it happens all the time in the court of public opinion. He who gets there first gets to tell the story.

  • I do like Freud’s third element: “integrating people with people”

    Great blog post. I would say that the lines between marketing, advertising, digital, and PR aren’t blurring, they are blurred. Non-existent even. They only exist in people’s heads and corporate structure.

  • The ethics question is an interesting one.
    I was interviewing for an agency once, and a question arose around tobacco. They were curious as to whether I’d have working with a client looking to target younger smokers.
    I said I couldn’t in all good faith work on something like that, as it goes against my own views on smoking and advertising.
    I didn’t get the gig – but I wasn’t disappointed too much, it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit anyway.
    And I love belllindsay ‘s example. 🙂

  • Danny Brown belllindsay  

    I understand completely Danny. I remember the grief I caught a few years ago, when as publisher of a newspaper, I refused the advertising from a couple of strip clubs. There was a bit of heat from the clubs, but also from corporate who was eyeballing the $$ they felt those ads might bring in.

  • BillSmith3

    mattmaldre  Great point on the lines between marketing, advertising, digital and PR really being only in people’s heads and corporate structure. The smart agencies out there have repositioned themselves as integrated communication shops with PR, content marketing, native advertising, digital media, etc. under one roof. The ones who are sticking with just media relations and events as their go to schtick  are going to find it a lot tougher in the next few years.

  • ClayMorgan It’s all about the context, sir. 🙂 belllindsay

  • Bill Smith

    A very good lesson.

  • Thanks for the history lesson! I really liked belllindsay’s example below, too. 
    I have one for you as well. I learned that many political figures that Niccolo Machiavelli recorded in his most notable work, “The Prince,” actually features many of the dictators’ strategies for controlling the hearts and minds of its people at that time. 
    “If you want your citizens to respect you, you must do this… If you want people to fear you, you must do that….”
    Even though “The Prince” is suspected to be a farse, it still sheds light into how dictators of that time thought. So, if you want to read some of the earliest examples of PR spins, you should definitely check out Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” 
    But anyway, I’m glad you brought up Samantha from Sex and The City. I remember my PR professor actually having a serious talk with all of the girls in the classroom about the reality of PR. It was disturbing to see how upset some girls were when she broke their flawed vision of what PR actually is. I’ll still never forget how empty that classroom got by the end of the semester.

  • Jason Roberts

    ^lp, I need to borrow a pencil.

  • Gini Dietrich

    Thank you, Bill.

  • Gini Dietrich

    LOL, Jason! Are you also going to copy her homework?

  • Bill Smith

    Always a pleasure Gini.

  • Laura Petrolino

    Jason, I’m totally telling on you for not being prepared! DEMERITS!!!

  • JRHalloran First of all, the girls leaving the class story made me laugh out loud. I always laugh when we interview ready-to-graduate students and they say they want to go into PR because they’re good with people. Oy.

    I didn’t know that about The Prince. Very, very interesting.

  • Danny Brown Many large agencies will actually have firewalls up for those who don’t want to work on accounts like that. There are some people it doesn’t bother and others (like you and me) it does.

  • mattmaldre  I agree, Matt. Now if we could just figure out how to get corporate structure to change that.

  • ginidietrich That’s good to know. Yeah, this one didn’t, though they were more a medium-sized one.

  • Great recap of our history, Gini! The sad part is that a lot of what you use as examples is the “not-so-good” side of our reputation…the spin doctors, the perception manipulators, the outright liars.

    The good news is that we have ethical guidelines to help us as we wend our way through the quicksand and minefields of public opinion and persuasion.

    The challenge for those of us who have now ventured into academia and are attempting to teach the next generation(s) of public relations professionals is to help our young charges understand…and accept…that honest, open communication is not optional…it is, and always will be, a mandatory part of our trade.

    I plan to share your post with my Principles of PR disciples as soon as we’re back from spring break!

  • Jason Roberts

    Who told you that?! #StopSnitching

  • Jason Roberts

    My dog ate my pencil. 🙁

  • You forgot the town crier gig. Just saying.

    I shocked at the PRSA definition. There is zero requirement that the public’s consuming of the communication from Brand and Agency is beneficial for them. You mentioned the Lucky Strike campaign which was only beneficial to the creator and the cigarettes.

    So will you tell them or should I?
    One good thing about Advertising/Marketing there isn’t the nightclub option like PR has. But it darn well should!

  • what is with people posting here from Farcebook!??!!! @Gini Dietrich are you allowing this breach in protocol?

  • Danny Brown ClayMorganbelllindsay@Gini Dietrichyet you invented the Happy Meal Danny. sigh

  • Danny Brown ginidietrichwhy wouldn’t you sell cuban cigars to a 6 year old?

  • ginidietrich bdorman264Hey Bill I found a great book called the Suck of Spin for you

  • Howie Goldfarb I wouldn’t even sell 6 year old cigars to a Cuban. Or something. Wait, what? 🙂 ginidietrich

  • Howie Goldfarb  I am!

  • Howie Goldfarb  We all got into it for the parties.

  • ginidietrich JRHalloranGive them beanies that say PP on the front for People Person

  • ginidietrich JRHalloranGini next time someone says that to you ask if they can look you in the eye while lying through their teeth with a poker face on.

  • Howie Goldfarb Danny Brown ClayMorgan I was wondering when the “Caligula” teasing was going to begin. You people have disappointed me!

  • We all know I am a total history dork-asaurus, so this interests me so much. And how much do I love the fact that Freud is the uncle of PR. I feel so enlightened! 

    An interesting comparison to look at how Pope Gregory used PR vs our current Pope. Similar goals completely different communication strategy and tactic. And because this Pope is the first one in forever and a half that has paid attention to how things have changed and adjusted his messaging and ‘brand’ accordingly, he is transforming the image of the church both internally and externally. You could find many similar parallels in business comparing businesses stuck in old methods of PR and communications and those who have adjusted accordingly.

  • VincentHazleton

    I would recommend to you “The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History” by the late Scot Cutlip. There is an annual conference on Public Relations history at Bournemouth University in the UK. You might learn a little about PR history by visiting their website or by reading the special issues of PR Review that include the top papers from this conference. Where in hell did you get the idea that academics trace the origins of PR to 1929?

  • VincentHazleton  Saw your comment on Ragan, too. I’m kind of astounded at your response. Seems unlike you.  

    I did a ton of research, have years of experience, and got some feedback from academics before I wrote this (which also is in Spin Sucks, the book). It also is clearly defined on Wikipedia so perhaps it’d be worth your creating a pagination over there. I missed The Unseen Power. Thank you for recommending it. 

    P.S. We don’t allow swearing on the blog so I edited your comment.

  • VincentHazleton  From the, this quote:
    Since the start of the International History of Public Relations Conference at BU in 2010, it was evident that PR and informational/promotional communications have many sources which depend on social, political and cultural influences.
    So, essentially, no-one can 100% lock down the history of PR, since it’s so subjective.
    So you pretty much put yourself in the same position you put Gini, since you’re referencing a site and papers that can’t even agree themselves the history of the practice.
    Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s exactly one of the key reasons PR has such a problem in maturing past its stuffy history, since people are so eager to have their version be the right one, and to heck with anyone that profers an alternative…

  • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb  Parties? PR gets to party, instead of being the ones organizing them? Why didn’t someone tell me!

  • ginidietrich mattmaldre  How about starting by changing the name from “integrated marketing communication” to just “inegrated communication” or “strategic communication?” Once you put marketing in the tagline, you are by default subordinating everything else and inviting turf wars.

  • VincentHazleton

    Those who expect agreement in any academic discipline are likely to be profoundly disappointed.
     My assessment of most of the diagreements in historical treatments of public relations reflect two diffrent orientations to its study.  One approach emphasizes the corporate voice, and in this context any public utterance might be viewed as public relations. In this context Machiavelli or Moses might be portrayed as practicing public relations. The second approach is to view public relations as a profession in which professional communicators assist organizations in achieving their goals through conseling and communiction. The emphasis here is on the contributions of individuals to the corporate voice. I fall into this second group. Changing social and techonological environments have contibuted to the professionalization of public relations. Increasing levels of democracy, increasing educational levels, the emergence and later fragmentation of the mass audience, as well as various communication technologies have all influenced what I see as the history of public relations.

  • VincentHazleton

    I apologize for my unseemly behaviior. It was late in the day and this curmudgeon was a bit cranky.

  • VincentHazleton  Those who expect agreement in any academic discipline are likely to be profoundly disappointed.
    Based on that statement, your original comment’s point is diluted, no?

  • VincentHazleton

    No the point is that we should engage and debate. It is for the audience to decide who is correct. I am convinced that my view point is preferable to the other. However, they aren’t evil. They are merely wrong.

  • VincentHazleton  Ha! It seemed very unlike you. I’ve never had anything but pleasant interactions with you so I was surprised. Thank you for pointing me to more research. I’ve been digging through this morning.

  • ginidietrich VincentHazleton  Gini, I have a copy of the Cutlip book, if you’re interested i borrowing it.

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