The Public Relations Work of Journalism Trailblazer and First Lady Confidante Lorena Hickok, 1937-45

By Martinelli, Diana Knott; Bowen, Shannon A. | Journalism History, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Public Relations Work of Journalism Trailblazer and First Lady Confidante Lorena Hickok, 1937-45


Martinelli, Diana Knott, Bowen, Shannon A., Journalism History


This article draws on both primary and secondary sources to help understand the evolution of the public relations profession through a biographical analysis of Lorena Hickok, a reporter who was the first woman to have a front- page byline in the New York Times and to hold a PR position in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. In examining her lesser-known public relations career at the World's Fair from 1937 to 1940 and at the Democratic National Committee from 1940 to 1945, the authors found that she implemented asymmetrical public relations and relationship maintenance strategies, which were both forms of a developing managerial function in the public relations field. Information about this period of her work adds to the history of women in political public relations.

In the last few decades, a dramatic shift in public relations em- ployment has seen women emerge as a clear majority, and this trend is not abating.' However, such representation was not always the case. Women worked in public relations but did so in a somewhat secretive manner, keeping their contributions hidden by allowing men to take credit for their efforts or working behind closed doors. For example, journalist and press agent Ruth Hale published columns and publicity in the 1920s and 1930s under her husband's name, Heywood Broun, to avoid overt discrimina- tion. - Doris Fleischman started her career as a women's page writer for the New York Tribune in 1914 after her future husband, Edward Bernays, helped her make the right contacts.' At the Tribune, she covered women's issues and broke traditional roles by being the first woman at a major paper to cover a prize fight. ' She went on to work as both a publicist and a public relations strategist under the auspices of Bernays' name and practice. 5

Legions of other women writers remained relegated to the "woman's angle" while their male counterparts advanced into investigative reporting and editors' positions or into public relations management.1' Many historical documents of this era have described the gender discrimination faced by women who aspired to be journalists and public relations practitioners, but a number of women persevered and succeeded.7

One such trailblazer was Lorena Hickok, who outperformed many of her male peers as an Associated Press reporter and advanced to positions in public relations within the Roosevelt administration, the World's Fair, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). She is often better known as a journalist and a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, but Hickok was one of the earliest known U.S. women to fill the role of strategic public relations counsel to a president. This article surveys how she built her career from a beat reporter to a presidential advisor and First Lady confidante, and then it examines the lesser known period of her career as a public relations director for the New York World's Fair and as a DNC executive.

Historian Karen Miller Russell has argued that early political campaigning is an "underexplored area" in public relations history. What research has been conducted in the area of political public relations has normally focused on male advisors.8 Many scholars also note the relative absence of history concerning women journalists and public relations practitioners in general.'' This research helps fill that gap by exploring the contributions of Hickok (1893-1968), who was a pioneering woman journalist, press agent, and public relations advisor closely tied to the Roosevelt presidency.

Women began working as journalists as early as the industrial revolution, according to one scholar's 1999 study of women who wrote for textile factory publications.1" These or- gans were one of the earliest forms of public rela- tions in the U.S. with the first known employee publication in 1 885 produced by Massey Manu- facturing." Still, the role of women as writers and professional communicators was constrained. In industrialized America, and arguably for the next fifty years, working women were an underclass.

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