Magazine article Media Report to Women

Public Relations History through Women's Eyes

Magazine article Media Report to Women

Public Relations History through Women's Eyes

Article excerpt

Glancing through a stade of introductory public relations textbooks, a reader will soon discover that in the chapters about public relations history, a handful of the same stories are told over and over, with relatively few characters and the same plot twists repeated again and again. Typically, we read the stories of P.T. Barnum, Ivy Lee, and Edward Bernays, hear of the war propaganda generated during World Wars I and II, and track the growth of mostly 20th century, New York-based corporations and agencies. But looking at public relations history through women's eyes offers a different perspective.

An Alternative History of Public Relations

We examined seven leading introductory textbooks (three single editions and four multiple editions for a total of 13 books), ranging from 1947 to 2015, and found a history of public relations that is probably not like one you've read before.

Our findings revealed that although not yet a vocation, public relations began to emerge during the 19th century, when a number of women involved in reform movements developed publicity, fundraising, and advocacy campaigns to effect social change. For example, the textbooks highlight the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, who planned an attention-getting demonstration at the U.S. centennial celebration in Philadelphia to promote woman suffrage, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who used the partisan press on behalf of the anti-slavery movement. Progressive Era reform was also an important driver in the development of professional public relations. The textbooks tell us, for instance, that Florence Kelley and Dr. John Graham Brooks founded the National Consumers League in 1899, an organization that helped to spearhead passage of the Pure Food Act in 1906. Ida Tárbeli, though best known as a muckraking journalist, led an anti-lynching crusade during the 1890s, promoting women's rights as well.

Public relations moved into the corporate sector after World War I. Notably, Doris Fleischman joined a new agency in New York in 1919. Along with her husband Edward Bemays, who was her equal partner in the business, Fleischman wrote many of the firm's speeches, press releases and other important documents, including the first newsletter about the field, "Contact." Although excluded from the firm's client meetings (because, she said, male clients found it difficult to take advice from a woman), Fleischman also wrote a number of books or book chapters that helped to define the field, establishing her leadership in the institutionalization and professionalization of public relations as the "mother of public relations." It should be noted, too, that in doing so, she often emphasized the good fit between the demands of the work and the contributions women could make to it as public relations counselors.

Political public relations became institutionalized in the 1930s with the creation of agencies that specialized in political campaigning. Leone Baxter, for instance, formed Campaigns, Inc. in 1933 with husband Clem Whitaker, the two alternating the role of president of the firm. …

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