U.S. Public Relations Evolves to Meet Society's Needs

By O'Neill, Kathleen | Public Relations Journal, November 1991 | Go to article overview

U.S. Public Relations Evolves to Meet Society's Needs


O'Neill, Kathleen, Public Relations Journal


On the eve of Edward L. Bernays' 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to look back at some of the people and events that helped shape the field of public relations, particularly in the United States. Space does not permit a detailed exploration of this complex story. This brief overview is intended to whet the practitioner's appetite to learn more about the profession's history.

The need to communicate information goes back as far as humanity's ability to read and write. Historians have traced early forms of lobbying back to the Sophists of ancient Greece, experts on reasoning and rhetoric. Their functions included campaigning through staging debates in amphitheaters in the hope of swaying votes.

Fund-raising and promotion, two of the early forms of public relations, can be traced back as early as the 17th century. Perhaps the first systematic effort to raise funds was sponsored in 1641 by Harvard College, when the school sent three preachers to England on what was called a "begging mission." From England, they notified Harvard that they needed a fund-raising brochure, an item which has become a standard in fund drives.

The same century also saw the origination of the word "propaganda" in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established the Congregatio de propaganda fide, the "congregation for propagating the faith," which was designed to inform the public about the advantages of Catholicism.

The history of public relations in the United States dates back to Revolutionary War times, although there is some disagreement over when the term "public relations" was first actually used. Public relations strategies and tactics, such as the staging of the Boston Tea Party, were used to swell the ranks of patriots dedicated to the Revolutionary cause.

Some attribute of coining of the term "public relations" to President Thomas Jefferson in 1807. While drafting his "Seventh Address to the Congress," he scratched out the words "state of thought" in one part of the text and wrote "public relations" instead. In 1882, Dorman Eaton, a lawyer, gave a talk before the Yale Law School's graduating class. He used the term "public relations" in a literal sense, meaning "relations for the public good."

Non-profit public relations practitioners faced with financial needs can look back to efforts by the YMCA in 1905. Fund-raisers Charles Sumner Ward and Lyman L. Pierce implemented a drive to raise $350,000 for a new YMCA building in Washington, DC. This was the first time a full-time publicist took part in a fund-raising drive. The organization also boasted a press secretary as early as 1917.

Practitioners define perception

Press agentry is only one of the ancestors of modern public relations. Yet, many among the general public and media equate public relations with this type of publicity. The perception is not always positive.

Certain public relations figures throughout history, such as Phineas T. "P.T." Barnum with his exploitative publicity methods and his "Let the Public Be Fooled" philosophy, have contributed to criticism of the profession. Yet it was press agentry that promoted settlement of the "Wild West."

Political public relations has also come under fire in recent years, with targets including Larry Speakes, Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger. These people and events, however isolated they may be, have threatened to tarnish government public relations, which began in the early 1800s.

When U.S. citizen won the right to vote, it became necessary to campaign for votes and support. Amos Kendall, who served as the first presidential press secretary, was a key member of President Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet." Jackson served two terms as president from 1829 to 1837. As his press secretary, Kendall's duties consisted of writing speeches and press releases, conducting opinion polls, and publishing the administration's first house organ, the Globe. …

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