Public Relations History: From the 17th to the 20th Century: The Antecedents

By Scott M. Cutlip | Go to book overview

of colleges and other nonprofit agencies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thus providing a bridge across the century line.

Studying the origins of public relations can provide helpful insight into its functions, its strengths and weaknesses, and its profound, although often unseen, impact on our society. Early on in my teaching career, I saw the value of history in explaining this now influential vocation's place in society and its profound effect over time on the nation's political, social, economic, and cultural life. As I stated in The Unseen Power: Public Relations, initially when I embarked on this project in the early 1960s, I set out to trace the evolution of public relations practice from the colonial period to mid-20th century. The first 10 chapters brought me to the eve of the 20th century. Publication of this volume finally -- some 35 years later -- completes the work of a lifetime.

Earlier histories of public relations have usually telescoped and oversimplified a fascinating and complex story by tending to emphasize novelty and personalities. Exempted from this generalization is Alan Raucher Public Relations and Business 1900-1929 ( 1968). As this and its companion volume, The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History, make clear, there is a great deal more to the evolving history of this powerful vocation, one that today employs 150,000 professional practitioners in the United States.

Public relations -- or its equivalents, propaganda, publicity, public information -- began when people came to live together in tribal camps where one's survival depended on others of the tribe. To function, civilization requires communication, conciliation, consensus, and cooperation -- the bedrock fundamentals of the public relations function. I used to tell my students that public relations probably began when one Neanderthal man traded the hindquarters of a sheep to another for a flint. The Greek philosophers wrote about the public will, even though they did not use the term public opinion. The urban culture of the Roman Empire gave more scope to the opinion process. Certain phrases and ideas in the political vocabulary of the Romans and in the writings of the Medieval Period are not unrelated to modern concepts of public opinion. The Romans inscribed on their walls the slogan -- "S.P.Q.R." -- The Senate and the Roman People. Later, Romans coined the expression, "vox populi, vox Dei" -- the "voice of the people is the voice of God." Machiavelli wrote in his Discoursi, "Not without reason is the voice of the people compared to the voice of God," and he held that people must be either "caressed or annihilated." The struggles to win in the public forum today may not be that brutal, but they are every bit as intense.

The communication of information to influence opinions or alter the behavior of others can be traced to the earliest civilizations. Archaeologists have unearthed farm bulletins in Iran dating from 1800 B.C. instructing farmers how to sow their crops, how to irrigate, how to deal with field mice, and how to harvest their crops -- an effort not unlike the "how to" information

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