Evolution of PR:
Part I


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A History of Public Relations

Public relations (PR) is often thought of as a relatively modern profession. PR is associated with social media, analytical data and modern technology. But the core of PR, using communication to influence or maintain a positive reputation, has been around for centuries. The origins of PR can technically be found dating back as far as 37,000 BC with communication through cave drawings. However, the type of PR comparable to what we know today began in the early 20th century.

PR became a profession in 1903 when John D. Rockefeller, owner of Standard Oil Co., hired New York-based journalist Ivy Lee to help improve his reputation. The business had been struggling with a negative public image following a series of strikes in Rockefeller’s coal mines. Lee advised Rockefeller to visit the coal mines, interact with his employees and hand out dimes to poor children to show the public his commitment to philanthropy. These efforts boosted Rockefeller’s reputation among his employees and improved the public’s perception of his company.

In 1906, Lee wrote the first press release when the Pennsylvania Railroad hired him to help with the aftermath of a major rail crash. To take control of the narrative, Lee invited the press to see the crash site and provided them with strategically selected details of the incident. Lee’s crisis management strategy made for positive media coverage of the crash, benefitting the railroad as a whole.

Edward Bernays, also known as the father of public relations, used psychological concepts learned from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to change public perception. In 1928, he was hired by the American Tobacco Company to expand the market for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Bernays led a PR and marketing campaign to change the perception of women smoking in public. He referred to the cigarettes as “torches of freedom” and even went so far as to hire groups of women to stand and smoke on street corners to make smoking seem more socially acceptable. This promoted later use of celebrity endorsements and opinion leaders to help to persuade audiences.

In the 1940s, WWII brought in major PR campaigns to boost patriotism and support for the war, using figures like Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter. These campaigns were extremely successful for the United States. After the war, PR continued to grow immensely. Later that decade, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and large agencies began to form. By the end of the 1950s, PR was cemented as a solid profession in the business world. From the first press release to the introduction of message framing techniques and crisis management, these first steps in PR have laid the foundation for tactics and practices of the industry in the modern age.

Avery Cohen

Public Relations Intern

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