The rich history of PR
By Carolyn McMurray, SOCIATE’s Junior Copywriter and Blogstar.
Mummies, pyramids, caves, Plato, and Christ; the history of PR is etched into the very fabric of human civilisation. The foundations were set the moment Homo-Erectus (AKA, the first human species) started sketching on caves. You might have thought those crude drawings were just a hobby, but in reality, they set the stage for PR as we know it today.
Ok, I can see we need to take a step back. PR and cavemen? How did we get from press releases and newspapers to the Dawn of the Ages?
The changing definition of PR
To really understand the link between Fred Flinstone and modern PR, we need to take a look at its definition. Broadly defined as the art of influencing and persuading, PR is all about shaping the public’s perception of a particular brand, topic, or person. In modern terms, that means promoting something through communication with the press and building a positive relationship between an organisation and the public.
At the core of PR is the need to influence, persuade, and communicate. That’s a given, and it’s something that’s been ingrained in humans since we first started sketching on caves. Think about it. If you strip everything back, PR is communication. It’s getting the word out to the public. It’s persuading people to follow a certain religion or follow semi-legal regulations.
These ancient PR campaigns weren’t concerned with selling a product; they were concerned with selling religion, war, and leaders. We might not have put a word to the practice in 10000 BC, but we were doing it. It might have been at a more primitive, simple level but the world was different back then. Just like it’s different now – and as we’ve evolved, the definition of PR has evolved.
So, let’s travel back to the Dawn of the Ages where PR first began.
The history of PR through the ages:
Stone Age, 37000 – 17000 BC: Back then, PR was all about communications. Our ancestors weren’t out to dominate the world with their ideas – they were out to dominate their corner of the world. That might have been a stretch of land spanning 40 miles. It might have been their cave. Whatever it was, they used communication to talk to one another and get their point across. Every time they sketched on cave walls, they practiced PR. It might not have been verbal, but it was still communication (and those drawings still communicate something to us all these years later!)
Ancient Egypt, 3300 BC: The era of gold, mummies, and the Sphinx was one of the first to start taking PR to another level. Unlike cavemen, Ancient Egyptians had evolved to a point where domination, leadership, and religion were just as important as foraging for food. I’m not saying cavemen didn’t have religion or leadership (these factors were still important) but they were too focused on basic survival to care about influencing an entire group of people.
Ancient Egyptians, however, cared quite a lot about Gods like Ra and the afterlife. They also lived during a time when boats were around (and boats = war, travel, and discovery of new lands). They were playing with more than just fire.
In their case PR wasn’t just about communication – influencing and persuading were just as important. Leaders like Ramses and Tutankhamun needed to keep their people in line and preserve their dynasty, and this was where PR came in. Their chosen form of communication was hieroglyphics; Ancient Egypt’s formal writing system. Ideas on religion, death, the afterlife, and royal documents were all written down by priests and Pharaohs for their people to read.
Of course, not everyone was privileged enough to get their eyes on these documents, but for the few who could read it was a key step towards securing power and preserving the dynasty.
Greek Greats, 496 BC: We’re skipping a couple of centuries to land in the era of philosophy and wisdom, otherwise known as the Age of Empires. This was the era of philosophy and great thinking. I’m talking about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the philosophical greats. The Age of Empires was one of the first to truly think about rhetoric and the art of persuasion. In fact, philosophers often taught noblemen all about persuasion to aid them in their journey to becoming government officials (sound familiar?)
The government was a big deal back then, and those in positions of power were eager to preserve their influence. Who was the major player in all of this? You guessed it – PR! Leaders were careful to preserve their shiny image and definitely weren’t afraid of telling a few white lies to calm a crisis. Speeches and talks were held, and documents were written to waylay any damage that might be done to their reputation. This era wasn’t just focused on persuading and influencing people through – communication was key to unraveling bold, new ideas on philosophy and life.
The luxury of living in an empire meant a lucky few could afford to think about things other than food and survival. They could finally start to think about the world around them, and the ‘why’ behind everything. This way of thinking eventually led to public debates (yet another form of communication) and slowly but surely, these ideas started to trickle into other corners of the world, influencing Western philosophy. What can I say? That’s ancient PR at its finest.
Age of Faith, 1st century: Ah, religion. Probably the biggest PR campaign that humans have ever pushed (not much has changed in that department). This era was all about faith. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism – this was when it all really kicked off. And it was all thanks to PR. Religious figures like St Paul and St Patrick were busy writing up the Bible and spreading the good word with the help of transport and letters, but this wasn’t the only thing circulating. The idea of news as a medium started to become more popular thanks to developments in transportation – something the Han Dynasty took full advantage of to distribute news sheets about governments and leaders.
Ok, you might be thinking that this time machine has malfunctioned or something, and you’re probably right. We just skipped a lot of ground there. Centuries and centuries of civilisations and ways of thinking – just zapped. Gone. Thing is, the history of PR could probably fill a big book (we’re talking War and Peace big) and we haven’t got all day. I’m covering the main points here but if you’d like to take a real deep-dive into PR’s wonderful history, click here.
Age of Print, 1400s -1890s: Finally, we’re starting to inch our way closer back to modernity. The Age of Print was probably where PR as we know it today started. Of course, we were practicing it all those years before, but it was only once we hit this era that we began to make a profession out of it.
One thing that made a significant development to PR and the way we operate our social sphere was the invention of the printing press. Created in 1410 by Johannes Gutenberg, it was the first device that could print material. Texts, documents, religious scribes – they could all finally be printed in large quantities to the masses! As you can imagine, many were quick to jump on this development and get their ideas out into all corners of the world. Martin Luther’s, ‘95 theses,’ an adage to Protestantism, was spread far and wide thanks to the printing press – in effect kick-starting the Protestant revolution.
Now that media could be printed en-masse, newspapers started to come to fruition with the most controversial ‘North Star’ being one of the first to come to print. An anti-slavery newspaper, North Star showed that PR was finally being used to push ideas of justice and equality, something which started to define this later period of history.
And of course, this was the era when PR became a profession. 1899 is the first known date for a PR agency to ever be created. Set up by George Westinghouse, the department was used to publicise and promote his project: AC electricity.
Age of Mass Media, 19th century: Once the printing press was in action, PR slowly started to evolve to meet more commercial needs. Though the idea of a PR company wasn’t quite so widespread, the practice was starting to be used more and more in the public eye. Phineas Taylor is one of the more modern examples of this early publicity, and was well-known for using deception and dubious methods to promote his ‘showman ways.’ He was pretty good at fooling audiences, even going so far as to exhibit a woman that he promised was 161 years old.
That might have been PR, but it sure wasn’t ethical. Luckily, more and more people started to talk about what good publicity looked like, and how to make it more transparent.
One of the first to do this was Ivy Lee. His pamphlet ‘The Public Shall be Informed’ was issued in 1902 and stated that the press and public should always be given accurate and honest information about a company. His philosophy on PR pretty much paved the way for what’s known as PR ethics, and set in motion a thought process that changed the way PR was handled.
The 19th century was also a time when advertising picked up massively. Soaps, perfumes, holidays, cars – PR tactics were used to package them all up nicely. But then came the war, and with it came a different kind of PR. It was a bit like reverting back to ages past, where war and religion were the epitome of PR and communications.
Instead of persuading and influencing people to buy a bar of soap, PR was starting to be used to push national agendas. In some cases, this was good. It brought people together during the war, solidifying bonds and unifying countries. It spread the news about the government’s action in war and what was being done overseas. You’ve probably seen the infamous ‘We Can Do’ poster before – it was one of the UK’s greatest wartime PR campaigns.
With all the good, however, comes bad. The war opened up an opportunity for domination, power, and censorship – and this is exactly what happened with the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Dubious PR tactics and political propaganda were used to turn attention away from the government, and scapegoats were used to blame all the country’s ills.
You can’t have it all, but one thing the war did do was create a real buzz around PR, enabling it to flourish into a business. PR firms soon started popping up with big names like Edelman and Carl Byoir & Associates leading the field.
Age of Digital Media, 1960s-20th century: I’m not going to lie. I always thought the internet was created in the late 90s. Turns out, it was fleshed out in 1969 by ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) when they connected a Stanford computer to a UCLA computer. And just like that – boom – the internet was created. You can probably imagine the impact this had on PR. It was a pretty big deal and one of the major milestones in its development.
The rise of the internet gave way to the digital age, making it easier to roll out PR on a mass scale. A great example of this is the Johnson & Johnson cyanide scandal of 1982. Someone had laced Tylenol pills with cyanide, leading to seven deaths – a tragic incident, and just as bad for Johnson & Johnson’s reputation. Their response, however, showed the power of PR. Using it as part of their crisis management, they were able to deliver a nationwide warning to the public and showcase their new tamper-proof packaging.
It proved a point; companies couldn’t control everything that came their way, but with strategic PR and communications, they could control the way they responded.
Age of Today, 21st century: Yep. You’re finally back home. Social media and the digital revolution still haven’t slowed down. In fact, it seems to be picking up.
But then something hits you. You realise that we’re not all that different from our ancestors before us. We’re still power-hungry. We still use PR and communications to influence elections and public perception. We still draw and paint and write; sometimes for fun, sometimes for work. We’re still drawn to that bar of soap because of a few witty words and strategic advertising.
So I guess if you strip it all back, not much has changed. The history of PR has come full circle!
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