The History of Public Relations and Where It’s Headed in the Future

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When you hear “public relations,” what comes to mind? Press releases and conferences? Crisis communications? Fictional publicists like Olivia Pope?

Well, I don’t have to tell you that PR is made up of much, much more — and it’s evolving every day. To best understand PR and the future of the industry, we need to understand where it came from and what, over the years, has changed its influence and impact.

Public Relations in the Past

Public relations in the past didn’t involve TV towers and press conferences. But the fundamentals of the profession — persuasion, mass communications, and positive reputation-building — have been around for centuries.

Ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato introduced the art of public discourse and established the notion that public thinking matters. In the 1500s, Catholic cardinals and missionaries used religious propaganda to convert non-Catholic countries. 17th century abolitionists used publications and lectures to help stop the global slave trade.

As you can see, public relations has played an important role in shaping today’s world as we know it. Many of these milestones wouldn’t have been possible without key PR inventions, such as the:

  • Printing press (Johannes Gutenberg, 1440)
  • Telegraph (Samuel Morse, 1830)
  • Telephone (Alexander Graham Bell, 1876)
  • Radio (Guglielmo Marconi, 1900)
  • Television (RCA, 1939)

These inventions brought along the dawn of mass communications, and public relations as a distinct industry began to take shape.

Age of Mass Media and the Rise of the PR Profession

The age of mass media began with the 20th century. Titans like P.T. Barnum quickly learned how to leverage publicity to grow their businesses — or, like William Henry Vanderbilt, how to ignore it to their detriment. (Remember Vanderbilt’s infamous remark to a reporter: “The public be damned!”)

An important figure in early PR was Ivy Lee, perhaps the earliest recorded publicist. Lee was a journalist for publications like The New York Times when, in 1903, he was hired by John D Rockefeller, Jr. to help fix the image of his company, The Standard Oil, following a series of strikes in its coal mines. Lee recommended that Rockefeller visit his coal mines to interact with the miners directly. This vastly improved Rockefeller’s reputation among his employees as well as The Standard Oil’s brand image.

Lee was also part of the first known press release. In 1906, he was hired by Pennsylvania Railroad following a rail crash in Atlantic City. Lee invited the press to view the crash and revealed select details about the accident, resulting in positive coverage of the crash and a salvaged reputation for Pennsylvania Railroad.

Another figure played an important role in the rise of the PR profession: Edward Bernays. Bernays, along with a handful of other men, was part of President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (also known as the “Creel Commission”), which was founded to change the public opinion of the United States entering World War II.

Bernays also introduced many new behavioral psychology theories to the world of PR, perhaps because he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. His 1923 book Crystallizing Public Opinion, presented PR as a “two-way street” between a company and the public. He also revolutionized the art of the press release, many which were written by his wife and business partner Doris Fleishman.

From that point forward, PR made its way into companies around the country. Many of the world’s largest companies, such as AT&T and GM, hired internal public relations counselors. During the Great Depression, the National Association of Manufacturers was the first trade association to create its own PR department in an effort to change public perception of business.

A rise in mass communications also meant a heightened public awareness of social issues. This led to social movements, campaigns, and protests about discrimination, politics, and war. In the 20th century, mass media was as much a connector as it was a divider, and it was the responsibility of the new PR professionals and agencies to manage it.

Let’s talk about how they’re doing public relations today.

Public Relations Today

Public relations today is still about managing public perception and influence, with one crucial difference — the internet. The rise of digital media in the late 20th century transformed the way we communicate, and this hardly excluded companies, organizations, politicians, and PR professionals.

Digital media also changed how the PR profession was structured. Many large PR firms restructured to include advertising and marketing services, changing the scope and impact of public relations as an industry.

Most importantly, however, the rise in digital media altered how fast and wide news traveled, as well as where news is published — print media is not as prominent now.

The introduction of social media especially forced those who specialized in crisis management and communications to adapt to real-time responses and reexamine corporate responsibility. Social media also introduced a new way to advertise and sway public opinion, most notably through influencer marketing.

Other inventions in the past 30 years have transformed public relations as we know it. Websites, blogging, and email newsletters now serve as “owned media,” digital real estate that is fully controlled by corporations and organizations themselves. Earned media — news mentions — also look differently; today, social media mentions, blog backlinks, and high rankings on search engines count towards aggregate public perception and brand awareness.

This wide digital distribution of earned, paid, and owned media has permanently changed how public relations professionals track, obtain, and diffuse brand mentions … which brings us to what public relations will look like in the future.

Public Relations in the Future

Public relations in the future will see more of what we see today — relationships and technology.

In the coming years, competition and customer choice will continue to grow. Because of this, meaningful, symbiotic relationships between PR professionals and journalists and bloggers will be more important than ever.

Another notable difference we’ll see in the future is a reliance on non-traditional media for publicity and brand mentions. As the public’s trust in media continues to dwindle, consumers go to blogs, social media, review sites, and influencer content for reliable information. Publicity via traditional news, TV, and radio will still be important, but it can’t be the only channel that PR professionals rely on or monitor.

Lastly, as technology continues to evolve, so will how customers and the public interact with companies. Artificial intelligence (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will change the way we tell and consume stories, and “snackable” content like digest newsletters and social media videos will threaten the long-form narratives.

In the future, the PR profession will continue to be steeped in technology — but not only as a source of how we all communicate and consume information.

No, public relations and its relationships will be also managed and executed via technology, most notably through media monitoring tools as well as tools that bring together brands and journalists.

Covered Press is an excellent example of the future of public relations. The PR professionals’ dream platform, Covered Press combines media monitoring, social media listening, and monitoring with real-time press alerts, gorgeous streamlined reporting, and detailed analytics — many of the components of public relations we’ve discussed in this post. In short, it was developed to make publicists’ lives and jobs easier, allowing you to spend more time with your clients and their customers.