Even since I became a marketing communications professional about 25 years ago, one of my pet peeves is the accepted view that the history of public relations begins with the late 19th century impresario P. T. Barnum (you know the one who said that there’s a sucker born every minute) and Edward Bernays, owner of a PR agency in the 1920’s. The idea that PR starts with these two is taught in PR text books and is the “right answer” on the test to become accredited, which is the Public Relations Society of America’s unenforceable certification process.
This view is just wrong, wrong, wrong!
Public relations is the use of third parties to endorse the message that an individual or organization wants to make. That message usually involves selling a product or an idea, or raising the esteem in which an organization or individual is held by society or a segment of society. For example, instead of placing an ad in magazines about a new technology, a public relations professional would try to attract coverage by news organizations (the third party endorser).
Let me share with you some examples of public relations that predate the “B Boys,” Barnum and Bernays:
- After using foreign troops to conquer the armies of his own people and then sending his best general on what amounted to a suicide mission, the ancient Israeli King David cavorted lasciviously in the streets with the general’s wife, Bathsheba. To address his image problem, he hired some writers to compose the Psalms (unless you are naïve enough to believe that an uneducated shepherd who had been a soldier from his teens was also one of the greatest writers of ancient Hebrew).
- When the Roman Emperor Octavius (Augustus) was trying to consolidate his power after defeating Mark Anthony and Cleopatra for control of the Roman world, his factotum Maecenas established an informal ancient PR agency that spewed out written material that praised and glorified both Octavius and the Roman state, kind of like a political candidate who symbolically wraps himself in a flag with jingoistic cant. The best known work to come out of Maecenas’ efforts was The Aeniad by Virgil, still considered by many (not me) to be one of the greatest works of literature.
- The earliest English lords in Ireland would pay Irish poets to write verses in praise of themselves and their rule. The idea was to legitimize the political and economic domination of the emerald island of these interlopers.
One of the techniques of contemporary PR is to stage a special event like a marathon, the world’s largest pizza, a march on Washington, a national “Turn off the lights” or “Stop smoking” day, or even an elephant using its trunk to paint a canvas with on a bridge overlooking Niagara Falls. The special event both draws the attention of the public and serves as a platform for making a message or enhancing a reputation.
Now what could be a more dazzling special event than the spectacular coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor by the Pope in 800 of the Common Era. The message was that Charles was in charge, but that his authority derived from and was dependent upon the Catholic Church. Charlemagne’s coronation has all the elements of a special event: a spectacle that attracted attention, a clear message and a third-party endorsement.
My own personal view is that the most important principle of effective PR writing was laid out by the Roman poet Horace in his The Poetic Arts (Ars Poetica), when he says. “begin in the middle (“in media res” in the Latin).
By cutting out all history before the late 19th century, the PR profession and university PR departments sacrifice a serious source of ideas and give PR professional a distorted view of how PR fits into society. It’s as if a study of military tactics started with General Pershing or a study of religion started with Aimee Semple McPherson. Or how about a history of the world that starts with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. I think the PR profession starts its history so late because it wants to distinguish itself from propaganda, but in fact, PR is a form of propaganda.
If I were running a university PR program, I would make the students study nothing but the great world literature and literary criticism that began as PR ventures for the first three years.