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A Modern History of Public Relations

1904 a ‘counselling office’ was opened by Ivy Lee who’s first client was the Pennsylvania Railroad. He’s said to have invented the ‘press release’ and invited the press to the scene of a rail accident before there were alternate versions of the story published & it worked!

Ivy Lee was appointed publicity counsel to John D. Rockefeller, advising him to give dimes to kids in poverty to show his philanthropic impulses. Lee also invented the ‘Betty Crocker symbol’ and the ‘Breakfast of Champions’ slogan for Wheaties.

Australian born Edward Bernays is considered ‘the father of PR’. He gained attention trying to define and theorize the PR industry citing his very own Uncle, Sigmund Freud. During the 1920’s he applied his Uncle Freud’s concept of mass crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to sell bacon, cigarettes and soap! He staged ‘media events’ to awaken subconscious feelings. Over his lifetime he wrote 3 books on applied social science and the psychology behind it!

Bernays solved problems and worked for a number of notable brands including –

  • Venida Hairnets, Bernays attempted to help this hairnet company convince women to wear and grow their hair longer so they’d have to use hairnets more frequently in the workplace. The campaign failed but he convinced the Government who required officials to wear hairnets for certain jobs!
  • Aluminium Company of America, Bernays helped this company using the American Dental Association to convince people water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health.
  • Procter & Gamble, for Ivory-brand bar soap, the campaign successfully convinced people Ivory soap was medically superior to other soaps. He promoted the brand via soap sculpting contests & soap floating contests as it floated better than it’s competing products!
  • Beech-Nut Packing Company, a business that produced everything from pork to bubble gum. They wanted to increase the demand for bacon. Bernays turned to a doctor ‘friend’ and asked whether a heavier breakfast would be beneficial for the American Public, the ‘in house’ doctor confirmed this and wrote to 5000 other Doctors who confirmed it too!
  • Bernays most notable was for the American Tobacco Company and his ‘torches of freedom’ in 1928, he was hired to fix a problem, women weren’t smoking cigarettes in public. The president of the company saw a change in public opinion that could expand the market for Lucky Strike cigarettes. There was research that women were reluctant to carry a pack of Lucky Strikes due to the brands green colour scheme which clashed with popular fashion choices to fashion designers, interior designers and others were persuaded to popularise the colour green! Medical authorities began to promote the choice of cigarettes over sweets, it succeeded. He then consulted a psychoanalyst consultant, a student of Feuds, suggested smoking in public by men may be linked to the freedom to vote, a right women had only just won. Bernays convinced a group of former suffragettes to march down 5th Avenue, carrying Lucky Strikes in the air, as if they were ‘torches of freedom’!

In 1924, Journalist Basil Clarke founded the UK’s first PR agency, Editorial Services. Clarke is considered the founder of PR in the UK and wrote that PR, “must look true and it must look complete and candid or its ‘credit’ is gone”.

In 1938, the price of diamonds was in danger of being dropped due to a slump in sales. The agency N.W. Ayers adopted a strategy to “strengthen the association in the public’s mind of diamonds with romance,” and “the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love.” The campaign successfully persuaded the public to purchase expensive luxury items during a time of financial stress! Ayer insinuated the above messages into popular culture. Stories and photographs were sent to selected magazines and newspapers to reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. The stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman. Fashion designers would talk on the radio about the “trend towards diamonds” the plan started to work and did, and it still stands today. Between 1939 and 1979, De Beers’s diamond sales in the USA increased from $23 million to $2.1 billion.

In 1939, Germany’s effective use of propaganda in the form of pamphlets, books, public speakers, supported the justness of their cause, it encouraged involuntary recruitment and demonised the enemy, prompting USA President Roosevelt to create a group of men to create a USA version of propaganda. They were called the ‘top men’ and one of these was Harold Lasswell. Lasswell developed a ‘Model of Communication’. The main part of the model was a question, ‘Who says what in which channel to whom and with what effect?’

During WWII, US Federal agencies used this model to test propaganda techniques. It was discovered that “help win the war” wasn’t the most effective slogan to use for selling war bonds. It appealed to men, not women, and so a more effective slogan was created, ‘Help win the war and bring the boys home.’

During WWII Coca-cola promised, “every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company.” Coke even persuading politicians it was crucial to the war effort and they were exempt from sugar rationing!

By 1946 Arthur W. Page had endeavoured into corporate PR, working with the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. It was assessed that 90% of their press coverage was negative, which was reduced to 60% via changing business practices and putting out press releases, achieving an overall change in public perception from negative to valued appreciation of the companies contributions to society.

Between then and the 2000’s the industry went through growth in establishing international agencies, trade associations and academic principles. The media outlets and PR talent that had been established through WWI and WWII moved into the private sector.

People began to re-evaluate the effectiveness of traditional PR, online media became a new game with articles boosting companies SEO and increasing worldwide reach and then in came social media!