Industries & Professions /
The origins of public relations date to the late 19th century, when newspapers decided to encourage advertisers by promising positive articles concerning businesses that chose to advertise in the paper. However, the free publicity in the form of news articles undermined the objectivity of the newspapers, and eventually the practice was halted in the United States. In 1909, a newspaper committee was established to watch for abuses of free publicity to advertisers.
Despite the attempt to disengage public relations from newspapers, public relations continued to develop through journalists. The link between public relations and newspapers endured through reporters who were well skilled in the effects of language on public image and who were willing to use this to present a company or organization in a positive light.
The first public relations counsel was a reporter named Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who in 1906 was named press representative for coal mine operators. Labor disputes were becoming a large concern of the operators, and they had run into problems because of their continual refusal to talk to the press and the miners. The operators decided to bring in outside help to improve their standing in the public eye. Lee persuaded the mine operators to start responding to press questions and to supply the press with information on the mine activities.
After his successful turnaround of the coal mine operators’ situation, Lee went on to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The company had been withholding information on railroad accidents and had developed a poor reputation with the press and the public. He revised the company’s policy so that all information available on any accident would be given to the press. Eventually, Lee developed a large group of clients. The term public relations had not yet been used, but it was certainly the service that Lee provided to his clients. He implemented new policies for business: honesty and openness about the company’s or organization’s business and affairs and the practice of sending out notices (press releases) to the newspapers about noteworthy company or organization developments.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, governments began regularly using public relations experts. For example, England’s Empire Marketing Board used publicity to promote trade.
During World War II, government agencies in the United States made a point of hiring publicists, since public exposure aided funding and congressional awareness of their activities. Groups looking for donations for rubber, scrap metal, and war bonds used press releases read over the radio and posted in shops to promote their activities. Publicity was also used to recruit soldiers. The Office of Price Administration under Chester Bowles used public relations tactics to promote rationing procedures, to persuade businessmen to keep prices low, and to get legislation passed through Congress.
By the end of World War II, almost every government agency had a public relations office. Public relations had become an accepted part of business and government operations. The airlines, for example, hired public relations specialists to help deliver information on airplane crashes, providing background and technical information to the press in a manner that would be readily understood.
Politicians followed business’s example. After Richard Nixon’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1960, Nixon hired public relations and press experts to help him gain popularity in his bids for elected office. The experts redirected his methods of giving interviews and press conferences and any other elements of public presentation that affected how he was seen by the voting public. As a result, Nixon established a positive image among voters and was elected president in 1968. This relationship between politics and public relations was an inevitable occurrence given the preponderance of media around candidates and the importance of image in determining success in an election.
In a more recent example, star golfer Tiger Woods was forced to spend a great deal of time, money, and effort repairing his public image after a sex scandal in 2009 cost him the respect of his fans and some of his product endorsement deals. Woods, whose marriage dissolved in the wake of scandal, went on hiatus from professional golf. He later undertook a public relations effort to help put the scandal behind him, including briefly hiring former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer as a consultant in 2010. Woods’ PR efforts, which included a Nike ad in which the recorded words of Tiger’s deceased father are heard, were widely critiqued by observers, but he ultimately returned to professional golf in 2011.
Public relations specialists are now employed by all sorts of publicity-conscious people and companies. Politicians, celebrities, artists, and even journalists now use specialists to help them receive positive coverage in the press. Public relations today is a major service industry, expanding beyond the original clients—business and government—to a whole range of clients who wish to put their best foot forward in their presentation to the public.