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The Evolution Of Public Relations (Part 1)

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the evolution of public relations and how it relates to (and more importantly goes hand in hand with) Reputation Management in today’s world. It wasn’t all the long ago when the art and science of public relations revolved around one on one telephone calls and press releases sent via a facsimile machine. Wow how times have changed! In this article, I’ll provide a description of public relations as well as background information on how media has constantly forced PR experts to adapt to the times.

The Birth Of Public Relations

Before real time data sharing applications, social media, electronic mail services, the Internet, fax machines, telephones, television, radio and even telegraphs, the methodology behind public relations was rather simple. We’ll begin our run down of how the existence of PR became necessary around the turn of the 20th century – during a time when global relationships were something that only a few wealthy businessmen cared to contemplate.

In the old days, your reputation (defined in this article as the public’s perception of you as an individual or your company) was dependent mainly upon a local base. Even if a person in the early 1900s happened to be located in a large metropolis, there were truly only a few individuals who held the power to legitimately affect one’s rep. From a business perspective (let’s use the Coca Cola Company as an example), reputation management was almost exclusively handled between the wholesale or retail distributor and its customers. The personal contact with clients was typically performed at one’s doorstep where vendors such as milkmen, insurance providers and religious groups had to make a sale in an extremely personalized environment in which one of the heads of household would immediately make a decision whether to buy a product.

Since times were much different before the days of media, a company’s salesperson became the tip of the spear for public relations efforts, as clients neither possessed the means nor cared to communicate with corporate headquarters when an issue arose. If a doctor in the local area happened to get a number of recommendations through grassroots word of mouth marketing, the he would very likely receive more solicitations with time and quickly build his business as long as the potential regional market was large enough to cultivate for a profit. One misstep by a salesperson who wasn’t quick on his or her feet in matters of verbal communication, and that person (as well as the company being represented) could quickly find its products being shunned with practically no options except bankruptcy or relocation. You absolutely had to please your customers and provide a worthwhile service back in those days, and business representatives who went door to door were often charged with directly resolving issues related to everything from additional distribution to price changes.

Even if a company desired to run a direct mail promotion, that was often an impossibility due to the degree of privacy that customers enjoyed at the turn of the 20th century. Post office employees simply delivered whatever mail was designated for their route without any preferential treatment to private agreements. In a nutshell, public relations in almost all cases began and ended with the small business owner and his or her representatives who relied on personalized service to keep their business afloat.

Media Arrives

With radio and later television, mass marketing finally became a possibility. The amount of research that went into marketing – even in the early 1900s – is astounding even by today’s standards. Take Edward Bernays as a prime example of this. Commonly referred to as the father of Public Relations, Bernays (who was the nephew of Sigmund Freud) is not only credited with making cigarettes a non-gender specific product during the late 1920s but could very well be the reason why so many Americans have enjoyed a breakfast containing bacon and eggs for approximately half a century.

Not only did Bernays employ propaganda methods such as using attractive models to illustrate an example that turning certain potential clients on to the acceptability of a product could work in a massive market, he also wrote essays on how something highly unpopular could quickly make its way into the mainstream and become accepted provided the proper philosophy and psychology were used. Many of us today believe that bacon is one of the tastiest (and most necessary) parts of a complete breakfast, but that certainly wasn’t the case 100 years ago. A complete breakfast as we consider it today was shunned by the vast majority of Americans who ate an extremely light meal in the morning that consisted of tea and perhaps bread. After all, who in the world would eat the undesired belly parts of swine so early in the morning?

By using what he then defined as authorities (usually public leaders or well known individuals who could sway opinion), Bernays argued that markets could be manipulated to not only desire a product, but to require it; often foregoing other necessities in order to possess it. In these early days of public relations, radio listeners and television watchers were constantly bombarded with programming that not only sought to entertain, but also to delve into the psychological aspects of what made a human being change his or her perception toward just about anything.

Public Relations Becomes A Necessity

During the early days of media, those who listened to the radio almost exclusively considered announcers, advertisers and other figures as authorities. If a baseball fan happened upon a live transmission of a Cardinals game, you could almost rest assured that he or she would desire products that were promoted on the show. The same can be said about mid 20th century TV programming which brought previously socially unacceptable products such as instant coffee into the mainstream. Radio and television news reporters cut their teeth on the two world wars, which often had those in the audience captivated with the latest news.

However, as the media market became more saturated, it became necessary to employ the use of Public Relations to deal with situations in which the customer was no longer satisfied with a product, or no longer believed in a particular brand. Take a well publicized pet food scandal that took place during the 1960s when the general public became aware that horse meat was actually used in dry pet foods (an event in history which was dramatized in a somewhat recent episode of the hit television series Mad Men). The company the dramatic series likely pulls its quotes from is Kal Kan (founded as the Stirling Company and later known as Pedigree; subsequently absorbed by Mars Inc.) which routinely employed that practice of using horse meat in its pet food products decades ago. Another prime example would be the massive amount of university studies that began being published midway through the 20th century outlining the dangers of cigarettes.

Since large scale marketing operations could potentially grind to a halt if an authority figure suddenly found himself on the outs with the general public, it became necessary to issue statements, press releases, and other detailed information that was typically authorized by the executive branch of a company. In some cases this would prove useful due to the fact that many customers who had been purchasing one of their favorite products for years normally desired an explanation that came across as personalized as well as an assurance that someone calling the shots was addressing the problem at hand. In this way, a brand’s perception could sometimes work its way back into the hearts and minds of its customers (at times, with an even stronger hold on its market). Radio and television advertisements were the most common methods used for PR efforts, with well contacted people in the business resorting to directly contacting everyone from media execs to the on-air announcer in order to get their point across.

Believe it or not, that’s most definitely how many music recording artists broke out into the mainstream. Representatives of those artists would go directly to large radio stations and sometimes get the record played by going through a well known disc jockey. The real life record spinners of the 1950s could then sway a younger crowd to the popularity of a singer or group; even if he, she or they were not yet recognized as premium artists. If a song had certain appeal among a demographic, the rest would take care of itself. There is even an example of this in somewhat recent history when, in July 1990, recording artist Robert Van Winkle (more commonly known as Vanilla Ice) suddenly became an overnight sensation when a DJ decided to flip the 45 RPM record over to the B side when not liking the formally released single. The rest – Ice Ice Baby – is history. Yes it’s true, that song was not originally intended to be released as a single to the public. There’s quite a bit of history on this at this Wikipedia page.

Public Relations, Psychology, And Effective Methods

Throughout the pre-Internet age dating back to 1950 through the mainstream use of the World Wide Web, PR experts were considered by many to hold significant weight at a corporate meeting table. When a crisis hit – and plenty of them did – it was often the PR people who got their staff involved and began controlling and manipulating perception in ways which have slowly but surely become ineffective as more and more people become exposed to contradicting opinions online.

Those who spoke through media outlets such as magazines, newspapers, radio and television often held the upper hand when it came to overall public perception. A local constituency’s general view on topics ranging from war to tobacco could often be influenced by a paper’s editor, who would publish his or her opinions with the expectation that the majority of readers would follow. The same can be said for radio, magazines and television. This was successful due to the fact that those who communicated their ideas to large audiences were automatically considered authority figures; regardless of whether they had been paid off in backroom deals in exchange for their promotion of an idea, concept, or product.

Simply put, when someone is considered an authority on any given topic, their opinion is typically placed on a pedestal and can even override a majority of contradicting views by region or locale – or even globally in some cases. Situations in which customers outright refused to purchase an established brand were very rare until the widespread use of the Internet, because contradicting opinions seldom found their way into the mainstream due to the outright control that PR representatives had over what was ultimately broadcast. Those who controlled the podium were the ones who could influence public opinion on a massive scale. The local opinion – if it was contradictory – could be drowned out via a barrage of advertisements and public relations efforts. Scandalous activity surrounding a brand or an individual could quickly be eliminated in the minds of millions of listeners or viewers; resulting in continued prosperity despite information that could practically sink a brand if it became embedded in the minds of those millions.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this historical view of how Public Relations came into existence. In the second part of this article, we will take a look at how PR efforts have quickly evolved into Reputation Management over the last decade, as well as how the service has evolved in recent years due to social media.

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David Harold

Reputation Consultant at
David Harold began programming as a kid (in Basic) and never lost his passion for computers and technology. Since the 1990s, he has worked extensively with online directories, search engine optimization and most recently Reputation Management. He enjoys discussing social media strategy and assisting individuals as well as companies with their Reputation Management needs. Feel free to contact him anytime if you are in need of assistance with search engine results or have any questions.

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