A Brief History of Public Relations

“In a truly democratic society, everything depends upon the consent of the public.”
Thomas Jefferson

With the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, public opinion was turning sour on the industrial world. The founders of American Industry such as, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan were being denounced as exploiting natural resources and the American labor force. This public sentiment spawned such writings as Ida Tarbell’s series of articles in 1903 called “History of the Standard Oil Company,” an attack on its alleged corruption, and Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book, The Jungle, exposing the unsanitary practices of the meatpackers.

A “Public Relations Consultant”
The widespread public criticism and unwillingness of managements to change their practices led to the first recognized public relations consultant, Ivy Ledbetter Lee. Lee was a Princeton graduate and former business reporter for New York World, a fledgling newspaper until it was purchased by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883.

In 1906, Lee was hired by the coal industry as they were embroiled in a massive labor strike. While labor leaders were supplying the newspapers with a wealth of information supporting their cause, the leader of the coal industry’s association, George F. Baer, had refused to communicate with either the press or President Theodore Roosevelt, who was trying desperately to resolve the dispute. Lee succeeded in persuading Baer and his colleagues to discontinue their silence and sign a press notice stating “The anthracite coal operators, realizing the general public interest in conditions in the mining regions, have arranged to supply the press with all possible information…”

Lee then issued a “Declaration of Principles” that let the public know that the era of “public-be-damned” was over and the industry leaders were now listening to concerns of the public, changing forever the atmosphere of the world of industry and creating a new business niche known as public relations.

PR Profession – The Second Oldest Around
Although Ivy Ledbetter Lee was the first PR consultant to be officially recognized in public relations history, PR has been used consistently even in early times. Archeologists have found signs in the ruins of ancient civilizations that said, “Vote for Cicero. He is a good man.” Julius Caesar, in 59 B.C., regularly posted a news sheet outside the Forum to “inform” the citizens of the actions taken by the Roman legislators and published his Commentaries that largely aggrandized the emperor’s accomplishments.

You could say that while public relations history begins with Ivy Ledbetter Lee in 1906, in reality, PR is probably the world’s second oldest profession.

Post Reference
Wilcox, D., Ault, P. & Agee, W. (1998). Public Relations, Strategies and Tactics. New York: Addison-Wesley Education Publisher Inc.

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