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PR lessons from history

Telling good stories has been important for people since time began, and as everyone knows, telling good stories is a vital part of PR. This means the roots of public relations go deep, for instance, the ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about swaying public opinion through rhetoric; although “modern” PR’s history is a lot more recent. Trevor Morris, professor of PR at Richmond University and co-author of PR Today, explains: “PR as a recognisable industry is now a bit over a 100 years old. Initially it was largely staffed by former journalists hired by organisations who wanted to protect themselves from the pitfalls, and take advantage of the opportunities, created by vigorous media.

“The new PROs spent their time writing (content), talking to journalists (media relations) and organising events (face-to-face, experiential and media relations). They also attended a lot of meetings (strategy) and did a lot of entertaining (schmoozing). By the time I hit the scene in the early 1980s, things in PR were … not very different. And they don’t seem that different today. If you aren’t writing, talking, organising, meeting, or entertaining what are you doing? Strategising?”

It seems there’s not that much new in PR after all, although some historical practices are well past their sell-by date. Tom Watson, professor of PR at Bournemouth University, gives the example of relying on the measurement tool the AVE (advertising value equivalence) as being an old PR practice that seems to never die, despite being widely disparaged by PR leaders. Watson says, “Its history dates back at least 85-90 years; it was always a dodgy, invalid metric, but that has never deterred PROs, marketers and clients from using it.” In a paper about the history of the AVE, Watson describes why AVEs are so popular despite being so widely criticised: “Their appeal is simplicity and an economic outcome … which is favoured by financially-minded managers”.

There are many ways that PR has moved on from the past though, dictated by changes in technology, media and society. Trevor Morris lists some things which would have daunted PROs of the past: “The speed at which things happen. The 24/7 demands. The sheer volume of media which has made it easier to speak, but harder to be heard. The increased importance of images. The reduced alcohol consumption.”

However, Morris concludes that the fundamental PR activities remain unchanged: “Creating content, talking to influencers, organising events, meetings and entertaining. The grandfathers of PR would recognise what you do, just not the technology you use.”

Ancient PR history

Patrick Barrow, managing director of agency Reputation Communications writes a short history of PR:

“How did a small, psychologically damaged man, with a deformed neck, eyes of different colours, a nuclear temper and a love of booze pass into immortality as Alexander ‘The Great’? Why does the name of Caesar echo in eternity? Or, for that matter, that of Christ, as the son of a carpenter from a one-donkey town in Palestine?

“How about great PR?

“Now there will be those who will tell you that PR began with Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays in 1900s America. And some of recent vintage that Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham or Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Alastair Campbell bowled the first spin.

“They’re wrong of course. These were newcomers to a field as old as history, in fact perhaps the very same as history itself.

“Take our three examples from antiquity. They understood all the makings of reputation; that it is the sum of communication and behaviour, and that, as Bernays himself opined: ‘The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people.’ Oh, and they had great PR men too.

“The Greeks had the drop on everybody else. Aristotle, who taught Alexander, had practically invented the rhetoric of persuasion. Sophists – the original advocates in the court of public opinion – plied their trade in the city states as hired persuaders.

“Unsurprisingly then, Alexander’s campaign historian, Callisthenes, communicated the headline behaviours that reverberate some 2,500 years later. The almost crazy bravery, the 15 years of battle without defeat, Alexander even smelled great apparently. That he got angry drunk and burned down Persepolis in a fit of rage was a side issue. This man conquered the known world against the odds. His was winner’s history and, along with naming over 70 cities from Egypt to Pakistan after himself, Alexander ensured everybody knew it.

“Alexander had learnt the primary technique of reputation; manage it, before events or competitors do it for you. As a way of ‘integrating people with people’ in a time of slow communications, sparse populations and vast distances, his methods were a study.

“The Romans learnt quickly. Pompey Magnus or ‘The Great’ was clearly a fan. But Julius Caesar, the ambitious general with rule on his mind used his fame as an orator and author to pen his own version of his adventures of which The Gallic Wars was perhaps best known.  

“He had grabbed the story, controlled the narrative and with a few belting lines like ‘alea iacta est’ – the die is cast – as he crossed the Rubicon, he caught the public imagination too. Informing people, persuading them of his credentials by communicating the headline behaviours that create reputation? That sounds like PR.

“The flip side to Rome was, of course, Christianity. And if classical antiquity specialised in reputation through victory, early Christianity was a study in the reverse. Those who believe might claim that a win over sin and death is hard to top but it was Saint Paul, himself converted, who did the persuading via authorship of 14 of the 21 books of the New Testament. ‘The last shall be first and the first shall be last’ might have been Matthew, but Paul ensured its propagation; a powerful message and in a world of hopeless inequality, it found a willing audience. The Greatest Story Ever Told as somebody later titled the film of the book.

“’Making a martyr’ meanwhile has become one of the great PR tools of independence and political movements ever since. Folk balladeers have elevated many a death or imprisonment to symbolic status and the natural extrapolation to what some term ‘the victim industry’ of modern pressure groups is an easy one to make.

“Humanising a bigger story has always been popular and PR and media do it to this day.

“Does this mean PR has been ‘untrue’ since the days of the Sophists, which etymology an eager journalist will have picked up on? It doesn’t and never has. PR has always sought to persuade through the telling of the story. It may have been selective in the events it used to support the message, but match a newspaper story to its headline and you’ll see the same applies. Journalists have no monopoly on truth and their story, that PR is an industry of lies, is largely to affirm their own self-images.

“The pre-literate Vikings did the same when they sang of themselves as heroes in their sagas; ’informing people, persuading people and integrating people with people’.”

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