Tom Watson, professor of PR at Bournemouth University, asks what the history of PR can teach us, and provides a timeline showing key moments in PR

What can you learn from PR’s past to help you in your career today? Bournemouth University’s professor of public relations Tom Watson provides a very short history of public relations, and explains why it matters.

It’s a commonplace idea that history helps us predict the future because we can reflect on events and issues that are similar to modern-day matters. A recent example is that the formation of the Conservative/Liberal coalition government led to a revival of sales of Douglas Hurd’s biography of Robert Peel, who led a Conservative/Whig coalition in the early 19th century. Smart public affairs folks in Westminster rushed to bookshops to “learn the lessons of history” only to find that Peel was a rather boring character, in thrall to the Duke of Wellington, and memorable only for starting what has become the Metropolitan Police and doing a political backflip (fortunately on Catholic emancipation). 

In PR there are examples galore of issues and events that can advise current practice. In terms of “celebrity” publicity and hype to promote events and products, current practitioners can read about Phineas T Barnum in the US in the late 19th century and Edward Bernays (a massive self-publicist) who both made their names with over-the-top publicity that makes today’s hype merchants look like boy scouts (or girl guides). Back in the days of Bernays and Ivy Lee, early last century, there was much discussion of ethics in communication that are endlessly repeated 100 years later.

But looking back to “lessons of history” is to miss the point of the value of studying the PR history. As well as some very enjoyable narratives about people and events, there is debate and discussion over the forces and theories that formed public relations such as education, corporate social responsibility, impact of technology and issues management. In the upcoming First International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC), papers are being presented on histories of Australia, Germany, Italy and Kosovo. These allow comparisons to be made on national public relations practices and help guide practitioners on modern cross-cultural influences.

Coming soon, in the UK, there will be more studies on the evolution of our national PR sector. Dr Jacquie L’Etang of Stirling University has already written one major history. More recently, there have been studies on the evolution of the PR consultancy business by Jane Howard and on Republican spokespeople in Northern Ireland’s Troubles from Andy Purcell and Ian Somerville of Ulster University. They are starting to mine a potentially very rich vein of PR history. So far, there are few archives to investigate but, hopefully, they will come forward.

 A brief history of PR

For more on the history of PR, why not log on to You'll find a lot more information, including details of a History of PR conference taking place in Bournemouth on July 8/9th