The modern PR evolution

Major milestones of the modern PR industry in a nutshell

Proto -PR (public relations-like activities) can be found dated way back to Babylonian times. But going through all these historical events might take more than a simple blog article. So in this one, we’d like to revisit some major milestones that paved the way for today’s modern PR industry.

Ivy Lee and Pennsylvania Railroad train wreck (1906): Setting the first step for modern crisis communications

Our first milestone started with Ivy Lee (1877 – 1934) and the case of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 20th century. Ivy Lee was a journalist, until 1903 when he quit his newspaper work and became a freelance publicist, and later went on to become one of the pioneers of modern PR.

On  October 28th, 1906, a train on the Pennsylvania Railroad had a tragic accident that caused the death of more than 50 passengers. The railroad company was facing a major crisis. However, instead of covering up the incident, Ivy convinced the company to allow journalists to access the site and make a factual report of the event. Hence, the first ever press release was born, disclosing what actually happened from the Pennsylvania Railroad perspective.

The first company press release was published in The New York Times (Oct 30th, 1906)

Lee’s viewpoint and practices were a ground-breaking initiative for ethical crisis management at that time. His approach, to report the truth, was unprecedented and created a whole new concept in PR. Before his work, companies would tend to hide scandalous incidents from the press, or even tell lies to cover them up.

He counseled his clients on how to turn an unintended crisis into an intentional step to showcase the company’s transparency. Weeks later, Pennsylvania Railroad received praise from the press and the public for its honesty.

Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find it out anyway. And if the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what the people want.” 

Edward  Bernays (1929): Changing and shaping public opinions

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) is an American theorist. Together with Ivy Lee, he established the PR foundation in the US and was known to the world as a father of modern PR and propaganda. His signature approach – changing public opinions, was the key success behind many campaigns. Putting aside direct advertising practices, he sought to bring unmet demands into light and alter general public opinions on a specific matter, and generated demand based on the changed perception. Bernays saw public relations as an “applied social science” that uses insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of the public.

“Torches of Freedom ” campaign featuring smoking women on New York streets in 1929

One of his most famous campaigns was for the American Tobacco Company in the late 1920s, which broke the prejudice against women smokers, and opened up a new women’s market segment for cigarette products, which in turn led to a significant increase in sales.

A little insight on its ethical aspect: Bernays, and Americans, did not aware that smoking was harmful. To them, for women to be able to smoke in public is a symbol of freedom and a step forward for equality. It was only until 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General released the first report on the health effects of smoking. After that, Bernays regretted working for American Tobacco and launch pro-bono campaigns for the American Cancer Society. From this case study, we can see that what is considered as a fact can be changed overnight. As PR practitioners, we need to stay awake and make justifications where it is appropriate. But nonetheless, it is difficult to revert the impact of “Torches of Freedom” on society. And that is the dilemma that PR practitioners have to face in their course of work.

Edward Bernays pioneered the application of psychological theories and social sciences into PR practices to persuade and shape publics’ opinions.

Any person or organization depends ultimately on public approval, and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent to a program or goal.

The birth of PR firms and PR associations (the 1950s)

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the significant development of the public relations profession with the birth of renowned PR agencies and PR associations. Large firms began to establish public relations departments. Societal changes, social movements, advocacies, activists for gender and race equality, environmentalism, etc. changed public opinion and re-shaped business operations, causing them to need help from PR practitioners. Academic principles for the profession were established in this period.

As the PR community continues to grow worldwide, PR professionals started to come together under one roof to unify their code of conduct; set ethical and professional standards; give awards and recognition for best practices; exchange ideas, and pursue new PR trends. These roofs are PR associations, such as the Public Relations Society of America (1947); the Institute of Public Relations (now the Chartered Institute of Public Relations) in London (1948); the International Public Relations Association (1955); the Public Relations and Communications (PRCA), which EloQ Communications is a member of, is also founded back in 1969 with its head-quarter in London, UK.

Digital transformation – the rise of the public (the 2000s)

In the 21st century, the global adoption of the Internet, social media, and smartphones have drastically changed the way PR practitioners conduct their practices.

With the Internet and its ability to give real-time updates, we’re now witnessing the struggle of print media, including both daily newspapers and paper magazines. In the digital age, news from an hour ago could already be outdated news. News agencies have created online news sites that can be accessed by anyone from anywhere for the latest update. Hence, the decline of print media is inevitable. Still, it’s bittersweet seeing newspapers, which are a part of our childhood, gradually disappear from the streets.

But the biggest change would come from social media. It changed the way people consume information, and change the way firms interact with their audience. Interaction between the brand and consumers is now a two-way communication. With social media, consumers now have their share of voice in responding to brand messages. Companies can now monitor online conversations to learn about what sentiments the publics are having whenever their brand is mentioned. However, social media comes with many threats for companies, such as communications crises or fake news. Although it poses more challenges, the role of PR is highlighted in the age of social media, that is, to keep a good relationship with the public.

Barcelona Principles: Redefining PR measurement (2010)

Unlike marketing activities that are often associated with sales, the outcome of a PR campaign is often hard to evaluate. In the past, clients or upper-level managers would be happy with AVE and coverage clipping. But when social media and other digital tools enter the landscape, everyone started to set higher expectations about PR measurement.

In 2010, the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC) held a summit with the participation of PR professionals coming from 33 countries. Together, they agreed upon a set of 7 principles for evaluating the effectiveness of communications activities. At that time, this was the first framework for the need of measuring PR outcome (not output!) while taking into account the increasing internet usage. Their suggestion on using social media metrics is now common practice but was quite new at the time.

After the initial summit, the 7 principles underwent two reviews by industry experts in 2015 and 2020. The most updated version is Barcelona Principles 3.0 resulting from the 2020 meetings, which stated:

  1. Setting goals is an absolute prerequisite to communications planning, measurement, and evaluation
  2. Measurement and evaluation should identify outputs, outcomes, and potential impact
  3. Outcomes and impact should be identified for stakeholders, society, and the organization
  4. Communication measurement and evaluation should include both qualitative and quantitative analysis
  5. AVEs are not the value of communication
  6. Holistic communication measurement and evaluation includes all relevant online and offline channels
  7. Communication measurement and evaluation are rooted in integrity and transparency to drive learning and insights

Nowadays, these 7 principles have become a reliable reference for PR campaign measurement and give PR practitioners an idea of what to measure. However, following strictly these 7 principles is still difficult for many PR firms due to the lack of time, technology, or budget. We look forward to seeing more initiatives and accessible tools in the industry to address the measurement issue in the future.


And that – my friends – is some major milestones of the modern PR industry oversimplified!

Of course, that’s not all there is for the stories. There are far more events, but we’ll save them for future articles.

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