Thesis: PR

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¶ … History Of the American Public Realtions Field

History and Early Development of the Public Relations Field

In the most general sense, "public relations" has existed as long as human societies and verbal language. In principle, anytime one person or entity makes any attempt to influence what others think about him that is a form of "public relations." In the modern sense, public relations in the form we would recognize today is dependent on some method of publishing ideas or opinions. Until the advent of the printing press in the middle ages, there was no way of mass producing anything written in print (Evans, 2004). At that time, paper itself was a scarce commodity and not widely available.

However, even after the first methods of reproducing the written word were invented, it still took another three centuries before those technologies progressed to the point of being able to print what would be the equivalent of a modern newspaper in the early 19th century. At the time literacy rates were so low in the general population that it was difficult to influence public opinion through the printed word; in fact, it was the increasing availability of printed media and bound books in the 19th century that actually led directly to a greater appreciation of the value of reading and writing in the working classes (Evans, 2004).

Throughout the 19th century news still traveled largely by word of mouth but the first print advertisements began appearing in news papers, which could be considered the origin of public relations. Medical doctors of the day advertised their proprietary treatments, medical devices, and "elixirs" and Sears & Roebuck began publishing the infamous Sears Catalogue that became the first piece of printed matter resembling a "book" in most American homes of the day, often doubling as a reliable source of relatively soft "toilet paper" (Evans, 2004).

By the early 20th century, newspaper printing technology (and public literacy rates) had developed sufficiently for the rise of the public relations concept although it would still be several more decades before it would be recognized for its true potential value.

Evolution and Definition of the Public Relations Profession

In practical terms, the public relations field first emerged in connection with the opinions published in the newspapers of the early 20th century. In that regard, some of the first historical examples would include the articles and opinion pieces that argued the issue of whether or not the United States should enter World War I on behalf of nation of Britain against Germany and Austro-Hungary in between 1914 and 1917 when the decision was finally made.

One could also credit the first use of public relations to the notorious use of the newspapers of the late 19th century by individuals such as the entrepreneurial American financier Jay Gould. Gould accumulated his great wealth partly through deceptive techniques such as by using his influence to generate newspaper stories about wheat shortages and diminution in the value of precious metals after which he purchased vast quantities in order to capitalize on the false reports that he initiated (Commager, 1999).

The first large-scale use of modern multimedia for the purpose of influencing public opinion on a nationwide level was that implemented by the Nazis in Germany for the purposes of spreading a fanatical sense of nationalism, loyalty to the Fuhrer, and, sadly, to promote anti-Semitism on a national (and later, international) level (Myers & Spencer, 2004; Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007). In that regard, Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels was the first to make use of the (then) revolutionary new medium of radio and motion pictures to promote political doctrine and social policy in a process we would recognize today as public relations (Myers & Spencer, 2004; Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007). On a much smaller scale, church groups in the U.S. had also attempted to use the new motion picture medium for public relations (i.e. propaganda) purposes as early as 1936 in connection with the film Tell Your Children (later renamed Reefer Madness) created for the purpose of exaggerating the potential risks and harms posed to civil society by marijuana (Myers & Spencer, 2004).

Status of the Public Relations Industry in the United States

Today, the public relations field is a professional industry that employs thousands of people in the United States. The Public Relations Society of America was established in 1947 and it currently lists more than 21,000 professional members (PRSA, 2009). The modern American version of the public relations field that developed in between World War II and the end of the 20th century included print media advertising, television, and radio, as well as political lobbying and the extensive use of marketing and promotional initiatives. In most cases, but not all, those efforts related primarily to generating sales revenue through positive image development for commercially produced consumer goods and services (Fox & White, 1993; Locker, 2006).

Public relations techniques were also used extensively in connection with political ideas, sometimes openly and other times covertly through proxies intended specifically to obscure from the public the true origin of the message. During the early era of mid-20th century public relations development, specialists even experimented with covert psychological mechanisms such as subliminal messaging designed to communicate messages to consumers intended to motivate them to buy specific products (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007). Those techniques were eventually prohibited by law (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007). Today, the public relations industry is largely self-regulated and adheres to ethical standards that ensure that the industry does not violate common standards of social decency and appropriateness in American society.

Professionalism in the Public Relations Industry

The modern public relations industry is a sophisticated business employing myriad different types of professionals. In addition to account executives, account managers, artists, actors, and spokespeople, the industry also employs a full range of support staff specialists, audio-visual engineers, writers, editors, and general office employees responsible for everyday office tasks. Generally, public relations professionals complete a four-year undergraduate degree in Advertising, Communications, Media, Psychology, or related fields to qualify for employment in the field (Locker, 2006).

Naturally, the explosion of computer technology in the last decade has revolutionized many aspects of public relations. In addition to introducing new forms of media into which the industry has already expanded, the evolution of computers and digital media has dramatically increased the range of methods of communication. As a matter of fact, the historic 2008 election of President Barack Obama has been at least partially credited to the innovative use of the newest forms of social media such as real-time news prompts and campaign messages made possible by innovations such as Twitter and other Internet-based applications of social media that have become popular only within the last several years (Johnson, 2009; Welch & Welch, 2009).

Within the same time frame, commercial manufacturers and movie producers (in particular) have begun using the same new media for public relations purposes such as in connection with pre-promoting the anticipated release of the latest high-tech products and motion pictures in a manner and to a degree that was never previously possible through traditional communications media (Johnson, 2009; Welch & Welch, 2009). Previously, public relations techniques relied heavily on the use of focus groups to help determine the likely response of the intended target of specific public relations messages (Myers & Spencer, 2004; Shoemaker, 1971).

This technique involves presenting various messages in different forms and deliveries to groups of individuals reflecting the same demographics as the audience ultimately intended as the target of the message campaign. By presenting the message to focus groups first, pubic relations entities have the opportunity to interview the recipients and conduct follow-up studies for the purposes of adjusting the campaign before investing the necessary financing for full-scale campaigns that could fail at great expense to the client and the public relations firm (Myers & Spencer, 2004; Shoemaker, 1971).

Infrastructure and International Public Relations in the United States

Generally, public relations is a private-sector industry in the U.S. although government entities certainly make extensive use of the same public relations principles that have been developed for use by commercial enterprises. Some of the most notorious modern uses of public relations have been tied to the attempts of presidential administrations to control and influence public opinion, such as in connection with increasing public support for the involvement of the U.S. Armed Forces in foreign wars.

Obviously, the most dramatic recent example is the manner in which the administration of former President George W. Bush misused the credibility of the presidential office and that of the State Department to promote illusory justifications for obtaining congressional (and public) support to prosecute a war in Iraq that, in retrospect, were entirely false. Forty years earlier, President John F. Kennedy used similar public relations techniques to publicize truthful information about U.S. intelligence indicating a threat of attack from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) installed by the Soviet Union on the Island nation of Cuba barely 90 miles from the U.S. southern coast (Roberts, 2000; Vance, 1983).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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