Getting ahead in the age of distraction
by Kate Palmer, Intern, Text 100 London
Don’t be fooled by the digitally-forward face of the PR industry: public relations is a profession that dates back thousands of years, albeit under various guises.
While PR as a business lacks a comprehensive history, the art of influencing public choice can be traced through the ages. It’s an industry that has informed, represented, influenced and even misled the consumer, from ancient civilisation to the modern day.
The ancients and public influence
A great deal of history can be understood in terms of public relations. While ancient civilisations such as the Greeks and Romans used violent displays in the coliseum to change the attitudes of its peoples, many cultures have played on beliefs and superstitions to shape its people’s attitudes.
When Christianity took shape in Europe, a network of ecclesiastics radically altered the lifestyle of the secular community, installing a hierarchical structure and moral framework. From the middle ages the clergy acted as monarchical spin-doctors, teaching their congregations obedience to and reverence for the crown.
The portrait is surrounded by a cult of public imagery. In an age when most people were illiterate and communication was poor, images were the key to shaping common attitudes. Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII, for instance, provided a blueprint for the Tudor king’s idealised public image.
With the Reformation came a series of religious texts and polemics which instigated an era of self-determination. The widespread dissemination of the written word during this period led to an explosion of public communications – setting the stage for revolution.
England’s Early Modern publicity
With the advent of the newspaper industry, public relations in its modern form began to take shape. Eighteenth-century titles such as The Times (est. 1785) and The Observer(est. 1791) made public the lives of Britain’s high society, shaping aristocrats’ public persona.
The Times featured a regular society column to which wealthy Britons aspired. An issue from February 1790 reported on noble occasions much like a modern-day celebrity page: ‘On Thursday evening there was a great rout at Lady Yonge’s in Stratford Place, the same evening there was a large party at Mrs. Pitt’s in Charles Street.’The Times’ gossip column included everything from rumours of a dissolution of Pitt the Elder’s parliament to ‘Mr S. and his garden at Leyton, Essex, which has a black-bird’s nest with four eggs.’
The era was witness to the first form of a news release, often in the form of a statement from the government or crown. In the London Gazette (est. 1665), statutory notices included a message from Queen Victoria in August 1819 enjoining its readers to ‘guard against every attempt to overthrow the law, or subvert the Government [which is] so happily established within this realm.’
21st century ‘professional’ PR
It is only during the past few decades that PR has been segmented as a unique professional industry. Consultancies continue to grow: a report compiled by PR Week found UK PR firms grew by 9.24 on average this year, while tech agencies continue to benefit from their brands becoming increasingly more mainstream.
Today’s PR consultants use a host of tools to disseminate information: blogs, social media, stunts, events, news releases and media relations. While the methods might be different, the fundamental goal of communicating and engaging with the public remains the same.