This is David Geddes, chair of the Institute for Public Relations Commission on Measurement and Evaluation. Today I am talking with Dr Tom Watson, Professor of Public Relations at The Media School at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. Tom also served as a Measurement Commission member for several years.
Tom, the International History of Public Relations Conference takes place from July 6-7, 2011 at Bournemouth University. Tell us about the history and objectives of this conference?
The conference evolved from a History of Public Relations special issue of the Journal of Communication Management that I edited in 2008. There was such a positive response to it that I explored the idea of a specialist conference with academic colleagues in the UK, US, Spain and Australia. They all said “do it”, as there was no meeting point for researchers in this field. Previously, papers were presented at business or journalism history conferences but were seen as on the margins of those fields.
So in mid-2009, I put out a Call for Papers to all the public relations networks that I knew of, waited for abstracts to be submitted and enlisted an international team of reviewers. To everyone‟s delight, we received 66 abstracts and chose 34 of them, representing more than a dozen countries, for presentation at the first International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC), which was held in July 2010 at Bournemouth University.
The conference itself was a success with over 80 delegates attending. We streamed the keynote speakers and other discussions online, which has created a legacy of material. There was also a lot of Twitter traffic with more than 270 tweets during the conference. Since the conference, the proceedings has been posted at www.historyofpr.com which means that everyone can enjoy the rich array of scholarship, which included six papers from practitioners.
Since then we have rolled out IHPRC 2011 and attracted a very interesting range of papers with new voices from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe as well as North America, the UK and Australia. It looks very positive for this year and for IHPRC to be established as part of the evolution of public relations as academic and professional disciplines.
Many view public relations as a very “current” profession. Why should a public relations professional care about the history of public relations? What can we learn about our practice today by looking to the past?
Public relations is mainly a 20th century phenomena, but ‘proto-PR’ – PR-like activities – goes back two or three millennia, a point which Scott Cutlip made in his histories of public relations in the 1990s. Indeed, there were very sophisticated communication strategies in existence long before we codified practices in books and articles.
What we learn from history comes in two clusters – the first and most obvious is that there is little that didn’t face early practitioners (other than the lightning speed of online and social media) – media relations, ethics, development of effective strategy, education, judgment of effectiveness, etc; the second is that the early public relations practitioners separated public relations from publicity. US and some European articles in the 1920s and 1930s saw public relations as a whole-of-organization attitude in which the public relations practitioner was often a trusted adviser to top management. Publicity was seen, however, as little different from vile press agentry. After World War II, there was a change as the rise of consumer products and a general prosperity led to the rise of consumer public relations that is essentially a persuasive publicity activity. At this time, public relations adopted the tactical style of consumer public relations because that’s where the money was and, I believe, lost the primacy of strategic communication.
Of course, I’m compressing 50 years into a single paragraph but when I read that public relations = strategic communications and public relations = relationship management are new paradigms, I suggest the proponents do some reading of the early years of public relations. It‟s all been discussed (and done) before.
Could you give us some highlights of your research into the history of public relations?
I have three areas of research – the first is a very specialized area related to proto-public relations in late 10th century England when there was a major reformation of the church; the second is the development of consultancy public relations in the UK; and third, is the development of methods of measuring and evaluating effectiveness of public relations. At present, I’m concentrating on the third topic, which is one I have been researching as a professional practice area for 20 years.
In the first 50 to 60 years of public relations practice, research and measurement was largely ceded to market researchers or involved the collection of clips. It wasn’t until the 1970s that active discussion on measurement started at conferences and in academic and professional journals. It developed in the 1980s and really exploded in the 1990s to become an enduring issue for research and discussion. This interest has led to regular measurement summits in the US, Europe and Middle East. As we know, there is a burgeoning PR measurement sector that supports the public relations industry.
But practices and attitudes have arisen for which there seems no starting point. Lately, I have been researching the evolution of the pernicious weed we know as Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE). So far, in the US there are anecdotal references to it in the early 1960s and the first recorded academic paper is from 1968. All of which indicates that it was probably in use for a decade or more by then. Jacquie L’Etang’s research into history of public relations in the UK has found a reference in 1949 in which a practitioner writing in the nascent Institute of Public Relation (now CIPR) Journal said: “Press cuttings are never measured in column inches and assessed at advertising rates. This practice has done more to undermine public relations than any other”.
It’s obvious from 62 years on that many practitioners have not heeded that advice. Equally, the practice must have been well established for many years for such a warning to be issued. I’m continuing to seek the start point for AVEs and also when ROI had its beginnings with regard to public relations.
The lessons that arise from history are that public relations is still struggling for its identity in a contest between the strategic and the tactical/persuasive. Despite decades of university teaching and research, which emphasize strategy, research and ethics, most practitioners follow a publicity-focused approach in their day-to-day working life.
My next big project is to investigate the archives of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), which have recently been acquired by Bournemouth University. We’ll be cataloguing it soon and I am sure will find further sources of information on the development of public relations post-WW2.
How can we keep up with the International History of Public Relations Conference?
Social media are a very important part of the communication activity for the conference – they have been valuable in linking together so many people around the world with an interest in PR history – both academics and practitioners.
The Twitter address is @historyofpr; on Facebook, there is the International History of Public Relations Conference group; on LinkedIn, you can join the History of Public Relations group. We are working on using Quora, too. All those are in addition to the http://historyofpr.com website.
Thanks for talking with us today, Tom.