Public Relations History: 1 (Origins)


Students of public relations should be aware of the origins of the profession, which extends back to the earliest days of civilization. 

(R.D. Smith; updated Fall 2017)


Premise: Public relations is a natural and recurring element of human social interaction


   Public relations is both old and young. It is ancient in its foundations, rooted in the earliest interactions of people in societies long past. It is contemporary in its expression as one of society's emerging professions.

   Rooted in antiquity is an important lesson for today's practitioners: What we now call public relations is an essential and natural aspect of human society. It has occurred throughout history. It has been part of societies separated by miles and centuries and has been practiced within many different cultural and social contexts. Whenever we look at social interaction, we find elements of today's public relations practice: information, persuasion, reconciliation, cooperation.


Ancient Origins of Public Relations

   Ancient civilizations offer glimpses at public relations-like activities, and it is no stretch to conclude that classical antiquity provides the basis, as well as the earliest examples, of the contemporary profession of public relations.

Classical literature provides examples of effective public relations. The Iliad and the Odyssey, ascribed to the Greek poet Homer about 850 BCE, features examples of effective persuasive speech. Odysseus convinces the Cyclops not to eat him; Parish entreats Helen to leave her husband and run off with him; Hector and Achilles give stirring speeches to pump up their troops. 

   Even earlier though hard-to-date literary pieces, the Hebrew Bible and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, also provide passages with strong persuasive rhetoric. 

   In the civil realm, the antecedents of public relations are evident. Ptah-hotep, the advisor to one of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, wrote about 2,200 BCE of the need for communicating truthfully, addressing audience interests, and acting in a manner consistent with what is being said.

   Archeologists have found ancient bulletins and brochures in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) dating to about 1,800 BCE. These publications on stone tablets told farmers how to sow crops, irrigate their fields, and increase their harvests. These were important goals for monarchs who wanted their followers to be well fed and prosperous, both requirements for a stable empire.

   As the cradle of democracy, ancient Greece held a high regard for informed public opinion. In 5th century BCE Greece, the practice of democracy required that citizens could effectively argue their point of view. The Sophists taught the skills of public speaking, often arguing whichever side of an issue that hired them. Protagoras is one of the best-known Sophist teachers.

   In the 3rd century BCE, the philosopher Socrates of Athens taught that, rather than the relativism of the Sophists, effective communication should be based on truth. His student, Plato, carried on Socrates' work. But it was Plato's student, Aristotle of Athens, who has contributed most to contemporary communication thought. Aristotle analyzed persuasive communication and taught others how to be effective speakers, specifically by developing compelling and ethical arguments to offer verbal proofs. Aristotle's book Rhetoric remains influential to this day.

   In the civil realm, Philip of Macedonia had conquered the whole of Greece. His son Alexander the Great, was a student of Aristotle. Philip extended his rule throughout Northern Africa, Asia Minor, and India. Both rulers had gold and ivory statues of themselves placed in towns and temples throughout the conquered lands as constant reminders of their presence – a common technique associated with public relations, still practiced in examples such as commemorative stamps, monuments, stadiums, named buildings, and so on.

   Elsewhere in the classical Mediterranean world, others were also studying communication. In Sicily, Corax of Syracuse wrote a book about persuasive speaking. In Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero developed the earlier Greek rhetorical method for presenting persuasive arguments in public and is considered one of Classical Rome’s greatest orators. Marcus Fabius Quintilianus from Spain operated a school of rhetoric in Rome, teaching about the ethical content of persuasion and writing a book on rhetoric.

   The Roman general Julius Caesar, in the mid-1st century BCE, sent public reports back to Rome about his military and political victories in Gaul. Later, as ruler of Roman republic, he ordered the posting of Acta Diurna, regarded as the first public newsletter, to keep the citizenry informed.

   After a lengthy civil war that destroyed the 500-year-old Roman republic, Octavian Augustus Caesar became the first Roman emperor in 27 BCE. Octavian courted public opinion, realizing that he needed the support of the people in order to reign successfully. One of his tactics was to seek credibility by commissioning the poet Virgil to write the Aeneid, an epic poem that identifies Rome as the fulfillment of a divine plan and which depicts Augustus as being ordained by the gods to save and rebuild Rome after the collapse of the republic.

   The roots of public relations lie not only in Western civilization. In the Middle East, the 5th-century BCE biblical Joseph (Yosef ben Yaakov in the Hebrew Bible, Yusuf ibn Ya’qub in the Quran) functioned as a public relations adviser in Egypt, where he analyzed trends and counseled the pharaoh for a campaign to educate farmers on gathering food for a seven-year famine.

   In pre-Islamic Arabia, poets often were commissioned by tribal chiefs to create stories that influences public opinion. Later in 9th-century Persia (today’s Iran), caliph Harun al-Rashid (Aaron the Just) engaged in international diplomacy. He sent emissaries west to the court of Charlemagne, north to the Chinese court of the Tang dynasty, and east to the Pala empire of present-day Bangladesh. Showing a foundation in research and community relations, the Arabian tales tell of his practice of wandering among his subjects in disguise to learn how his government was working to benefit his subjects.

   In 4th century BCE China, Confucius elevated the concept of eloquence in speech. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures emphasized the importance of interpersonal relations and the role of personal influence. Confucius also encouraged harmonious communication to smooth relationships and reduce conflicts.

   In 320 BCE, the Indian emperor Asoka sent his own children to Sri Lanka to spread the message of Buddhism. Around the same time, in the Gupta empire of northern India, Hindu philosophy developed the concepts of dialectics as a form of dialogue and conflict resolution.



Public Relations in Religious History

   Much of the pre-history of public relations is linked with the growth and maintenance of religion, one of the most basic and cohesive aspects of society throughout the ages.

   John the Baptist is recognized in the social history of Christianity as the precursor or advance man who was effective in generating among his publics an anticipation and enthusiasm for Jesus Christ.

   In the mid-1st century, Peter (Simon Ben-Yonah) and Paul (Saul of Tarsus) led the Christian Apostles in their use of many persuasive techniques, such as speeches, staged events, letters and oral teaching. Their aim was to increase interest in Jesus and his message, to increase participation in the new religious movement, and to maintain morale and order among church members.

   Paul of Tarsus and the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used the strategies of interpretation and audience segmentation, each presenting essentially the same story, as it developed through a process of telling and re-telling, writing four different versions to appeal to the interests, experiences and needs of four different audiences. Scholars conclude that Matthew wrote for an audience of Jewish Christians, Mark for non-Jewish Greeks, Luke for non-Jewish Christians, and John for nonbelievers and/or the network of Christian communities spreading throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

   The Roman Emperor Nero used the strategy of orchestrating events when he blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians, already the social scapegoats. It is an example of telling your side of the story first so that any other versions are received as being different from what people already have heard.

   The early Christian Church preserved and enhanced the Greek concept of rhetoric. In Roman Africa, the 5th-century philosopher-bishop Augustine of Hippo developed the art of preaching, insisting that truth is the ultimate goal of such public speaking. Later in Northern Europe, the 8th-century Saxon theologian Alcuin reinterpreted Roman rhetorical teachings for the Emperor Charlemagne.

Use of public relations strategies and tactics was not limited to the Christian church. In 6th-century Northern Africa, the prophet    Mohammed sometimes retired to an out-of-the-way place to ponder problems facing his people, eventually to emerge with writings that he identified as the word of Allah. These writings, eventually assembled as the Quran, thus received a credibility that led to easy acceptance by his followers.

   In the Middle Ages, the church applied principles of persuasive communication in an effort to recapture the lands of Christian origin. Pope Urban II in 1095 sent his message throughout Europe using the efficient communication system of monasteries, dioceses and parishes. He used a sustained approach that involved all the communication tactics of the times, including writing, public speaking, word of mouth, slogans, and symbols. His persuasion to influence public opinion was effective, as he attracted thousands of volunteers for the first of a series of Crusades.

   In 1215, the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, used tactics of lobbying and government relations as he persuaded the influential English barons to join him in demanding that King John recognize the rights of both the barons and the church. The result of this successful persuasion was the Magna Carta, the document that laid the foundation for constitutional government not only in England but eventually around the world.

   Later in the 13th-century, the philosopher-monk Thomas Aquinas revisited Aristotle to study the persuasive nature of religious communication. Throughout the centuries, the various branches of the Christian Church developed the apologetics, the systematic attempt to assert the reasonableness of faith and to refute opposing arguments. Modern-day preachers and evangelists continue this tradition in persuasive communication for religious purposes.

   In England, John Wycliffe courted public opinion when he took his campaign for church reform to the people in 1351. He used illegal street lectures, pamphlets, and books to win over the common people to his cause. Capitalizing on his success, the priest became a writer for English royalty in its on-going feud with the clergy over church-state issues.

   Three hundred years later another priest, Martin Luther, courted public opinion through similar means and for similar purposes – and with greater success – when he posted his ideas on a church door in Germany, igniting what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Much of the success of Luther's reform movement was aided by two developments in technology and economics. The technology was the newly invented printing press with movable type; the economic development was the emergence of an increasingly literate middle class, which could read the mass produced Bibles and religious tracts.

   In response to Luther and his colleagues, the Catholic Reformation similarly used persuasive communication techniques. Much of the Catholic Reformation was fostered by Ignatius Loyola who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Both sides used common public relations strategies such as appeals to both positive and negative values, third-party endorsement, orchestration of the message, use of popular spokespersons, and so on, as well as public relations tactics such as speeches, letters, books, and pamphlets.

   Pope Gregory XV popularized the word "propaganda" in 1622 when he established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith) to spread the church's message into non-Christian lands. The term then was an honorable one. It did not take on negative connotations until three hundred years later, when the Nazis used it with a monumental disregard for honesty and ethics and later when it became associated with the 20th-century Cold War between communist and democratic nations.

   One of the major religious events of the 20th century was the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which among other things led to the de-Europeanization of the church and its adaptation to the cultures of its members in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Native America – consistent with the public relations strategies of segmenting the audience and developing a message approach based on the wants, interests and needs of each particular public.

   Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, religious organizations continue to use public relations strategies and tactics. Groups translate the Bible and other religious books into the language of the people, often paraphrasing the message or revising it with contemporary experiences. Churches and synagogues, as well as religions organizations such as dioceses and districts, employ their own public relations people, have interactive Web sites, and function at a very high level of professionalism. The Religion Communicators Council (formerly the Religious Public Relations Council) is the oldest professional association of public relations practitioners in North America, older even than the Public Relations Society of America.

   Meanwhile, many groups and individuals are using public relations strategies and tactics to counter what they see as the misuse of the Quran and authentic Islamic principles by terrorists who have attempted to co-opt the religion.  


Public Relations in Colonization

   A more light-hearted detour on the road of public relations history lies in some of the exaggerations, often not even plausible, that have accompanied what today we would call real-estate promotion.

   Erik (The Red) Thorvaldson discovered an uninhabited land of ice and snow in the North Atlantic. Recognizing the power of words, he named it Greenland to attract settlers, whom he led there in 985. The name was indeed misleading, for the ice melts for only a few months a year even in the southern coastal land. Ironically, Greenland is less hospitable than neighboring Iceland. Climate change wiped out the Greenland settlements and constricted those in Iceland.

   In the 1580s Sir Walter Raleigh sent glowing reports back to England about Roanoke Island off present-day North Carolina. Compared to England, this new land had better soil, bigger trees, and more plentiful harvests, as well as friendly Indians – so he said, as he aimed to persuade other settlers to join this first British colony in North America. But the wildly exaggerated promotion, while successful in attracting settlers and financial backers, didn't match reality. The island was largely swampland, food was scarce, sickness was prevalent, and harsh treatment by the colonists turned the Indians hostile. The colony was abandoned within two years. Virginia led the colonies in both the number of promotional leaflets and in the degree of exaggeration within them.

   In another effort to encourage European colonization in the New World, the Spanish explorers and conquistadores, sent back to Spain enthusiastic reports of a Fountain of Youth in Florida and Seven Cities of Gold in Mexico. Though they never found either, their stories helped spur Spanish immigration to the Americas.

   In French Canada, public relations tactics were less exaggerated. In early 17th-century, Samuel de Champlain wrote a book to lure settlers. The French government created a program to recruit Les Filles du Roi (Daughters of the King). These young French women emigrated to Quebec, where most of the settlers were young men who went there as explorers, farmers, and soldiers.

   Later the press in the Eastern United States promoted westward expansion with a glorified view of life on the frontier. The legend of Davy Crockett and later stories about Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody were among the persuasive messages developed to encourage expansion. Corporations began using public relations to stimulate migration West. The Southern Pacific Railroad hired a publicity agent to promote southern California. Land companies hired promoters to attract settlers, and the government hyped the California Gold Rush to foster public opinion for the war against Mexico. In 1880, the Burlington Railroad spent $40,000 to promote land sales out West that brought in almost $17 million. The Northern Pacific Railroad promoted land grants for Civil War veterans along its route in the northern plains and mountain states; it even hired agencies and took out newspaper ads in Germany, Scandinavia, and The Netherlands to attract European immigrants.

   One can imagine future generations greeted by similar exaggerations about undersea colonies or the first settlements on the moon. Hopefully tomorrow's public relations practitioners will exercise more ethical restraint than some of their earlier forerunners.