The History of Modern PR and its Unsung Heroes

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While the modern PR industry has been historically white- and male-dominated, it has since transformed tremendously. Fortunately, the public relations industry has undergone a number of changes, including a push toward greater inclusion for minorities and women. Even though the modern PR industry has come a long way since its not-so-distant past, there is still progress to be made.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by George Washington University’s Online Master of Strategic Public Relations degree program.

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The Beginnings of Modern Public Relations

The following inventions paved a way for messages to reach the masses.

In 1830, the telegraph was invented, allowing textual and symbolic transmissions to be sent over long distances incredibly quickly.

In 1839, the public gained the ability to take photographs, thanks to the invention of the daguerreotype.

By 1876, the telephone was invented, allowing two people to carry on a real-time conversation, despite not being in close proximity.

In 1877, the public could record and replay sounds for the first time, thanks to the invention of the phonograph.

In 1887, the gramophone was invented. While similar to a phonograph, a gramophone uses disks instead of cylinders to record and play sounds and music.

By 1892, the public could watch recorded movies displayed on a screen, thanks to the invention of the motion picture camera.

The advent of these new technologies led to the emergence of newly fashioned PR professionals, who took advantage of these revolutionary advancements in the following ways.
Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum became one of the first people to comprehend that the mass media could be used to attach a person or product to a specific image in the minds of the public. He created “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and he also used false advertising for the sake of attracting customers.

Ivy Lee was the author of the “Declaration of Principles.” His book outlined the concept of public relations and its obligation to the public. Ivy Lee is renowned as the father of modern PR, and he issued the very first press release.

Edward Bernays rose to prominence by helping President Woodrow Wilson’s administration convince the American people about WWI’s importance as a force for democracy in Europe. He took inspiration from the insights of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to sway public opinion, both during and after the war.

Key Early Players: Women and Minorities

Some of the most prominent pioneers of the traditionally white male-dominated PR industry were women and minorities. Here are several early players who had a profound effect on modern public relations.

Doris Fleischman was both the wife and business partner of Edward Bernays. She was a dedicated feminist who defied the conventions of her time and made headlines across the United States by signing her marriage license with her maiden name.

Betsy Plank was the first female president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She worked tirelessly to improve ethical standards in the PR industry, which is why she is known as the “First Lady of PR.”

Muriel Fox cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 to fight for gender equality. She also ran the organization’s public relations department.
Thomas J. Burrell began his PR career as a mailroom worker for Wade Advertising in 1960, working his way up through the ranks. He opened his own shop in 1971 to focus on serving black customers in his community.

Inez Kaiser was the first black woman to own a PR firm with national clients, after founding her company in the 1950s. Some of her firm’s clients included Sears, Sterling Drug and 7-Up.
Roy Eaton was the first African American hired by Young & Rubicam and he started his career with the company in 1955. He produced 75 percent of the music for the firm’s clients during his first two years there, thanks to his skills as a classically trained pianist.

Changing Tides

Even though women helped shape the modern PR industry, they are still underrepresented in leadership roles.

While 85 percent of today’s PR pros and 59 percent of PR managers are female, only 30 percent of global PR agencies are currently being run by women.

Minorities also lack sufficient representation in PR roles. Among people working in the PR industry, only 10 percent are black, 5 percent are Asian and 3 percent are Latino, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

However, various groups are making efforts to bridge this gap and encourage more inclusivity in the PR industry.

The Public Relations Society of America is facilitating outreach to high school and college students for the purpose of teaching them about possible career opportunities in the public relations industry. PRSA has also been making efforts to recruit racial minorities for PR positions for the past two decades.

The Taylor Bennett Foundation is a London-based organization working to encourage minority ethnic graduates to enter the PR profession. As part of its outreach efforts, the foundation arranges for speakers to visit universities to discuss career options in public relations.