Tuesday, November 04, 2014

PR News and the History of Modern, Professional Public Relations

Introduction: As a PR News Editorial Advisory Board Member, I was recently asked to write a brief testimonial on what PR News means to me as a long-time professional in the PR field.  The following is what I wrote to them, reflecting not only on PR News but on the upcoming Centennial of the professional practice of media public relations in America.


I find PR News to be an excellent source of relevant, useful and actionable information on the fast-trending state of the art in professional public and media relations.  Social networking, the Internet and other transformative changes have altered the face of PR beyond the easy recognition of my PR professors from 40 years ago.  As I strive to remain both current and relevant in this “brave new world” of 21st Century public relations, I find my weekly “fix” of PR News is an invaluable resource for me.

It is often hard to remember that PR – often joked about as being “the second oldest profession"actually had its modern birth during the First World War, when several pioneers helped the Wilson Administration prepare a peace-loving and isolationist nation that had not been directly attacked for its role in saving democracy in what was then the “civilized world.”  A quarter-century later, our profession took several great leaps forward as masters of PR – including Churchill, Goebbels, Stalin and FDR – all used the fast-evolving tools of public and media relations, as defined by and constrained by their own totalitarian or democratic nations – to bend reality to suit their needs, to motivate their nations to aggression or defense.  This battle for the hearts and minds of the world continued for another 45 years until the end of the Cold War.  Perhaps not so ironically, this Cold War was brought to a successful conclusion in no small part by the “Great Communicator” and master of mass communications public relations, President Reagan, who used PR techniques to push the Soviet Union into a "coffin corner" from which it could not emerge.

Along the way, in the civilian and business world, public relations morphed from a radical new (and to some, suspect) adjunct to more conventional business communications into a C-level profession.  There, modern PR pros have helped to guide corporations and non-profits as they shaped their own realities, trying to put a credible “best foot forward” in pursuit of their legitimate business or charitable goals.  And the people who handled PR for clients and employers also morphed, from ex-journalists looking for better pay (if not a more exciting life) into well-trained PR professionals who sought ways of learning, exercising and demonstrating their professionalism.

And it was into this world that PR News was born and came to its own level of maturity, as the preeminent trade newspaper and journal of those in the public relations profession who took their profession seriously.  This essential source of news and information has helped to guide a generation of PR pros through the most tumultuous transformation of their profession since Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays pioneered the practice of professional public relations a century ago.  At no time since the era when those founders shaped the practice, ethics and professionalism of modern PR has our profession or trade changed so dramatically.  From the manual typewriter and the hand-delivered (or mailed) press release to digital press release placement services, from the hot-lead Linotype to the hot-electron E-zine, my generation of PR pros has weathered a great many changes.  Much of my own success in making this transition is due to the writers, editors and publishers of PR News, who each week keep me updated with insights on trends – and help me discern the difference between real transformation and hit-and-run fads that will disappear as quickly as they arrived.

This testimonial is a bit longer than I’d planned, but the more I thought about what PR News means to me, the more I realized that I had to put it – and our shared profession – into proper context to really make the case for just how essential PR News really is.

As a note to put this testimonial into context, I began studying PR in 1969; I had my first client (while still in college) in 1972, and I got my first PR job in 1973.  Five years later, I became the youngest person ever (to that time, anyway), to earn accreditation from PRSA, and six years later, I became the first person to be named Fellow in the area of PR and Marketing by the American Hospital Association.  By that time, I’d written two published books on PR (my current total is eleven, including one ghost-written for a client and published earlier in 2014), and I’d become a well-received speaker at professional conferences.  I first opened my agency in late 1985, and over the course of my career, I have bounced between client-side and agency-side in roughly equal measure.  

Over the course of a long career, I have owned my own solo practice, and I’ve been a senior exec at the Silicon Valley subsidiary of Fleishman-Hillard, then and now the world’s largest PR firm.  I won a wall full of awards, culminating in PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, and I’ve taught PR as an adjunct professor at two universities and several colleges. However, primarily, I serve my clients, using the best new tools and techniques – firmly grounded in the best of traditional PR, which remains as relevant today as it was in the days of Lee and Bernays – and, for the past decade and more, guided by my weekly ally, PR News.

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