History enables us to know where we are coming from so that we can have a good understanding of where we are and a guide for the future. In this unit, we shall take a look at the development of public relations at the global level. Studying how Public Relations evolved will help you understand its place and purpose in society.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. Explain how public relations evolved from its earliest origins Describes the pioneering role of the fathers of modern public relations like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, Rex Harlow in the growth of public relations. 


3.1 Origins of Public Relations

The practice of public relations has been on since the dawn of recorded history. According to Patrick Jackson, public relations evolved from the basic need to build and improve human relationships which existed immediately God created Adam and Eve. Public relations is essential to human existence and communal living. Although modern public relations evolved in the 20th

century it has ancient roots. In virtually every great society through history, the leaders understood the importance of influencing public opinion through persuasion.  Seitel (2001) recalls that archeologists found a farm bulletin in Iraq that told farmers of 1800 B.C. the latest techniques of harvesting, sowing and irrigating. The aim of the persuasion was that the more food farmers grew, the better the citizenry are and the wealthier the country became. This was planned persuasion to reach a specific public for a particular purpose, in other words, public relations. As Edward Bernays has observed, ‘the three main elements of public relations which are informing people, persuading people and integrating people with people are practically as old as society.

The force of public relations was visible in ancient Rome. This can be deduced from the common phrase, Vox Populi, Vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Julius Caesar, one of the greatest of the Roman emperors, is said to be a particularly master in the persuasive technique. When faced with an upcoming battle, Caesar would rally public support through assorted publications and staged events (typical of modern public relations techniques).

In ancient Greece, a high premium was placed on communication skills. The best speakers were generally elected to leadership positions. Greek politicians enlisted the aid of sophists (individuals with rhetorical prowess) to help fight verbal wars. This can be likened to the lobbyists of today who attempt to influence legislation through effective communication techniques. Cutlip, Centre and Broom state that rudimentary elements of public relations appear in descriptions of the king’s spies in India. Apart from espionage the duties of the Spies included keeping the king in touch with public opinion, championing the king in public and spreading rumours favourable to the government. Equally, public relations was used many centuries ago in England where the kings maintained Lords Chancellor as “keepers of the king’s conscience”, as there was an acknowledge need for a third party to facilitate communication and adjustment between the government and the people.

The spread of Christianity in the middle ages could be linkened to the use of public relations in modern times. Under the leadership of Pope Gregory XV, the Catholic Church established a college of propaganda to help propagate the faith. The committee of cardinals known as Congregation de Propaganda Fide (the congregation for the propagation of faith). The church simply wanted to inform the public about the advantages of Catholicism. This was the origin of propaganda and it has been suggested that the roots of public relations lie in the development of propaganda.

Efforts to communicate with the force of public opinion go back to antiquity, only the tools, degree of specialization breadth of knowledge, and intensity of effort are relatively new. In the words of Cutlip, Centre and Broom public relations has existed since the drawn of mankind. From crude methods in primitive society, PR has followed trends in civilization advancement in culture has resulted in more sophisticated method of PR.

3.2 Factors that have contributed to the development of modern public relations.

Attempt a write up on how public relations has evolved over the ages several factors contributed to the development of modern public relations. Starting with the United States, the American Revolution and the civil war and the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society have close links with the development of modern public relations. As Cutlip Centre and Broom have observed, today’s patterns of public relations practice were shaped by innovations in mobilizing public opinion developed by Adams and his fellow revolutionaries. The industrial revolution and its attendant changes in social relations, created challenges in the relationship between businesses, government and the people.

The industrial revolution brought about the birth of mass media and modern public relations which were natural outgrowths of the monumental changes in that era. Through the use of mass media governments and organisation were able to communicate with relevant publics (groups) essential to their success. Seitel (2001) has observed that the confluence of four factors aid the development of modern public relations. Let us examine these factors in detail.

The Growth of Large Institutions

The industrial revolution resulted in the emergence of big companies. Massive developments in industry, rail-roads and utilities in America’s post-civil war led to the rise of powerful monopolies the concentration of wealth and power and roughshod tactics of the robber barons brought a wave of protests and reforms in the 1900s. Contemporary public relations emerged out of the melee of the opposing forces in this period of America’s growth. Following the brutal massacre of protesting workers of the Carnegie-Frick Steel Company Plant in Pennsylvania in 1892 and its attendant aftermath, industry owners began to realize that for continued success, they have to curt favourable public opinion, both among their workers and the general public. According to Cutlip, Centre and Broom, “much of public relations history is woven into the unending struggle between employer and employees.

There was the need to counter the activities of the crusading, “muck racking journalists” who made it as national duty to expose the exploitation and scandalous business activities of the robber barons. As Reqier observed, muckraking was the inevitable result of decades of indifference to the allegations and immoralities attendant upon the industrial development of America. Business of every size came to recognize that aggressive communication of corporate products and positions can help win public receptivity and support and ward off government intrusion.

Change, conflict and confrontation among interest groups in society.

Disenchantment with big institutions peaked in the 1960’s. It has been said that the conflict during this period between private economic institutions, especially large corporations and various disenfranchised elements of society arose from long-standing grievances. One commentator had suggested that “their rebellion was born out of the desperation of those who has nothing to lose”.

Social activists of every kind began to challenge the legitimacy of large institutions. It was also the period when women began to mobilize for equal rights in the workplace and elsewhere. Ralph Nader’s consumerist movement was also active during this period. These conflicts and attendant changes meant that large institutions would desperately need professional communication help.

Heightened Public Awareness

The government regulatory interventions in the form of affirmative action forced business organizations to contribute to charities. In consequence, managers began to consider community relations a first-line responsibility. The policy of confrontation was abandoned by business corporations in favour of a policy of compromise and conciliation. A new policy of social responsibility evolved as corporations came to realize that their reputations are a valuable asset to be protected, conserved, defended, nurtured and enhanced at all times.

Global Expansion of Democracy

With the expansion of democracy worldwide, there was need for effective communication with the activities of civil rights groups worldwide like the Human
Rights Watch in defence of the hitherto marginalized the public relations challenge has grown in intensity. As a result of the increasing importance of persuasion and consensus in the era of globalization public relations became an integral part of the democratic process.

Growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web

The technological innovations and revolution in communication has contributed to the growth of public relations. The advent of radio and television in the first half of the 20th century revolutionized communication and social interactions. Revolutions in satellite and computer technology in the later part of the 20th century has changed the way people communicate and the emergence of the internet and world wide web have radically intensified the spread of communication even further. The impact of the web on public relations practice has been phenomenal. E-Mail now dominates internal communications high-tech public relations firms is now a common phenomenon to meet the challenge of communicating with the diverse publics.

The technological revolutions and innovations in communication has contributed to the growth in social advocacy. Civil rights groups, pressure groups, and other forms of advocacy for rights of the vulnerable members of society and minority groups have led to an increase in the use of public relations.

3.3 Pioneers of Public Relations

As we discuss the growth of public relations at the global level, it is necessary to examine the early pioneers who played prominent roles in its development. We shall look at three important personalities whose pioneering roles contributed significantly to the growth of public relations.

Ivy Ledbetter Lee

Historians of the evolution of public relations have recognized Lee as one of the most famous of the early public relations pioneers. Lee is recognized for the major role he played in the development of the profession. A native of Georgia and Princeton graduate, Lee was initially a reporter covering the business world. In 1903, he quit his job as a reporter to work in the campaign of Seth Law for Mayor of New York and this led a job in the press Bureau of the Democratic National Committee during the 1904 presidential campaign. 

Lee recognized that good corporate performance was the basis of good publicity. He advocated open and honest communication between an organisation and its clients. Lee firmly believed that the only way business could answer its critics convincingly was to present its side honestly, accurately and forcefully.

When Lee was hired by the anthracite coal industry in 1906, he issued a Declaration of Principles to newspaper editors.

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office,
do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying any statement of fact… In brief, our
plan is frankly and openly on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which are of value and interest. 

Lee worked for two major clients: John D. Rockefeller and the Pennsylvania railroad. Lee gave the policies of Rockefeller a public hearing. He tried to humanize them that the Rockefeller family came to be known as the nation’s finest example of philanthropy. As Seitel (2001) has observed, today’s billionaires, from Bill Gates to Warren Buffet and Ted Truner have attempted to emulate the Rockefellers in terms of generosity. 
For Lee, the key to business acceptance and understanding was that the public be informed not be fooled.
Lee was credited to have given public relations credibility by his emphasis on ethical conduct and openness and thus helped raise the profession in its infancy.

However, there were later criticisms that Lee did not maintain the ethical conduct he prescribed for others when he accepted to work for a German Trust which turned out to be an agent for the policies of Adolf Hitler who restricted religious and press freedoms. Lee was branded a “traitor’ for his involvement with the Dye Trust’ by members of Congress.

Despite his unfortunate involvement with the Dye Trust which earned him criticisms, Ivy Lee is recognized as the individual who brought honesty and candour to public relations. Lee more than anyone before him, transformed public relations from a questionable field into a professional discipline designed to win public confidence and trust through communications based on openness and truth.

One of his greatest legacies is that Lee contributed many of the techniques and principles that practitioners follow today. He was among the first to realize the fallacy of publicity unsupported by goods works and to reason that performance determines the publicity a client gets. He propelled the growth of publicity departments and trained publicity advisers in many institutions.

Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995)

Bernays was an author, educator and public relations pioneer He started his wok I public relations in 1913. Prior to World War I, Bernays had worked as a press agent. While he worked for the creed committee during the war, Bernays envisioned the possibility of making a life’s work of what he called “engineering of public consent”. He coined the term, public opinion counsel in crystallizing public opinion, the first book on public relations in 1923. He broke more new ground in the same year when he taught the first public relations course at New York University. Bernays published two other books on public relations; Propaganda (1928) and Public Relations (1952).

Bernays claimed that he invented the phrase Public Relations Counsel because of the negative connotations attached to such terms as propaganda, publicist and press agent because he wanted something broader than publicity and press agent. In his words, “I wanted to direct the actions of a client in desired publicity. Bernays married Doris E. Fleischman in 1922. Together, they ran their firm, Edward L. Bernays, Counsel on Public Relations until formally retiring from active practice in 1962. They counseled major corporations, government agencies and U.S. presidents from Calvin Coolidge through Dwight Eisenhower together with his wife Doris, they coined the phrase I counsel on public relations. In his words, we recognized that all actions of a client that impinged on the public needed counsel. Bernays was also indirectly responsible for encouraging the emergence of women in the field of public relations. Edward Bernays has been referred as the father of Spin by his biographer Larry Tye (1998).

Bernays had his critics also. He has been criticized as encouraging smoking by women who were seeking to advance feminism. He died in 1995 at the age of 104 Life’s magazine in 1990 included him in the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

Rex F. Harlow

Rex F. Harlow began a lifetime carrier in public relations in 1912 in Oklahoma city when he was hired by an elder brother to promote Harlow’s weekly. Harlow’s career spanned the evolution of public relations to its maturity in the 1980’s and helped to shape today’s practices.

In 1939, Harlow founded the American Council on Public Relations (ACPR) while teaching public relation courses at Stanford University. He also started the Public Relations journal. The journal is today published by the Public Relations society of America (PRSA) Harlow contributed immensely in advancing public relations education and practice and professional associations. He died on April 16, 1993 at the age of 100 years.


The field of public relations, like other professions and fields, has had a chiquered history as a look at the literature on the growth and development of public relations reveals. Various pioneers have contributed to the growth of the profession. We have tried to highlight their contributions in this unit.


This unit has taken a look at how public relations began. We saw that public relations has grown with human development we noted the role of the Romans, and Greeks as well as the church in contributing to the development of public relations. We noted also certain factors that contributed to the development of modern public relations. We also considered the contribution of ivy Ledbetter Lee, Edward L. Bernays and Rex Harlow, to some of the pioneers to the growth of public relations.


Examine the social and economic factors that influenced the spread of modern public relations.


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