This paper aims to explore the concept of public relations in the progressive era to gain a greater understanding of the historical development of corporate public relations in the USA.
The paper provides historical analysis of 87 magazine articles dating from 1900 to 1917, which discussed press agentry, publicity, and public relations.
In the early 1900s, publicity meant both legal requirements of corporate disclosure and press exposure of secret corporate activities. The purpose of publicity was to reveal excess and corruption. The term press agent was used in two ways. First, it was used to refer to literary and theatrical press agents, and second, it was used interchangeably with publicity agent to signify individuals hired by corporations to respond to the publicity and explain corporate policies to the public. By the second decade of the twentieth century, corporations, specifically the railroads, were using the term public relations to refer to the practice of developing relationships with the public.
Most historical studies of public relations in the USA have described the development of the field as a linear progression or evolution from press agentry, to public information or publicity, to two‐way communication. This study suggests that that linear evolutionary model is only partially accurate. At least some corporations in the progressive era had a greater understanding of the two‐way street than corporations in this period normally are given credit for.
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