History of Public Relations special issue

Journal of Communication Management

ISSN: 1363-254X

Article publication date: 2 August 2011



Watson, T. (2011), "History of Public Relations special issue", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 15 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/jcom.2011.30715caa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

History of Public Relations special issue

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Communication Management, Volume 15, Issue 3

This History of Public Relations special issue and the International History of Public Relations Conference had their beginning in the Journal of Communication Management’s first “History of Public Relations” special issue, Vol. 12 No. 4 in 2008. In that edition, seven papers were published. They represented the first time than an international academic journal has devoted an entire scheduled edition to this field.

Although other public relations academic journals had published individual academic papers on historical research, the scholarship had mainly resided at the margins of conferences and journals on business and journalism history. The special edition thus gave the scholarship of public relations history its first solus position.

Such was the response to the Call for Papers, from which the seven papers were chosen, and the subsequent interest in the special edition that I made tentative soundings amongst the authors and reviewers of the special edition as to whether there would be interest in a conference or similar gathering for PR history researchers and writers. The response was again very positive, an international conference committee was formed and the First International History of Public Relations Conference was launched in September 2009 with a Call for Papers.

The conference was organised for July 2010 at Bournemouth University in England. The university was its first sponsor and was joined by Ketchum Pleon, the Public Relations Consultants Association and this journal. The CfP attracted 66 abstracts from around the world of which 34 were selected for the conference. When the conference took place, the speakers represented 13 countries and more than 80 delegates attended. It was considered – by all who attended – to have been a success, and so planning started immediately for a second International History of Public Relations Conference in July 2011.

From the authors who contributed to the initial History of Public Relations special edition, Dr Jacquie L’Etang of Stirling University was a keynote speaker, whilst Margot Opdycke (Meg) Lamme, who had written a contribution, was a co-author of a paper. The other keynote speaker, Karen Miller Russell, was the joint author with Meg Lamme of recent monograph (Lamme and Russell, 2010), which proposed a new theory of the history of public relations. Although drawing on previous literature, the monograph also drew from the first History of Public Relations special issue and thus, showed its immediate impact upon research and scholarship.

To support the conference and provide an online resources of materials, papers and links to other history of public relations discussion, a web site – http://historyofpr.com – established. In addition to news and the online conference registration, it has the Proceedings of Conferences, abstracts for future conferences, and a wide range of resources. These include videos of conference presentations and lectures, materials from PR history courses, a listing of references to PR in film, TV, radio and book, which starts from the 1930s and links to other relevant sites, which include PRhistorywiki, which is run from the University of Alabama. These were assembled in cooperation by PR historians around the world. On some occasions, the site has been receiving 400 hits a day, which may be small by viral e-mail standards but is large for a specialised field of public relations research and scholarship

For all those interested in continuing contact about the conference and the scholarship of PR history, there are a Twitter address – @prhistory; a Facebook group – The International History of Public Relations Conference; and a LinkedIn Group – History of Public Relations. All have growing participation from around the world.

The 2010 conference papers addressed a wider range of topics: The so-called “Great Men” of US public relations – Edward Bernays, John Hill, Arthur Page; national histories of relations; the history of representations of PR on film; the evolution of public relations education; the development of PR theory over time; and the practices of public relations. This had been fostered in a broad Call for Papers to encourage scholarship in the field. To have promoted a narrow band of themes or topics may have, the organising committee considered, put too greater constriction on a niche academic field that was seeking a clear identity or academic home.

From the conference, several papers were especially identified as being of potential for publication as they were moving the field forward. It has to be added, however, that many of the papers were eminently suited for submission to academic journals, such were the high standards of the papers and the presenters.

In this special issue, five papers (in alphabetical order of the first author) are published:

  1. 1.

    Elisabetta Bini, Ferdinando Fasce and Toni Muzi Falcone: “The origins and early developments of public relations in post-war Italy, 1945-1960”.

  2. 2.

    Oliver Raaz and Stefan Wehmeier: “Histories of public relations: comparing the historiography of British, German and US public relations”.

  3. 3.

    Burton St John III and Margot Opdyke Lamme: “The evolution of an idea: charting the early public relations ideology of Edward L. Bernays”.

  4. 4.

    Ian Somerville and Andy Purcell: “A history of Republican public relations in Northern Ireland from ‘Bloody Sunday’ to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’”.

  5. 5.

    Donald K. Wright: “History and development of public relations education in North America: a critical analysis”.

Whilst they have been chosen on the criteria of being excellent papers, they also cover a national history of public relations (Italy); the debate over the PR ideology of a “Great Man”; the nature of historiography in the three nations that led the development of public relations as a practice; a history of public relations activity in a highly contentious conflict environment which has been drawn from primary sources; and a critique of the manner in which public relations education has evolved in North America. They are richly diverse topics and make important additions to the published literature of public relations history.

As a researcher who has investigated the measurement and evaluation of public relations activity for nearly two decades, I have often used the common parlance developed by Walter Lindenmann and would like to apply this loosely to the development in public relations history since 2008. In terms of output, there has been a burgeoning of research and publications in the field. In just two International History of Public Relations Conference, more than 110 abstracts have been proposed: 66 for at the 2010 conference and 50 for 2011. The outcomes have been a growth in research activity, the development of confidence that it is a valid field with its own characteristics and no longer an outlier of other fields; and the formation of international linkages between researchers. The outflow – the creation of value – is self-evident from the enthusiasm of researchers to meet, present papers and debate.

After this promising start, how does the scholarship of public relations develop? First, it needs more culturally and socially diverse voices, especially from outside North America, the UK and parts of Europe, notably Germany. Although papers are coming forward gradually, they are mainly descriptive national histories. Deeper interpretation needs to be encouraged and comfortable verities challenged. Second, the history of public relations needs to rise up the scale of public relations education priorities through wider inclusion in programmes and the recognition of interpretations other than The Great Men and the expansion of international PR consultancy groups as comprising “PR history” in texts and teaching. Third, a cohort of public relations historians needs to evolve who are expert in archival research, historiography and other historical skills who can, by example, promote the field as being distinct and important in the histories of society, communication and media. These three imperatives need more consideration than can been accommodated in this short Editorial, but I hope they will stimulate debate.

Tom WatsonGuest Editor


Lamme, M.O. and Russell, K.R. (2010), “Removing the spin: towards a new theory of public relations history”, Journalism & Communication Monographs, Vol. 341, p. 350

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