The Evolution of Public Relations: The Development of Professional Associations

The Publicity Bureau, founded in Boston, Massachusetts, was the first public relations firm in the US. (Megan Salisbury, Sutori)

Why are professional associations important to you, the consumer?

Simply, they are important in across all fields because they establish ethical standards for industry practice.

Why were professional associations so important to the public relations industry?

Prior to WWII publicity bureaus (offices) handled issues between organizations and their publics. Before the era of the muckrakers, businesses operated with a “public be damned” attitude, which meant the public was not even a consideration in relationship to business practices.

At the close of the nineteenth century, public relations bureaus popped up in response to the need for organizations to address negative publicity that came about because of the lack of transparency businesses had with the public and to expose unethical practices. These offices mostly operated as damage control or as tools of propaganda.

A history of PR globally….

As early as the late 1800s, governments and organizations were engaging in public relations around the world. In 1893, the industrial giant Krupp created a news bureau as a part of an effort to publicize its activities.

In Europe…. The British telecommunications company Marconi sent out its first press release in 1910, and almost 14 years later, the public relations agency Editorial Services was founded. Not until a year later would an official job title be created for a public relations post.

In Africa…. Even as far away as Nigeria, the need for organizations to establish relationships was apparent, as the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) issued the Iwe Irohin (News Journal) to publicize information related to the socioeconomic and political activities of Anglican parishioners. Officially Nigeria’s first newspaper, it also publicized news regarding the colonial administration, some foreign affairs, advertisements and public announcements.

…And here in the Americas In the United States, just before the turn of the century, the first public relations department was established by Westinghouse to fight Thomas Edison’s General Electric in 1889. In 1897, public relations efforts between railroad and transportation organizations and their publics became the catalyst for a burgeoning field. By 1900, The Publicity Bureau was established as the first public relations agency.

A few years later, Parker & Lee established its “Declaration of Principles,” which promoted the public’s “right to know.” By WWI, both Presidents Taft and Wilson recognized the need to engage with the press, and the press became an integral part in propagandizing the war.

Portrait of Ivy Ledbetter Lee during the 1900s. (James Clear, Medium)

…And we cannot also forget the inroads that trailblazers Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and Pendleton Dudley made, all men who used some form of public relations to influence and engage their publics.

Then, the Depression affected the entire world...

The events of the Depression influenced the public to hold business interests accountable for their actions, forcing corporations to engage in relationships with the public. These bureaus that functioned as publicity offices eventually evolved into agencies that exerted influence over the publics with whom they engaged.

All of these events and all of this history created the platform for the public relations industry in the late 1930s. All at once, all around the world, all of these groups were performing different functions of public relations but operating without any governing bodies.

Ultimately, one of the major functions of most PR associations is to….

These governing bodies or associations served to provide industry standards and guidelines for those working in the public relations field. These standards protect you from unethical business practices.

Who were these governing bodies and what were their functions?

Public Relations Society of America or PRSA's Logo. (Wikipedia Commons)

In response to these agencies who functioned independently all with their own set of guidelines, several governing bodies cropped up in response to establishing standards for the industry.

  • Finland’s Propagandilitto saw the first public relations association created in 1937.
  • In New York, the American Council on Public Relations and the National Association of Public Relations Councils were combined to establish the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in 1947.
  • In 1949, the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) was established to create high standards for the industry.
  • In 1955, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) was founded and created the “Code of Athens,” which adopted ethical standards and practices in 1965 to standardize the industry in Europe.
  • In the latter part of the twentieth century, in response to the rebirth of an interest in public relations, the International Communications Consultants Association (ICCO) was formed in 1988, which focused on organizing public relations trade organizations and quality assurance within the industry.

In essence, these organizations have established industry standards that evolved with changing times.

And for public relations, associations function to….

These professional organizations have established standards that dictate the different ways organizations engage with the public, and in some cases, they established ethical codes for engaging in''' “best practices” with the public.


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