Post-Depression Business Politics: The PR Industry Defines Itself

Groups of depositors in front of the closed American Union Bank, New York City. April 26, 1932. (The Unwritten Record, National Archives)

How did organizations get the word out about their products and services before the depression?

Interestingly, countries around the world all had ways of disseminating information to the public.

In America, corporations and governmental organizations publicized information through the press. American newspapers up until the Industrial Revolution used newspapers as a way for businesses to advertise. In fact, a common practice for newspapers was to present advertisement as news or editorials.

In Europe, while the practice of using the press to advertise was not prevalent, conglomerates like Krupp set up a news bureau in 1893 while Marconi, in the UK, issued its first news release in 1910.

In Africa, Nigeria specifically, the first news journal appeared. The Iwe Iroyin (News Journal) published information regarding colonial government, foreign affairs, advertisements and public announcements.

What happened to the press agent and the publicity men of this time?

Young men crowded around a newspaper in New York City in 1929. (Getty Images, Time Magazine)

The stock market crashed and the public woke up!

“The public be damned” was a phrase that pretty much defined the sentiment of the Industrial Revolution leading up to and after the turn of the century. While muckrakers exposed business abuses during the early 1900s, the press was still a tool of businessmen. However, that was until the Great Depression.

Essentially, before the Depression, the word of business was virtually unchecked and unquestioned because this era was marked by excess and economic prosperity.

Furthermore, press agents and publicity men were the front men of business, and whatever information was disseminated, was done so without the consideration of the masses.

Public relations was very one-sided!

…And then what happened?

Shortly after the Depression, big business lost the trust of the consumer and of the masses, on which many of these businesses made their fortunes. For the first time, Americans were faced with the harsh reality of economic insecurity and the public at-large made business the scapegoat.

More importantly, business had to reckon with the fact that they could not just withhold pertinent information from the public. At this time, while business was a private entity, the public became an extremely important part of business and the economy.

While the terms public relationspublicity man, and press agent had been thrown around for more than a century, not until after the Depression leading into the forties did we see this industry form, as organizations began to see the importance of engaging in the public, but more significantly, developing relationships with their publics.

From the ashes of the Depression springs….

…the foundational principles of many business practices, including the ideas that:

  • Private business is a public trust.
  • Public interest changes with the times and attitudes.
  • The idea of American business has to be sold to the public.

What springs from the ashes of the Depression is an industry that informs and persuades the public.

What springs from the ashes of Depression is an industry that serves to actively engage its publics (populations) in two-way relationships!

What springs from the ashes of the Depression is public relations, more commonly called PR.

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