The Press Agent, Publicity Man, Publicist and the PR Man

You would never guess it by the polished, slick image most public relations agencies project, but the modern PR guy was a revolutionary just as little as a few centuries ago.

So, why is this important today?

From the earliest incarnations of press, everything about your world has become inspiration for media. In fact, advertising, marketing, copywriting and editing all have their roots in humble press agency.

Press agents did not exist until 1700s

For the most part, the modern day public relations professional got his start long after Pope Gregory XIII coined the word propaganda. A few hundred years would pass before the press really became a catalyst for political change in both the American and French Revolutions.

In American press agency…. While the press (through advertising) was used initially to attract people to colonial America, the birth of the press agent would lead to the American Revolution in the new world more than a century later. More specifically, a revolution would grow from discontent at the Crown’s oppressive attempts to control public dissatisfaction.

The press agent shaped revolutionary action…. To begin, the revolutionary press developed from small meetings, which at the outset focused on religious freedom but at some point turned toward independence from Britain. Going into the eighteenth century, between 1713 and 1745, close to twenty-two papers were operating, and to suppress the free exchange of ideas, the Crown enacted laws that taxed the press a certain amount per page.

As a result, one of the major issues establishing the whole idea of “opinion as right” was the press agency that flourished in the colonies in and during the American Revolution.

And in France…. Renaissance Europe established public opinion centuries earlier. However, the French Revolution saw ideas related to human rights come to the forefront of public consciousness, and from this consciousness, discontent developed within the buxom of French collective thought. Ideas expressed in The Declaration of Rights of Man and the “armed opinion” spurred the foundation of the press agent in France.

Press functioned in both revolutionary America and France to…. In both revolutions, the press agent used media (newspaper and pamphlet) to publicize information. More importantly, the relationship was one-way where information was given for public consumption or to persuade readers of a particular platform, usually revolutionary ideas.

While press agency continued to exist during the 18th and 19th centuries, other ways of disseminating information and establishing publics took root.

But for you…. The press agent established a free press where opinion and thought can be expressed without reproach from the government. For you, it gave you the freedom to think and speak openly and freely.

When did the press agent become the publicity man? Primarily being a motivator for the abolitionist and women’s suffragist causes, the press agent was used primarily to impress upon the audience the need to address the inequities and inhumanity of these issues.

However, the Industrial Revolution set the stage for the publicity man. In an age where technology made manufacturing easier and where money influenced everything, newspapers, whose circulation was primarily made up of business men and the affluent, only served as platforms for advertisements—nothing more.

Business controlled everything…. Up until the mid-1800s, newspapers could not really afford to operate without the business man. At some point, though, the papers became more affordable and accessible to the masses, but while the content of the papers included articles and human interest stories, business interest still controlled a lot of the content.

…Until the muckraking era. By the time muckrakers and other writers of the time exposed the rampant abuses of big business, the function of the newspaper evolved. More importantly, while existing and having very different functions, the press agent disappeared from the public relations landscape and the publicity man developed.

And for the public…. Publicity bureaus operated to inform the public of both government and business happenings. For you, the publicity man functioned to keep the everyday consumer aware of business and government activity.

How did companies get press for their organizations? At the turn of the twentieth century, organizations recognizing the importance of public relations developed relationships with the publics they served. As early as 1900, public relations bureaus cropped up in America and Europe in response to the negative press corporate organizations were getting from muckrakers and other activists.

Modern propaganda and the publicist…. In the decades preceding the Depression, the public information model would coincide with public relations efforts in shaping public opinion, especially regarding WWI. As a part of providing information to the public regarding the war, propaganda played a role in selling it to the public.

In the twenties, the publicist became another professional who used press to get information out about clients, who were usually in the entertainment business.

However, while public relations organizations existed, it would not be until the late thirties and forties that the modern public relations professional would actually come into fruition.

So, how do these professions differ from the PR man?

They differ in their function and the relationship they have with the public. Press agents typically engage in one-way relationships to raise awareness related to a cause. The publicity man functioned very similarly but furthered the cause of business and government interests, again engaging in one-way relationships. The publicist functions to promote the image of actors in the entertainment industry or other high-profile figures, again establishing one-way relationships.

The public relations professional, however, engages in two-way relationships that are established by studying the needs (desires) of the publics (including you) they serve for the purpose of informing or persuading them.


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