A Brief and Inaccurate History of Public Relations
Lying to Yourself: Part 4: Or, Why You Don't Understand What Comms Does
These posts are part of a series written primarily for founders of growing companies who are trying to educate themselves before deciding if PR and comms is a smart investment.
Consider these letters first drafts—especially this one, as it is my attempt to summarize much of the history of public relations in a tidy but possibly reductive way. But before a founder or leader can pick what type of PR resources—in-house or otherwise—it helps to understand why there are so many different flavors of public relations today that, from the outside, seem almost indistinguishable.
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Why Public Relations Looks Like It Does Today
Public Relations and Communications effectively has three eras: the Burson-style agency era that was dominant from the ‘50s and is practiced by most large agencies today; the early digital era that saw often smaller, more tech-focused specialized agencies come about that complemented strong in-house PR executives; and the last decade or so where comms agencies have elbowed into channels and methods that were once cordoned off for marketing or sales. (You could call this the “post-social” era.)
Technically, there is also a previous era in the early 20th century, exemplified and codified by Edward Bernays. But as our aim here is to understand the structure of modern PR and not the theory—and because Bernays had a lot of let’s-say-troubling superfans—we can ignore everything pre-WWII for now.
As you recall, the core job of external communications remains simple: identify an audience; determine what they think; and create an opportunity for them to think something new.
The Agency Era
In the Harold Burson era, it was rare to have public relations in-house. You retained a firm, or perhaps a individual public relations counselor, who met you for cigars at The Union Club once a month to discuss quite serious business tings, such as “I’m not selling enough garters” or “I’m ready to move beyond garters.”
The public relations counselor would listen patiently, wave down the waitstaff for another Stinger, and reassure you that the answer was almost too obvious: he simply would place a rumor in a popular women’s tabloid implying that the nation’s strategic garter stockpile would soon be empty; or perhaps that garters were now gauche in Paris and all the finest women of Europe were now mad for collant fait d'oeufs.
The rumor placed, through pleasantry or perfidy, and sales increased. The next month? A bill for $500 would cross your oaken desk which you only too happily paid.
This was the ceremony of early public relations: one problem, one solution. Funnily, those solutions erred towards stunts—ginned-up limited supplies, a biplane towing a banner, brass-band sorts of things—not just carefully cultivated relationships with reporters. Press releases had more impact at the time, as well, as there were simply fewer of them on the wires and fewer-but-more-impactful outlets to write about them.
In this pre-Watergate era, the hallowedness of the job of ‘journalist’ was less demarcated, especially outside of politics. I once read a Road & Track anthology and was struck by how many of the legendary automative journalists of that magazine’s early era would, at times, go work for an automaker for a spell, then, with seemingly no controversy, head back to auto journalism for another tour. I presume things were both more and less shady in this era. But spend much time pitching today’s trade publications, or niche reporters within mainstream publications, and you’ll often discover someone who might as well be on the payroll of the companies he covers.
The point, though, is that public relations worked. Enough that by the ‘60s the public relations flim men were on professional par with their Madison Avenue flam colleagues, opening the same big offices bustling with account managers and media relations specialists traveling to outposts in exotic locales like Canada and Philadelphia.
This era is not over. The largest PR firms in the world, the Edelmans and Webers and Ketchums, all operate in the mode established in post-war United States. They’re just way bigger now. Most of the these giant PR agencies are part of gargantuan marketing holding companies like WPP or Interpublic, global chaebols making billions of dollars a year through dozens of subsidiaries in advertising, event management, public policy, executive development, research, ‘experimental marketing,’ and public relations.
It’s all very good for society and a great use of everyone’s time.
Through the ‘90s, these sister companies used to have clear lanes: public relations placed stories in the media or on broadcast news; advertising agencies made 30-second spots for television or wrote ethotic missives to be printed in magazines beneath oil paintings of cars; event planners planned events; public policy experts sent telegrams to senators with fifty handy euphemisms to describe chemically defoliating a jungle.
The Defensive Era
As the agencies grew, so did their in-house counterparts. I don’t have a perfect understanding of the evolution of ‘client-side’ public relations—full-time employees whose only job was to promote their employer, with or without external agency assistance—but the largest corporations had Directors of Public Relations such as General Motors’ Paul Garrett as far back as 1931. (If you have suggestions of histories to read about early 20th century in-house public relations, I welcome them.)
But around the ‘70s, by my estimation, a shift seemed to take place: at many companies, especially in technology, in-house public relations was subsumed by a ‘communications’ practice. This was not a new discipline, and still included traditional public relations’ externally facing attempts to gain attention, but also integrated a more modern, somewhat more skeptical view on the breezily participatory role that earned media could be expected to play as part of an overall marketing strategy. A news story about your company might have serious negative impact to reputation, and an empowered press, buoyed by an angry and increasingly skeptical public, was much more antagonistic than previous decades.
It was an era where the wisdom of ”There’s no such thing as bad press/all publicity is good publicity” started to look a little worn. Even with a rise of counterculture alternative outlets alongside the continued growth of major newspapers and broadcast news, there were still relatively few channels by which the public could get news. One bad story could take years to recover from and could dominate news coverage for months. Often, of course, for a good reason: lots of companies were doing shady shit.
In-house communications departments realigned around this justified wariness about media’s value to a company. Smaller companies sometimes forwent any PR spend at all. Larger companies, who couldn’t not be in the news, sort of reversed course: instead of actively reaching out to reporters or publications to try to place stories, they instead took a default position of not responding to queries from reporters by default.
Communications departments became both more defensive and more service-oriented to their internal stakeholders. Comms became more about meting out infrequent and orchestrated access, almost under duress. The understanding of inherent reputation risk each time a company or its products were mentioned made communicators more cautious and, to the extent they could be, more controlling of media.
This new model of defensive comms was exemplified by the technology companies coming out of Texas and Silicon Valley, some of whom eschewed traditional press releases for new types of enthusiast engagement like trade shows and even brand-specific fan events; its service comms analog showed up more in the traditional Fortune 50 industries, where giants like General Electric or Ford employed hundreds of in-house comms specialists who worked more as press release factories responding to the needs (and whims) of other divisions’ executives. Playbooks were made and executed. These were repeatable, relatively safe activations done on home turf: keynotes, conference talks, private dinners, or lavish junkets with hand-picked media attendees.
Apple has the distinction of impacting this change twice: first in its early days, when its (mostly skin deep) piratically toned response to the stuffy computer industry of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s positioned the brand as the first counterculture computing company; and more importantly, in the iMac and iPod era, when Katie Cotton, who joined Apple in 1996 and would run the department until 2014, created the template—or at least the extreme example—for what defensive comms could be. Cotton’s approach to comms during the second Jobs era was quietly antagonistic, wielded access to news and events as a method of spin control, and helped define a Kremlin-like dominance that most media were only too happy to submit to.
Cotton’s public relations model—just like the product design, brand building, and revenue growth success of her Apple peers—is what every CEO not-so-secretly wishes they could have even today. For public relations professionals, it’s almost a curse: while to deny Cotton’s savvy would be absurd, it was made possible only in concert with a company doing nearly everything right at the right time. Yet most clients, especially founders, still believe they can simply demand an Apple-style model without doing the work in other areas of the business that are required to make it possible. (How many tech companies have tried an Apple-like approach to comms with piss-poor products, shoddy customer experience, and a pronounced lack of chill?)
There are ways to recreate Cotton’s model even today. And communications at its best can serve as the center of an entire company’s product strategy. Amazon basically does this with its “Working Backwards From A Draft Press Release” exercise. This “comms-first” strategic model is one I often practice. It works. But it’s hard, and few clients truly want to do the heavy lifting involved, despite their initial excitement.
Comms is still perceived by most extra-marketing leaders as a service, a tap you turn on when you want attention or revenue. But at its most effective, it is both the center of full-company strategic exercises and a service. Expect impact without respecting its ability to clarify business strategy is a recipe for wasting a lot of time and money on public relations.
The Social-Affiliate Era
So there was this company called Facebook.
Before it showed up alongside other social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, the public relations industry was adapting to the internet age quite nicely. Sure, it took a few years to recognize that a silly blog might have as much or more audience impact than a newspaper column. But the old defensive model still worked: grant access as a reward, manage and moderate interviews and information release, invite a few bloggers along with the magazine writers on your safari to Botswana to try out your new camera or clothing line or car.
Social media didn’t so much obviate the need for traditional public relations as complete fuck both the advertising and publishing environments in which it had operated for 100 years.
For companies, digital advertising was cheaper and more effective than television spots, major outlet press hits, or giant events. You shoveled some money into Facebook and Google’s furnaces and ingots of perfectly formed customer purchasing power came out the other side. The metrics and measurement were Orwellian—and to client-side marketers at companies large and small, absolutely delightful. You could track lifetime value, customer acquisition cost—all sorts of things that had been somewhat soft sciences, both to keep the pricing side of advertising in the hands of the publishers and ad agencies and also because impact was simply really hard to accurately measure.
The advertising roles inside of companies became more regimented, as well. New “Growth” roles were able to control more and more of a total advertising spend, forcing more “Creative” roles into service-like functions without the power to justify their former cost. Dedicated channel disciplines developed, mostly around social media, a specialization that turned from a “Let the intern do it” to a critical and sometimes senior-most executive role within marketing—all in under a decade.
Every ad agency on the planet became “digital-first,” developed “omnichannel” or “360°” strategies, and layered online channels into creative and media plans for clients. The venerated 30-second television spot became just another channel—and often not the centerpiece of a campaign.
The impact to public relations—always second-fiddle to advertising within marketing as a whole—was chaotic. Classic ad agencies were starting to act more like public relations firms, identifying influencers to collaborate with or pitching clients on big events. Public relations firms became more like creative agencies, giving rise to another generation of “Stunts first and let God sort them out” agencies like MSCHF that in many ways resemble more than anything else the early-mid-20th century public relations firms.
Smaller PR agencies focussing primarily on good ol’ fashioned media relations came up alongside the hypergrowth tech companies, riding shotgun with small VC-backed companies (sometimes taking equity in lieu of money) until their wagons reached Wall Street. Some of those “small” agencies now employ hundreds of people and have resisted selling to the marketing holding companies, with founders who have sold into other independent advertising groups or transitioned to VC themselves.
The publishing world lost their role as disintermediators. Audiences fractured, getting news from not just social media, but million-plus-follower influencers on YouTube and Instagram, thousands of blogs both real and scammy, and also, you know, all the other old media publications that hung on.
Traditional publishing revenue models collapsed. Early internet display ad rates plummeted. Branded content had a brief moment, then fizzled out. Amazon created its Affiliates program, which monetized traffic from any publication, down to the individual, paying out hundreds of millions of dollars a year which created an entire sub-genre of content (typified by Wirecutter), that has become an essential revenue pillar for even publishers as august as The New York Times—one that funnels millions of dollars directly from a single retailer.
Everything in marketing and publishing started to blend into one, to flatten. That frustrates and frightens many “classic” public relations professionals, who started their careers in earlier eras where the lanes were more clearly defined. (And for many, find their skills and impact unfairly denigrated; a well-placed phone call to a reporter from a flack can still move mountains.)
But this change can also be seen as a return to the place public relations started: clearly stated problems in search of simple, specific solutions. There may be more paths to take than before, and more disciplines shoving into PR’s territory, but isn’t also exciting that comms can finally and credibly start to shove back?
Okay, But Why Do I Care?
Well, it’s your money.
And while there’s nothing I love more than getting into the weeds of history or theory, for the average founder, you really just need to understand enough of public relations to understand the processes and outputs. You should understand enough to know what you’re buying. The rest is academic.
Determining what type or size of agency you need, as well as locking-in on expectations that withstand budget realities, is one of the main reasons I’m writing this in the first place, and something we can dig into more practically in future letters.
Or if you are impatient, feel free to reach out. Helping founders and leaders make these determinations is a huge part of what I do. Keep the Stingers coming.
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