Public relations history is one of my interest areas, just as a curiosity and one area of my research as an academic. So I was fascinated to stumble across an article in the British newspaper the Guardian about Sir Basil Clarke, whom the article calls the “Father of Public Relations.”
Now this is interesting for several reasons. For one, I had always heard that name given to Edward Bernays in various books and articles about public relations history. I’ve always taken that with a grain of salt, because historians try to avoid the “great men” fallacy, which is to tell the history of a profession through the life and experience of just a few famous examples. Indeed there are many others who should be taken to account, including Ivy Lee and my personal favorite, Arthur Page, not to mention countless others who were pioneers even though lesser known.
But I also know, from reading the proceedings and from this past summer attending the annual International PR History Conference, that there can be too much of a U.S. bias in PR history. The Guardian article doesn’t say that Clarke is the Father of British PR; it proclaims him as the father of PR, period.
I’m not going to debate whether PR was “invented” by Clarke or Bernays, or anyone else. It’s just interesting to see another example of an early pioneer of the profession, and one in a different cultural context. Clarke and Bernays were contemporaries in the sense that both were working in what we would now call “public relations” in the early 1900s. Both also dabbled in government propaganda, before the name acquired its nasty connotation. Like Page and Lee, Clarke also came from a background in journalism. He also was similarly fascinated with the prospects for public relations as an emerging profession.
It’s good to know history, especially about one’s profession. It’s especially good to know it broadly, always encountering other individuals and national contexts. For that reason, I think I may buy the new book about Clarke referenced in the article for an insightful read.