I was glancing through the Grand Rapids Business Journal‘s 2017 “Book of Lists,” jumping to the advertising and public relations section of course, and read a short article in that section in which a particular sentence jumped out at me:
“In recent years, many PR firms have created in-house news bureaus to aid in getting their stories told.” The GRBJ subsequently explained that these news bureaus allow firms to pitch fully packaged news stories versus just a pitch to an editor who has to decide whether to invest time and resources to cover the story.
This is why this jumped out at me: I am currently re-reading Stewart Ewan’s “PR! The Social History of Spin”. Ewan recounts how AT&T, in the early 1900s, was being innovative by employing a mix of paid advertising and “packaged news items”. This activity was formalized in AT&Ts Information Department, later renamed, wait for it, the Public Relations Bureau.
In other words, what the GRBJ states is a phenomenon of “recent years” among PR firms was actually done a century ago by major corporations.
What’s interesting to me is why this aspect of PR history is considered “new” again. It has to do in my opinion with the media landscape. In the early 1900s there was an surge in “new” media that coincided with increasing leisure and reading time of an expanding literate public. Publishers needed information to feed their growing audiences, not unlike the call for “content” today. TIME Magazine was founded in 1923 and by two twenty-something Yale grads who proclaimed that people needed a “news weekly” to make sense of all the overwhelming volume of information. Radio came onto the scene in 1919 with a first commercial radio station, and by the end of the decade there were radios in many homes.
These days, with the proliferation of digital content and the shrinking resources of journalism, some packaged content also looks welcome.
But we also have to be careful in the current era of sponsored content and fake news that we PR professionals are honest in our presentation of news whether via earned or owned media. This reminds me of a little bit of “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.
In 1927 a man named Arthur Page became AT&Ts Vice President of Public Relations. He’s a PR hero of mine because he used the term public relations, not “press agent” or “publicity man,” and because he was at the vice president level of the largest corporation at the time.
But he should also be heroic to all of us for how he practiced PR. For one, he noted by the late 1920s that he didn’t do press releases and publicity much anymore, but counseled management on their relationship with their publics. Yes–that is the essence of PR, not getting publicity.
Page is also heroic for his principles of practice codified subsequently and encouraged currently by the Arthur Page Society. The first two are my favorites: tell the truth, and prove it with action. They serve as good reminders in any era of PR, and especially now when digital media offers opportunity but also temptation to be less than ethical in our communication.
So even as PR practices like news bureaus are both as old as silent films and as new as Snapchat, there are principles that remain timeless. I continue to embrace and encourage innovation in our field of public relations, but also a mindfulness of our history and our responsibility to be ethical in our practice.