PR Introduction - From Ab Fab to Chartered status

For an industry that’s all about looking after reputations, PR has had a hard job losing its own association with Ab Fab style luvvies. But now that it’s a £1billion business and its industry body has just received chartered status, things might just be starting to get serious.

So where did it all begin? It’s difficult to trace the origins of PR, because ever since people could communicate they’ve been looking after their reputations.

The image of hard-nosed Government spin-doctors manipulating the news agenda seems a recent one, but the government was using spokespeople 200 years ago.

PR as a business seems to have been around since the early 20th century. Unsurprisingly, it’s the Americans who claim to have invented the business side and they’ve even got a museum dedicated to it. (www.prmuseum.com).

Ivy Lee was said to have invented the press release when, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad, he sent reporters the company’s written version of an incident on the railway before they heard it from elsewhere. This did the job and the rest is history.

Until the 1950s it seems that PR in the UK was very much about public information. The first PR consultants sprung out of ad agencies. And, unlike the female dominated occupation it is today, they tended to be men, either ad men, former journalists or ex Army types.

The main objectives of PR have changed little over the years.. As the leading industry body puts it: “Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”

What has changed is the size of the industry, channels of communication open to it and how it portrays itself. In the UK alone it’s now a £1 billion business, employing around 48,000 people and still growing.

It’s also working very hard on its own image. One huge step was its industry body, the Institute of Public Relations, being awarded Chartered status last year. The CIPR aims to continue to improve the reputation of the industry through better evaluation – long gone are the days when success was measured simply by column inches – better training and demonstrating how the industry can be ethical.

The many more channels of communication now available have made looking after a company, organisation or individual’s reputation much more of a challenge. In the early days of PR there was little more than print media and word of mouth. Now we have 24-hour rolling news and the Internet. Bad mouthing a company or individual to a friend wouldn’t have done much harm previously, now one throwaway comment on a web forum or blog can be around the world in seconds.

And if false information is being presented as fact it’s a long hard job to pull back a company’s reputation. Of course the industry is using new media to its own advantage too, with some companies operating an if you can’t beat them join them policy by inviting staff and customers to put blogs on their websites.

PR’s history and future is really tied up with what is going on in the world. If there hadn’t been a railroad there wouldn’t have been a need for the Pennsylvania Railroad to communicate about an accident. And if there was no reality TV, there would be no former contestants needing PR representation. And the fact that there are more and more people working freelance within the PR sector is a reflection of social changes that have resulted in people wanting greater flexibility in their lives.

So, whatever developments there are in the world, you can guarantee the PR industry will be there.

Judith Gaskell


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