When I began in professional public relations, things were a lot different. We’re talking the late 1960s, early 1970s, when political revolution commanded the headlines, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe and other pro-democracy areas of the world. Post-World War II turmoil had helped strike the match.
The young were suddenly on the move. In America, we’d had our fill of segregation, McCarthyism and war — the Vietnam War in particular — which was tearing the country apart. We wanted peace. We wanted to help the poor. The young also wanted unadulterated freedom to do whatever they felt was groovy.
Thus, the Hippies and Yippies. Thus, the biker gangs. Thus, Haight Ashbury and Greenwich Village. Thus, experiments with hallucinogens, grass and other so-called socially-conscious drugs (some things never change). Thus, the SDS, SNCC and the Black Panthers. Thus, more than society had ever allowed or tolerated before.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jul. '18 50th Anniversary Magazine
The upside was the Civil Rights Movement, the peace movement, the anti-war movement, all of which had a positive effect, despite the forces marshaled against them. The downside was that a lot of anarchistic thought infected discussions of political change. Some reformers wanted so much so fast that they began to riot. Remember the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention? Remember the Kent State killings? Remember our cities on fire? Remember white flight? Remember the assassinations: Medgar Evans, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo, Malcolm X, George Lincoln Rockwell, and friends James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (and those were only in the U.S.)?
The reaction was swift and punishing. The police panicked, the politicians panicked, average citizens panicked. How could anyone be so violent and virulent against our great country? They must be anti-American. They must be Communists. They’re going to ruin our comfortable lives.
At the same time, businesses were being attacked inside and out for not lending a hand, for preserving the status quo. But customers saw the need for change because they were swept up in it. Employees were, too. Soon, among corporations, government agencies, universities and in the streets, there was an unusually unanimous call for action to redress our social and political ills, for integrating society racially and culturally and for reaffirming the freedom to speak, assemble and choose.
As Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities,” in one of the most famous lead sentences in a novel: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”
However, despite the resistance of the powers-that-be, public and private institutions began responding as never before. They lined up for change because they knew it was needed. Too much ignorance, poverty, racism and cultural indifference had been allowed to fester for generations. It was hurting the economy. It was hurting business. It was hurting global competition. It was also undermining ideas like capitalism and free markets. Things had to be done to right the ship and sail it into calmer waters.
Because of its function, professional public relations had a big role to play amidst the call for change and it quickly took action on its own or at the order of the C-Suite, which saw the meaning on the wall. Help or get hurt by not doing so. Corporations took a giant step. They began to view and practice social responsibility differently. They went from benign neglect to active engagement.
Rather than adhering to the ideas of well-known economists like Milton Friedman (“In [a free economy] there is one and only one social responsibility of business ... to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game”), they understood public relations’ value of helping society with charitable donations, job training, business teaching, management counsel and more.
Besides making money lawfully, they became good guys socially. Public relations departments and their firms paved the way by reaching out to stressed communities and inviting them in for discussions of how they could help each other.
In the Bell System, I was given permission to create a program called Volunteers in Action (VIA), which had company managers teach, train and inspire children and teens in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. The volunteers worked at local settlement houses in the five boroughs. Eventually, the program went national and lasted into the 1990s. (This is not the Christian education program of the same name that I see referenced on the Internet.)
Corporate social responsibility put business in a more favorable light. It underscored that companies had a heart even as they pursued their goal of profit and the attendant jobs and economic impact. Companies also had the smarts to see that PR as well as marketing and advertising could be used to enhance community and customer relations.
Prior to the age of CSR, most professional PR was focused on publicity, about blowing your horn, about informing the public and other stakeholders about how good your products and services were. This approach was mostly one-way communication as opposed to the two-way communication that has become more dominant over the past two decades even as it’s still aborning.
Back then, the public and its representatives didn’t have the same interest and engagement with big institutions as they do today. They depended on the print and broadcast press for most of their news. Newspapers were the vehicle of coverage and delivery. Advertising drove the presses. Publicity was pretty much how PR had been practiced since the early PR pioneers came on the scene at the start of the 20th century. Think Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, William Parker, Carl Byoir and John Hill. Publicity meant everyone had to be a good writer with a facility for preparing news releases, pitches and media alerts. Form follows function.
Thus, it was largely impossible to get a PR job in corporate America throughout the ’60s and ’70s into the ’80s unless you’d been a journalist. You had to be an expert in preparing news releases, pitches and media alerts. Strong writing and editing skills were sought and prized. You had to know the media. You had to run press conferences (they had lots of them back then). And you had to relate to reporters and editors (you actually went to lunch or dinner with them!). PCs and email had yet to emerge — never mind the Internet — so working with the press was pretty much the only game in town, and thank goodness. With all its warts, the Fourth Estate has been and is a counter balance to institutional power, and protector of the people’s right to know in a free society.
The publicity model continued through the 1990s, but it had begun to shift during and after the dot.com boom. That’s when the PR business suddenly grew in leaps and bounds. Corporations and agencies couldn’t find people who were journalists fast enough to handle the new business (PR practically drove the Age of Website content and development). Thus, companies started hiring college graduates with degrees in psychology, philosophy, theater arts, history — in any field if they had a quick mind and the gift of gab.
Also, about this time, marketing communication and integrated marketing began to be bandied about as umbrella terms for all corporate communication, regardless of what it was called on the organization chart. This caused more than a little agita in the halls of PR and still does, but it wasn’t the panacea everyone thought. There’s a big difference between selling and promoting, between one-way advertising and two-way PR. IM and IMC have had a major impact on PR but their influence has yet to become as intrinsic to corporate communication as the traditional marketing industry might like.
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla that had entered the room before and after the dot.com boom was the Internet, after which came the explosion in personal computers and the Wild West of social media, which hasn’t only changed how publicity is done but has weakened its value and therefore the use of standbys like news releases. At the same time, the Internet has strengthened the value and use of blogs, podcasts, video, bots, paid advertising and now Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. Imagine what the world of corporate communication will look like in 50 years. Wow is an understatement.
So, professional public relations has come a long way baby, in a moment in history that saw communication not only grow and prosper but also become absolutely essential to the management of for-profit and nonprofit organizations. This includes businesses, government agencies, NGOs, associations, charities, celebrities, public officials, even criminals — just about everyone and everything that has reason to fight for and win public favor.
Fifty years is a minute in earth’s history and maybe an hour in human history, but in this time minor and major miracles of communication have been forged and delivered with the goal of empowering relationships among people, the institutions that serve them, their communities and their countries. The next fifty years will bring unimaginable challenges, but as in the past PR will rise to the occasion and contribute to their resolution. I wish I could be here to see it, but I likely won’t. At least I can say I’m glad I was around to witness professional public relations’ ascendancy to conspicuous prominence as a tool not only for publicity but for crisis and reputation management, as well.
Don Bates is an award-winning public relations practitioner, educator, trainer and consultant. He began his career as a reporter in Boston, after which he was a senior executive in major corporations, nonprofits and consulting firms, and later owned The Bates Company for a dozen years before merging it with another firm. He teaches at New York University, conducts PR writing workshops, writes regularly on PR management issues and handles PR agency M&A as a Senior Counselor for Gould+Partners.