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A Historical Glance at Public Relations

Posted At: February 16, 2009 1:27 PM
by Sarah Minkel

Thomas Jefferson said, “In a truly democratic society, everything depends on the consent of the public.” Public relations tactics have been used since before the Revolutionary War by the Founding Fathers and by many presidents, to gain support and to influence Americans. During a time of great change in the way that the government is communicating with its citizens, it is important to look back at the ways in which public relations has played a role in United States history.

In the 1700s, revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine had little support from colonists at the onset of the Revolutionary War. The leaders of the war used public relations tactics to gain followers for their cause. The tactics were so successful they eventually led the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. It is unclear who organized The Boston Tea Party in 1773, but there are suspicions that it was The Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, or an organization called the Freemasons. This event was considered to be one of America’s first publicity stunts. Over one-third of Boston’s population at the time participated in the protest against the British tax on tea, by throwing tea into the Boston Harbor. This event was successful in gaining the support of the colonists in the revolution, resulting in raised awareness. After the Boston Tea Party, colonists were able to understand the impacts of Great Britain’s rule over the colonies and form an opinion about the situation.

In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense,” one of the first pieces of written communication in the history of the United States. His writings explained the ideas of the Revolution to the common people and encouraged their support. “Common Sense” is considered to be one of the first contributions to the start of the American Revolution.

In order to gain support in ratifying the constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote 85 essays entitled “The Federalist Papers.” The authors of these essays became significant leaders of the United States and are considered to be Founding Fathers. The papers contributed to New York’s ratification of the Constitution, and they are still used today as a basis for constitutional interpretation in Supreme Court decisions.

The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, changed perceptions of government officers. Jackson felt as if any deserving applicant should serve the government, and created a secret board of advisors know as his “Kitchen Cabinet.”Amos Kendall was an average American until he became one of the most influential members of this group, and served as the first White House Press Secretary in the 1820s and 1830s. Prior to Kendall’s success in his position, it was believed public relations professionals needed to be attractive and social. Kendall broke this stereotype and proved Jackson correct in believing that any qualified American should have the opportunity to serve the government.

The “Creel Committee” was created in 1917 during World War I to gain support for the draft, to raise money and to conserve food. George Creel was a “muckraking journalist”  and friend of Woodrow Wilson who swayed public opinion in support of the war. The tactics used, such as creating slogans and war paraphernalia, were used during World War II as well.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his “Fireside Chats,” which were radio broadcasts to the American public concerning issues such as the New Deal and World War II. The speeches were extremely popular with Americans, and resulted in FDR gaining support for the causes he discussed. FDR created the Office of War Information, headed by Elmer Davis, was created in 1942. In order to gain support of World War II, the office distributed propaganda to encourage citizens, especially women, to work in industries that support the war. Persuading the American public was successful, resulting in an increase in military service and support of the President.

In the 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the United States Information Agency, which was in existence until 1999. This agency served as a liaison between the United States and other nations with the goal of gaining mutual understanding. Eisenhower was the first president to appoint a female press secretary, Ann Williams Wheaton. During his campaign for presidency, Eisenhower was assisted by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, the founders of the first public relations agency for political campaign management.

Before the 2008 presidential election, Americans never would have expected to receive a text message from a newly elected president. Public relations tactics presented through social media drastically changed the election process. Opinionsabout the 2009 Inauguration were posted on Twitter and sent through text messages while the ceremony was streamed online. After the ceremony, the new White HouseWeb site went live.

Public relations is an important part of politics and the government. The strategies used by presidents and the Founding Fathers have shaped history. The United Sates of America has been impacted greatly by the people who have used these tactics to reform our nation.

Photo by Kayla Anthony

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