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The Trailblazers of PR History

Published on April 3, 2017, at 8:20 a.m.
by Erica Cooke.

They are the giants who came before us. They are the ones we read about in books and hear about in our Principles of PR class — the ones who set the groundwork for our profession and the shoulders we stand on that make it possible for us to succeed.

Some of these trailblazers are Edward Bernays, Harold Burson, Daniel Edelman, Muriel Fox, Paul Garrett, Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and Betsy Plank. We see who they are for the legacies they have left behind, but who were they before?

We have always learned that it’s important to understand history. It shows us who we were, where we came from and who we can be.

The Museum of Public Relations strives to do just that. The museum provides books, letters, artifacts and papers that showcase the evolution and history of the public relations field. The museum also hosts events throughout the year to pay tribute to the leaders in our field, the most recent being the Women’s PR History Month panel that took place on March 9.

Shelley Spector and her husband, Barry, founded The Museum of Public Relations in 1995 after the death of Edward Bernays.

“My husband and I got to know Bernays in ’85,” Spector said. “One point, during the last years of his life, he had this idea of setting up a museum of PR to preserve and exhibit artifacts of his own as well as other pioneers. It was very important to him that future generations get to see firsthand how the field of PR came about, how it developed, and why we need to recognize it as a social science. … He asked if we were willing to take it on, and even though we had no experience with museums, we kew this was something we had to do.”

After Bernays passed away in 1995, his family donated a percentage of his books, letters, artifacts and his inbox to Shelley Spector. She made it her mission to create the only museum in the world devoted to the history of PR.

“Bernays, Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and Paul Garrett, all these pioneers had to figure out PR from the ground up,” Spector said. “By encouraging people to read his [Bernays’] books and listen to the interviews, you become a better professional. He was unusual and powerful, and to think [everything] was carried out 100 years before social media was created. In 1919, what did you have to work with? You may have had a telephone, a telegraph, but what it took back then was big ideas, and he had extraordinary ideas.”

So what is the importance of preserving our history? Dr. Karla Gower, professor at The University of Alabama and director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations,  has some ideas.

“I think it helps us understand where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Gower said. “It helps us to understand why we are the way we are. It helps us look critically at our field, which is important in terms of growth and development. It’s really important to understand where we came from, and I don’t think you can understand that without looking at the past.”

Photo by The Museum of Public Relations

Gower spoke at the Women’s PR History Month panel on March 9. She shared about Betsy Plank, often referred to as “The First Lady of PR.”

“Her agenda was always professionalizing the field,” Gower said at the Women’s PR History Month panel. “It was not about improving or increasing gender diversity. Especially when she was president of PRSA, but even before then, it was not about women. It was about representing and elevating everybody.”

Gower believes it is important for young women to see and acknowledge the leaders who came before us. It’s important to realize that we all can overcome obstacles by being dedicated, passionate and understanding that you’re not alone. She said we owe them a huge debt of gratitude because they developed the field for us, but we won’t necessarily read about many women in our history books.

Spector can attest to this. She said that it is important to trace back the history of public relations and everyone it encompassed, including the African-Americans and women who made huge contributions to our field.

“We all need role models,” Spector said. “It is very important to get that out there and to make sure textbooks will have that information. You have to see that there were people who did extremely important work. We need to show students and young professionals the significant contributions of African-Americans and women who used PR to change the world.”

Photo by The Museum of Public Relations

Pat Ford, worldwide vice chair and chief client officer at Burson-Marsteller, agrees. Ford sits on the board of advisors for The Museum of Public Relations — and also The Plank Center — attended the panel on March 9.

“They really brought to life the sad reality that a whole lot of history of public relations has essentially been like that ‘Hidden Figures’ movie,” Ford said. “Muriel Fox and Betsy Plank are both right in their own way. They both made huge strides for women leaders in PR.”

Ford said it was luck that brought him to the museum, and he has aided the museum in many ways, most recently moderating at the Black PR History Month panel on Feb. 9. He considers it an honor to pay tribute to the early trailblazers.

Photo by The Museum of Public Relations

“Their legacy isn’t near being completed,” Ford said. “We’re still discovering and rediscovering things about them, and furthermore, what they set in motion is having the multiplying effect. Individuals like those honored at these events, they are improving the practice of public relations for more generations that come along. What more could you ask for in a life well-lived?”

There are many historical and intriguing artifacts in the museum. Some include Muriel Fox’s press release from the launch of the National Organization for Women in 1966, Edward Bernays’ inbox with his papers and scribblings that were left the way they were on the day he died, and papers from Ivy Lee that his biographer used.

All of these relics and collections serve as a time machine that transports us back in time to view the world through the eyes of the greats. The Museum of Public Relations allows us to ask the question “what is our history, and how can we learn from it?”

“PR is not social media,” Spector said. “It’s about ideas and strategy and counseling. That’s one thing the museum reminds us of: It’s not about getting the most ‘likes’ or ‘retweets.’ In the end, it’s about securing our clients’ relationships with their publics. After all, that’s why what we do is called ‘public relations.’”

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