Public relations began to emerge as an identifiable industry in America in the early part of the 20th Century. From the mid-1800s onward there had been a rapid consolidation of wealth and power into the hands of big business resulting in systematic abuses of that power on their part. By the turn of the century trade unions began to emerge in order to protect workers. In time public opinion became highly sceptical of the new corporations and there were calls for stringent new regulations on corporate power. In this hostile climate of public opinion big business found itself in need of friendly propagandists.

Stuart Ewen, author of “PR: A Social History of Spin”, puts it thus: “corporate PR starts as a response to the threat of democracy and the need to create some kind of ideological link between the interests of big business and the interests of ordinary Americans.”

The practice of PR was pioneered and shaped by men such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Lee was a journalist who moved into handling press relations for Standard Oil and railroad companies. Up until then companies faced with a crisis, such as a railway accident, had tended to do their best to cover up accidents and problems, engendering an oppositional attitude and hostility from the press. Lee innovated by allowing journalists supervised access to accident scenes, defusing press hostility and in the process exercising some influence over coverage.

Even in the early years however, PR practitioners were not above lying to promote their clients’ interests. Ivy Lee famously handled public relations for the Rockefeller family after the Ludlow massacre of 1914, when 14 striking miners were shot dead by the National Guard who were working on behalf of John D. Rockefeller, the owner of the mine. The event provoked a national scandal. In spinning the Rockefeller line, Lee printed numerous falsehoods about striking miners, claiming that they had started fires and deliberately provoked the National Guard. According to Stuart Ewen, Lee quickly gained a reputation as a professional liar. In the 1930s Lee accepted work for the German Dye Trust to improve relations between Nazi Germany and America. He died with the accusation of being a Nazi sympathiser hanging over him.


Edward Bernays (quoted above) was another of the early PR men. He learnt his trade working at the Committee for Public Information, or the Creel Commission, Woodrow Wilson’s pro-war propaganda outfit that coaxed the American public into supporting US involvement in World War One. After the war, Bernays opened his New York office in 1919 and worked for companies including Procter & Gamble, CBS, General Electric and Dodge Motors. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, attempted to apply theories of social psychology to his work in mass communication. By contrast with Lee who claimed to be very open, Bernays was quite candid about the secretive and manipulative nature of his work (see opening quotations), and was expert in the use of third party advocacy. Working for the manufacturers of Chesterfield cigarettes, he famously boosted sales of tobacco to women by persuading 1930s feminists to adopt smoking as a symbol of emancipation.


But it wasn’t until after World War II that the PR industry really began to take off. Larger companies began to emerge from an industry dominated by individual consultants. Companies such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller crossed the Atlantic in the 1950s becoming the first PR transnationals and quickly assembled global networks of offices. For the first time it became possible to coordinate corporate propaganda in both the US and Europe.


In the sixties, Hill and Knowlton again innovated by offering lobbying as a service to its clients. Within a few years its Washington DC office had multiplied its revenues many times and H&K began a string of acquisitions of other Washington lobbying companies. Now all of the major PR companies have a ‘public affairs’ or ‘government relations’ practice.


In recent decades the PR and advertising industries have begun to consolidate. A small number of large conglomerates, such as WPP Group and Omnicom, have been buying up the largest players and offering integrated corporate communications services. Only one of the top ten PR companies, Edelman PR Worldwide is still independent.