Public Relations Pre-history in the Early 1800s Age of Reform

TitlePublic Relations Pre-history in the Early 1800s Age of Reform
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Adams, E., R. Wakefield, and T. Page
Affiliation (1st Author)Brigham Young University
Section or WGHistory Section
DateFri 28 June
Slot CodeHISF3a
Slot Code (Keyword)HISF3a
Time of Session14:00-15:30
RoomHelix - The Studio
Session TitleHistorical development of forms of public
Submission ID5532

This paper examines the communication efforts of early 1800s reform movements to advance their causes. Many of these associations and movements strategically advanced their causes and used mass media tools for their messages. Many of the activities they generated to achieve their dreams were what we now wrap around the term public relations.      Many historians and public relations scholars suggest PR as an industry began with businesses during the Industrial Revolution. This era overwhelmingly influences economic historiographies, but to provide more insight into today’s political debate, earlier eras need to be carefully examined. One of these is what historians call the “Age of Reform,” an energetic period in the early 1800s driven by the great steam engine of voluntary interaction¾people coming together in villages and across communities or states to foster causes around similar interests, ideas, and hopes. While these groups often appealed their causes to government and businesses, they were, in reality, self-propelled movements that typically worked in advance of politics or commerce. Movements and associations for the betterment of society thus sprang to life during this period. The American Colonization Society (1815), the Anti-Slavery Society (1823), American Temperance Society (1826), the American Peace Society (1828), the Female Moral Reform Society (1834), the Aborigines Protection Society (1837), and various women’s suffrage organizations were but a few of these movements. As mentioned, the primary activity of these associations paralleled many of the public relations strategies and tactics of today. Miller recognized possible antecedents within public relations historiography:  “These [activities] commonly include press agentry, advertising, reform movements, etc. . . . Such PR activities often include public relations at the grass roots, conducted by the people rather than at the people.”[i]  Although public relations would not be identified as an industry until the following century, the tools these groups used indicate that those techniques now considered as modern-day practice were already in place during the Age of Reform. The tools included printed material:  books, tracts, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, journals, and circulars. These associations also opened up local and regional offices and secured endorsers, or people of interest and influence, to lend legitimacy. These movements tried to generate a following, and, in some cases, financial support. These objectives required movements to explain their aims and motivations to various publics. Examination of the formation and early years of these groups shows that their attempts to promote and persuade were almost entirely public relations.    [i] K.S. Miller,“U.S. Public Relations History: Knowledge and Limitations.” In M.E. Roloff (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 23, 381-420.

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