The PRoblem with history

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(L. to r.) History panelists Denise Hill, Elon University; Shelley Spector, Museum of Public Relations; Meg Lamme, University of Alabama; me; Burton St. John, Old Dominion University; and Karen Russell, University of Georgia.

After just teaching my first class in PR history, I was honored to moderate “Public Relations History in the Classroom: Making More Time for Meaning-Making,” a roundtable discussion on August 12 with academic experts at the Association for the Education of Journalism and Mass Communication’s annual conference.

People have been practicing the art of influencing public opinion since the dawn of civilization. From cave paintings to moveable type to Twitter, the underlying skill of shaping opinions is always linked to understanding how people make decisions and take action. By studying the strategies behind the most successful movements of the past, we can learn from public relations’ history and better understand how best to build successful PR campaigns today.

The problem is–and it IS a problem–very little about PR history is understood or even known to practitioners, partly because so little PR history is taught in classrooms. Faculty charged with teaching it typically relegate their efforts to a single chapter in a textbook and a brief session within a semester. A 2016 survey conducted by Museum of Public Relations Founder Shelley Spector and Dr. Emily Kinsky of West Texas A&M University revealed that while 73 percent of college instructors in communication schools teach PR history within an introductory fundamentals course, just 13 percent of their class time is spent on the topic. That’s only three-quarters of teachers using 13 percent of class time to teach PR history within only one course!

Public relations’ techniques and practical applications have been impactful on social, religious, cultural, and political movements since the beginning of recorded history, with direct parallels to the evolution of media technologies. PR and propaganda have been used by governments, religious leaders, and influencers around the world to build public consensus and shift attitudes to support military, political, social, and economic goals. Students need to understand the role that public relations has played in influencing social movements and cultural shifts. My distinguished panel made the case that there should be a more thorough examination of the parallel development of PR, understanding of human behavior, and advancements in communication throughout human history. Your thoughts?

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