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Public Relations in the United States

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The history of public relations in the United States is as old as the country itself. The leaders of the American Revolution were outstanding public relations practitioners. They used written and oral methods of communications and persuasion extensively. The Declaration of Independence is an example of a written public relations technique. The revolution was not wholly accepted at first, and the early leaders absolutely had to master the art of persuasion. Among the early public relations artists were some of our best known and most respected historical figures: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Presidents Adams, Madison and Jefferson. In addition to being an impressive political and legal document, the Declaration of Independence represented a stupendous public relations success.

In order to gain widespread acceptance of the Declaration, leading pamphleteers like Thomas Paine ("Common Sense") and Madison, Hamilton and Jay ("The Federalist") sold it and its ideals. American historian Phillip Davidson has pointed out that patriot Samuel Adams had no superior as a propagandist and that no one in the colonies realized the importance of arousing public opinion better than he did or took action as assiduously.

Among these early masters of the skills of molding public opinion, a precursor of today's sophisticated public relations techniques, were Abigail Adams, Sarah Bache (Benjamin Franklin's daughter), Mercy Otis Warren and Mary Katherine Goddard. Today, women have achieved more success in public relations than in almost any other profession.


It was not until early in the nineteenth century that firm foundations were laid for public relations as we know it today. These bases were established just as the country saw a significant rise in the fortunes of the "great middle class." This improvement, in turn, was hastened by the fact that suddenly any male citizen could vote, regardless of whether he held property. Universal suffrage enabled the lower classes to take action toward issues which affected them. It also resulted in the political and other leaders becoming more concerned with how to influence the masses.

Andrew Jackson, President of the United States from 1829 to 1837, was instrumental in devising techniques for communicating with and persuading the newly-franchised voters. Mechanical innovations which would make the task easier to accomplish accompanied his thrust to influence the general public. The printing press, which had been operated by a hand lever beginning in 1813, gave way to the more complicated and efficient steam-driven one. By the time Jackson took office, the United States had more newspapers than any other country. Mass media began in 1833, with the New York Sun, which utilized the so-called penny press for the first time. Such changes contributed significantly to the growth of public persuasion-the art of practicing public relations.

When the Industrial Revolution took off in the first part of the nineteenth century, American industry promoted minimum interference by government and began to expand and prosper as never before. But the golden age of business prosperity produced many problems. Much of what was accomplished was couched in great secrecy. There was not always a great regard for how the growth of industry would be accepted by the public or how it would affect the general population.

Citizen groups began to protest the methods used by the emerging industrial giants. During the early part of the twentieth century, many people criticized the monopolies which gathered too much economic power in their own hands and shared little concern for people. Muckrackers like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, took on these giants, as did middle class-ordinary people who had decided that enough was enough.

Child labor abuses, unsafe working conditions and ruthless business practices were widely condemned. The nation's largest businesses were stunned by the criticism, and corporations for the first time turned to public relations experts for help. The emerging giants of American industry had no choice but to enhance their relations with the public.

To help business react to muckrakers and social reform, and to help the government mobilize public opinion during the first world war, independent public relations specialists emerged. Some of the social problems and conditions they encountered are similar to those we deal with today. Labor unrest, periodic unemployment migrations from farms to cities, struggles against racial and sexual discrimination and competition from foreign products are difficulties yet to be overcome.

Innovations in communications in the form of radios and telephones were changing society then as drastically as home computers, video recorders and cable television are now. Keeping in mind the question of scale, these periods saw change as monumental as any time in history.

Today, with so many Americans working in some aspect of public relations, it seems hard to imagine that for centuries it existed as a "calling."
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