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The Rise of Public Opinion in the 1800s and Early 1900s

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Summary: To help business react to public opinion during the First World War, independent public relations specialists emerged.

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. This enabled men of the lower classes to take action toward issues that affected them. Soon, this also resulted in 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 male voters. Mechanical innovations that 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 model. By the time Jackson took office, the United States had more newspapers in circulation 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 thus contributed significantly to the growth of public persuasion—the fundamental art of practicing public relations.

Citizen groups began to protest the methods used by emerging industrial giants that largely ignored the disenfranchised and working class masses. During the early part of the twentieth century, many people began to criticize, through the written word, the monopolies that gathered too much economic power in their own hands and shared little concern for people. Muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, took on these giants, as did many ordinary people from the middle class 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 as a result, 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 through a newly emerging profession.
To help business properly react to and address muckrakers and social reform head on, and to help the government mobilize public opinion during the First World War, independent public relations specialists arose as a timely solution. Some of the social problems and conditions they encountered are similar to those we deal with today. Labor unrest, periodic unemployment, migrations of workers and families from farms to cities, struggles against still prevalent racial and sexual discrimination, and globalization are parts of the national conversation that have yet to be overcome.
Innovations in communications in the form of radios and telephones were changing society then as drastically as social media, the modern surveillance state, and rapid technological advancements are now. Keeping in mind the question of scale, these periods saw change as monumental as in any other time in history.
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