Wednesday, 3 August 2016

PR history - prospecting for archival gold

Archives research is the bedrock of historical research. The hours, days and weeks spent searching through all forms of archives are akin to the prospector panning through sands and mud in the hope of finding speckles of gold. Only occasionally does a nugget appear. Although it can feel like time wasted, historians realize that they emerge into the light with a greater understanding of organizations, contexts and personalities. Bureaucratic archives – minutes of meetings, memorandums, policy documents – are often rewarding as they can challenge the organizational narrative.                              

It is a pleasure to access a well-organised and competently catalogued archive. Starting with the catalogue, you scan the contents and request documents to read. Next, when you have requested material in advance, you arrive at a Library or Archive building and there’s a trolley filled with files. Each box will be numbered and there will be a list of the files contained in it. This may seem like a short cut to finding nuggets but it is often only the beginning of your search. Once you get your head into the slightly dusty atmosphere of paper files, books and publications, diaries and whatever else (including expenses claims for dry cleaning, in one case), you have to follow your instincts and let multiple stories unfold. In this way, unexpected connections can be found and new perspectives emerge. Historical research is always serendipitous.

In one area of my historical research, I have benefited from the well-organized archives at Leipzig University in Germany and University of Navarra in Spain. At these universities, the papers of two leading mid-twentieth century European practitioners, Albert Oeckl (Leipzig) and Joaquin Maestre (Spain) have been catalogued. Both men were active in the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) in the 1960s and 1970s, a period when public relations was expanding as a communication practice in Europe and North America. At Bournemouth University, where I was based, IPRA’s archive is held. I will write about its development shortly, but the existence of the Oeckl and Maestre archives has helped me to delve deeper into IPRA’s history by triangulating material in Bournemouth with these two archives. In reverse, Prof Dr Günter Bentele from Leipzig and Dr Natalia Rodríguez-Salcedo from Navarra have accessed the Bournemouth archive to undertake research that supports their investigations into Oeckl, Maestre and the expansion of public relations in Germany and Spain. Many other researchers from around the world have requested material or have visited Bournemouth.

To prospect for gold in the archives, you must first have archives. Then, they need to be catalogued in such a manner that other historical researchers can benefit from them. Matters such conservation, storage and the presentation of the catalogue online or in published form follow. As public relations is a new field of historical research, there are relatively few archival resources. In the United States, the papers of Edward L. Bernays are in the Library of Congress, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison has John W. Hill’s archives along with others. In the UK, the papers of the Institute of Public Relations (now Chartered Institute of Public Relations) are held at the History of Advertising Trust. As mentioned above, there are archives in Germany and Spain. The European Public Relations History Network (EPRHN) has also published a guide to archives with public relations content across the continent.

But how are archives found and catalogued? In an ideal world, they would come in a well prepared form with a catalogue or schedule of contents and accompanied by funding for the preparation of a detailed catalogue, scanning of material into a searchable form and agreement about secure storage and future access. That seldom happens. However, the less-than-ideal arrival of most archives allows the historian to be fully familiar with the contents and derive benefit.

In the case of the IPRA archive, I received an unexpected phone call. The organization was “down-sizing” and wanted to clear away material. Would I be interested in the “old papers” and various publications and books? The caveat was that the office move was happening in a few days’ time and, well, they could end up in a rubbish skip. My response was to immediately accept the material and drive across the South of England a few days later to collect it. The papers, files and books filled the back of the car and passenger seats. My next step was to find secure storage and then inspect the material. Would it be a disorganized pile of old rubbish? Might there be an archive to develop? Storage in a rapidly expanding university is hard to find and so my office became the archive’s home for four years before it was transferred to the University Library. I scrounged some archive boxes and moved the material into them, with a rudimentary list of the contents of each box. This initial sift showed that there was an archive to develop.

The next task was to prepare a catalogue of the contents. In the various boxes were bureaucratic papers from 1953 to 2002, some preceding IPRA’s formal establishment in 1955. Other material included membership guides, white papers (called Gold Papers), its magazine from 1977 onwards, newsletters for members, records of World Public Relations Congresses, and the randomly assembled contents of the IPRA office’s bookshelf. As this was my first archival cataloguing task, I sought advice from librarians about cataloguing procedures and protocols and also from BU media historian colleagues who have vast experience in digitizing sound and visual archives. There didn’t appear to be any specialist software to use and little guidance other than to look at the formats of other archives. Although we later used EndNote to catalogue the contents of IPRA Review (the organizational magazine), I adopted a very simple, clerical approach using a self-designed Word document. In reflection, an Excel spreadsheet would have been a better choice, as data can often be transferred easily into other software, but I was very familiar with Word and knew that the final document could be converted into a PDF and uploaded to the Internet.

The minutes of meetings were recorded by year and venue (e.g. 1970, Geneva) with comments on their contents. For example for the Geneva meeting, the text reads blandly: “Code of Ethics & Discipline sub-committee of Professional Standards Committee formed, with Herbert Lloyd in the chair. “It will study how to police the profession.” The former Code of Ethics group chairman M. Lucien Matrat “left the meeting” (pp.4-5)”. Matrat’s action was, to my analysis, the main action or outcome. It was actually a meeting in which there was a major shake-up over the organization’s approach to the policy and policing of ethics. Lucien Matrat of France, a major figure in European public relations organizations, had prepared IPRA’s Code of Athens in 1965 but was unceremoniously replaced by Herbert Lloyd of the UK, a more pragmatic personality. Matrat walked out of the meeting and was not welcomed back to IPRA for several years.

The same cataloguing model was used for records of IPRA Conferences and Congresses, although the Comments section usually listed the collateral material for each event that was held in each file. Other discrete files, such as IPRA’s 40th birthday and photographs, were also listed in this way. Members’ Registers, IPRA Newsletters and IPRA Review were catalogued by year and, where relevant, volume (issue). Books and publications have a conventional Harvard (author, date) reference. Later, the contents of IPRA Review were catalogued using EndNote because of its flexibility in referencing styles. However, it is more difficult to offer this information online as it requires searchers to have this specialist software.

Thus, during 2011, the archive was rescued, stored and catalogued but that is only part of the story. Fortunately, I was able to take some study leave before the academic teaching year commenced and immersed myself in the files for around three weeks. Our dining room at home became Archive Central and the family cat liked nestling in an archive box. This was a plodding clerical task of methodically organising the files into year and date order, bedeviled at times by loose undated papers which needed a home, and gaps in the files. On a few occasions, only an agenda was available without any papers for the meeting. (Later, some gaps could be filled from the Oeckl and Maestre archives). Gallons of tea later, the catalogue was completed in its initial form before being tested by ‘guinea pig’ colleagues who were asked to use it. Then there was a further revision and it was published online. There was a further update in 2015 when a former IPRA Secretary-General sent some new material.

The ‘added value’ for me as an historical researcher has been the preparation of journal articles on IPRA’s Code of Athens (Watson, 2014), formation of the Greek PR industry (Theofilou and Watson, 2014), IPRA’s relationship with Australia (Watson and Macnamara, 2014) and PR’s response to IT (Watson, 2015), as well as conference presentations in several countries. I have been able to identify articles about national public relations history from the archives for authors who contributed to the seven-book National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices series that I have edited for Palgrave Macmillan. By immersing myself in the preparation of the IPRA archive, the outcomes have been much more than the completion of the project. Within what seemed like the dusty dross of bureaucratic history, there were some nuggets that made all those weeks of prospecting worthwhile. I hope that I have shown that if you involve yourself in archival preparation, you will find it to be a valuable part of your training as a historian and as a researcher.

The EPRHN catalogue of archival resources is at:


Theofilou, A. and Watson, T. (2014). The history of public relations in Greece from 1950 to 1980: Professionalization of the “art”. Public Relations Review, 40 (4), 700-706.
Watson, T. (2014). Code of Athens – the first international code of public relations ethics: Its development and implementation since 1965. Public Relations Review, 40 (4), 707-714.
Watson, T. and Macnamara, J. (2014). The Rise and Fall of IPRA in Australia: 1959 to 2000. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 15 (1), 23-36.
Watson, T. (2015). PR's early response to the "information superhighway": The IPRA narrative. Communication & Society, 28 (1), 1-12.
·      A earlier version of this post has been published on PR Conversations,

Monday, 1 August 2016

Writing PR history

Over the past 27 months I have developed and edited a seven-book series on the history of public relations. It’s been a challenging but often satisfying activity and so this post reflects on my learning.

The editorial journey began in mid-2013 when I discussed the book proposal with the publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. It was to be a different approach to previous histories of public relations, which, with few exceptions have a narrative that PR was invented in the USA, whose practitioners introduced it to the world. However, as scholarship has developed recently, it is evident that PR appeared in different forms. There is not one ‘PR’ but many.  Also, I wanted the series to have a more valid, authentic style with chapters from nationally- or regionally-based authors who eschewed the use of North American frames of reference in favour of local archival and oral history research.

The series was titled as National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices and we decided to publish in a series of monographs, rather than in a single handbook. The books were, in order of publication: Asia (including Australasia), Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Latin America and Caribbean, Western Europe, essays on historiography (the writing and theorization of history) and North America, to be published soon. Although there was some debate of the use of “Development” in the title, I considered that the PR sector in all its forms has developed in the past 150 years but not always in the linear, upward path that progressivist authors have claimed.

My next step was to recruit authors. Each book would have a target of 10 chapters of 4000 words each plus references. There were also word counts for the editor in the Preface, Introduction, Index and other publisher information. For the North American Perspectives volume, the chapters were slightly longer at 4750 words.

Fortunately, I knew many potential authors personally or we had heard of each other. In some books, notably the Latin America volume, they had to be tracked down through friendly academics who knew someone who had met someone at a conference. In the first five books, there was at least one country for which there was difficulty in identifying the right person. The fastest acceptance was 10 minutes from dispatch of an email when a Singaporean author was looking at her computer around midnight and Skyped me immediately to discuss the project.

As the series was to be written in academic yet readable English, and many authors were not native English speakers, the editor’s role was very important. Some authors had studied and worked in the UK, North American or Commonwealth countries but many relied on colleagues and translators when writing academic material.       

This was an inter-dependent relationship. The standard of historical research and writing had to be of very good international standard, yet each book needed chapters submitted on time. So my relationship with authors was as friendly mentor and editor: firm when I needed to be but always encouraging.

Only one chapter was rejected outright. Despite two editor’s revisions, the author just wouldn’t accept basic academic standards of referencing to support assertions. Four other authors didn’t produce chapters on time, even after extensive extensions. Two of them just disappeared and no further email or other contact was received. Luckily, I was able to replace one elusive author with a regional expert academic who had written to me when he had read about the series’ first book.

A few chapters caused “grief”. One came from a European author who submitted a chapter without any references to support the story being told.  As this person was the ‘expert’ on that country, their view was that no source material was needed.  OK, I said, no sources means no chapter. After a tense wait with deadline approaching, references were added and the chapter accepted, but there was a strong chance that a replacement author would be needed.

Historians aren’t expected to be mathematical geniuses but some struggled with the 4000 word limit in the first five books. Submitted chapter lengths ranged from 3000 to 7500 words. Some Latin American authors were upset when told that 3500 words had to be taken from their chapter. I aided the process by proposing changes. They further edited the chapter and weren’t happy at the time but were pleased with the published result.

Another chapter from Latin America illustrated the problems of thinking in one language and writing in another. I just couldn’t understand what the author was trying to say in parts of it. Fortunately, a Spanish academic was visiting my university and researching archives for a chapter for a later book in the series. If the text defeated me, it was re-imagined into Spanish sentence structures, which answered some questions. But some sections defeated us. My solution was to rewrite them and propose revisions to the author who, happily for me, accepted them with minor changes.

Although native English speakers should be very proficient, it wasn’t always the case. Some chapters needed as much work as those from authors whose English is a third or fourth language. That’s a teeth-grinding annoyance for editors.

The result of 27 months’ effort was that 94 authors wrote 60 chapters that include the histories of 75 countries across seven books: in total, around 350,000 words. And we are all on friendly terms. That’s a multiple achievement.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss the use and value of archives for PR history. (Don’t put your files in the shredder when you retire!)

·      Earlier versions of this article have been published in Viestijat (, the online magazine of PROCOM, Finland, and on PR Conversations,

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

PRDepiction being updated - contributions welcomed

The PRDepiction blog, which lists representations of public relations in films, novels, radio, TV and documentaries is being updated with a new look.

We would welcome additions or amendments, as it is a resource for students, practitioners and academic researchers.

You can find the blog at: 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

PR memories - Tim, Toni and Dan

Looking back across the literature of public relations, one of the gaps has been the story of participants and leaders. The number of biographies can probably be counted on one hand, in English language at least. Ivy Lee, John Hill (Hill & Knowlton) and Edward Bernays come to mind. Others have been memorialised in academic journal articles but they aren't easily accessed.
Now, like London buses, three have come in fairly close timing. Two are memoirs; one is a corporate biography. In this northern autumn/fall, the two memoirs have been published.
The loudest and brashest is Right or Wrong by Lord Tim Bell of Saatchi & Saatchi, Lowe Bell and Bell Pottinger advertising and PR renown. It is published by Bloomsbury and has been serialised in a national newspaper.
More simply presented is Glow worms, self-published by Italian PR adviser Toni Muzi Falconi and available free online or as a low-cost paperback from Amazon. But don't let the packaging confuse you, as both authors have considerable personal and political lives which are placed before the reader.
The Bell memoir has points of Mad Men-type humour that are funnier and more ribald than the TV series, considerable insight into UK Conservative politics from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s and into the golden era of British advertising in the 1970s.
However, it is a mess to read with lumps of Ayn Rand-type libertarianism bobbing up at odd times that confuse the narrative. Lord Bell, in life, is a charmer in the style of what Australians call 'a larrikin in a suit' - Fun to be with, loyal to friends, devastating to enemies (many examples in the book) but not always in control of his actions. His opinions are strongly held but tediously expressed.
Toni Muzi Falconi, now in his mid-70s, tells about his role in the development of Italian PR from the 1960s onward complete with tales of success, errors, and corruption in the inter-relation of government and the promotional sectors. It is interwoven with tales of his privileged upbringing, a priapic youth and a sometimes turbulent personal life. Along the way he developed and sold several PR and advisory businesses and was a leader of the Global Alliance PR body at its outset.
Both memoirists present a 'warts and all' tale of themselves without 'spin' or embellishment. They have impressive networks of contacts which are exercised in personal and professional life, so there is no doubt that they see themselves as leaders and innovators but there is an essential raw humanity in these books.
Published a year or so ago is the corporate biography of Dan Edelman, founder of the eponymous internationally-operating Edelman agency group. Titled Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations and written by former agency staffer Franz Wisner, it is also offered as a free download (via the annoying Scribd service) and as a impressively produced hardback.
It tells the story of Edelman senior as he moved from his home in New York City to Chicago after war service and, with some risk, set up his agency in a distant city after making his name promoting Toni Home Perms to American women. The agency, after initial problems, took off and the book then tells more of the rise of the company than of Dan Edelman.
Treated as a popular history of the rise of the PR business in the US, Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations is useful background. However, it is the product of a (very successful) PR agency which wants to put the best image forward, not only for its founder but his heirs and successors. For all the glossiness and presentation, it could have been a stronger and more engaging book had an historian researched and written it.
All three books are worth tracking down for personal reading and libraries, if you are a practitioner, historian of PR or students. Let's hope more memoirs are being prepared by practitioners and industry leaders to fill this deficit in the history of PR.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Bernays did not create public relations

When you spot an error that is so obviously wrong, you assume others will notice it. But when it is repeated and published, unchallenged, in a leading European industry publication, it is time to set aside fears of being perceived as a pedant and respond.

The error in question is a statement by Robert Phillips in the latest Communication Director (03/2014). In his article, Trust me, PR is dead, he wrote that “Public relations was the brainchild of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, created as a means of control over the masses, whose democratic judgement he did not trust” (p.24).

Except that Bernays did not create public relations, which was a term that had been in use for around 40 years and had many other practitioners before Bernays started his business in the early 1920s.

Even Bernays’ biographer, Larry Tye, does not make this claim or did Scott Cutlip in his history of American PR or did Stewart Ewen, whose “PR, the social history of Spin” has an essential first chapter on Bernays.

PR was in use by railway companies and utilities in the US from the final quarter of the 19th century onwards. The first US PR agency was recorded by Cutlip in 1905. It was soon followed by the emergence of Ivy Lee, who was vastly more important as a practitioner, industry influencer and author on PR than Bernays.

In 1938, when Brandon Batchelor listed the 10 most influential PR practitioners in the US in his book, Profitable Public Relations, Bernays was not listed among them. Essentially, he was a self-publicising loner who was avoided by his contemporaries, as several histories and biographies show.

What Bernays was successful at doing later in life was to create his own legend as ‘the great influencer’ which he did through books published through the University of Oklahoma and then giving his archive to the Library of Congress. He assiduously courted the image after his consulting career was over.

Ewen captured the self-aggrandisement of Bernays when he visited him as an elderly man at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and found that the visit had been an artifice developed to show how important he was. It is well worth reading.

As for Bernays, it has to be admitted that his books from the 1920s - Crystallising Public Opinion, and Propaganda - are still in current print which is an enduring legacy. But this is largely because they are used by critical scholars and media studies academics to show the evils of PR to students. They, too, have been taken in by Bernays’s claims of thought leadership. At the time of their publication, it was Ivy Lee’s books and his ‘Declaration of Principles’ that were widely read and influential, not Eddie’s tomes.

Bernays neither had the power nor the clients to shape PR as “a means of control over the masses”, as Robert Phillips claims. However, he was following the concerns of Walter Lippmann and others about the impact of democracy when looking at the revolution in the new Soviet Union and the breakdown of order in Germany in the early 1920s. It was a common attitude.

PR has a rich history, but it wasn’t invented by Edward Bernays as cursory reading would have demonstrated.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

What is 'love? Abuse by marketers

This won't be a treatise on love, although I love my wife and family and try to 'love my neighbour', as Jesus said. But I don't 'love' a brand. In fact, any brand that asks me to affirm my love for them is sadly misguided.

Here's the situation: Recently, I bought a new Ford Focus. It's very nice and a top example of how a manufacturer can constantly improve a product yet remain price competitive. When completing the purchase, the salesman told me that I would be sent a survey by email asking about my experience of the purchase. Please, he implored, say you were 'completely satisfied' with the purchase or he wouldn't get his bonus.

So yesterday, the survey arrived and I ticked the question that I was 'completely satisfied' so the salesman, who had been very professional, would get his reward. But what disturbed me were questions, with a five-point scale' was whether I 'loved Ford' and, later, whether I 'loved' the (unnameable) dealership.

What an abuse of the term 'love'  to imply that I could have (to quote OED) 'a strong feeling of affection' or 'great interest and pleasure in something'? I have left out the sexual attraction element of love definitions as it would be perverse to have such feelings about an inanimate collection of metal, plastic and rubber or a corporate entity

Even these definitions are low on the scale of the understanding of love as a complex emotional state with deep ethical and trustful characteristics. So my view is that Ford's reputation has slumped with these inept questions.

I answered "neither agree nor disagree" on the five-point scale because I simply didn't care that much about Ford. It was a question that was utterly irrelevant. I hope Ford keeps making nice middle-market cars but their marketers learn not to abuse their customers with such repellent demands for corporate affection.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Checklist for CSR

As Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is increasingly drifting from its moral and ethical base, I have proposed a checklist for communicators to use when reviewing the validity of CSR strategies.

The historic reason for CSR activities being developed by organizations was recognition of their role in society. From the 1950s onwards, forward-looking businesses accepted that their purpose was not only to make a profit but did so in order to improve society.

“CSR” is now frequently used as a marketing ploy with little relationship to “doing good”. It’s becoming another form of ‘greenwashing’ where a patina of social engagement is wrapped around product and service marketing. Even the graphic symbols of CSR frequently show the world being saved and green shoots rising from coins, which are gross over-statements.

The 10-point checklist calls on communicators and executives to ensure that motives for CSR are clear and honorable; that policies and activities are created by consultation; that there is a commitment to CSR, not just a short-term advantage; and resources are in place, along with governance, to make sure policies stay on track.

       Motives? Is something being hidden?
       Dialogue before CSR policies are announced?
       Employees and other stakeholders involved?
       Long-term commitment or short-term advantage?
       Mutually beneficial outcomes or ‘licence to operate’?
       Resources to implement?
       Senior management “owns” the policies? Or a functional task?
       CSR governance structure?
       How will ‘value’ and ‘benefit’ be assessed?
       Is the policy ethical? Can you live with it?

CSR, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability are valuable concepts and actions that bring business closer to society. I hope the checklist will aid formation of CSR actions that benefit everyone – management, employees and communities.

The checklist was launched at the Middle East Public Relations Association Symposium in Dubai on March 20 and will be presented in Australia at a public lecture to be held at Macquarie University on Thursday April 10.