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,