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 (www.viestijat.fi), the online magazine of PROCOM, Finland, and on PR Conversations, www.prconversations.com.