The History (and Future) of PR

Sixty years ago today a small PR firm opened for business in the Merchandise Mart of Chicago. It was started by a 32-year-old named Dan Edelman… with a payroll of three and one client—The Toni Corporation—whose offices were situated just down the hall.

At that time, PR was viewed as merely an add-on and something used primarily for corporate reputation or publicity for celebrities. But over the last 60 years that has dramatically changed, as has the world. The classic pyramid of influence with elites at the top and mass audiences at the bottom has been supplemented by an inverted pyramid with passionate consumers, empowered employees and social activists. They are the new opinion formers.

Our profession is now uniquely suited to help business engage in this new world. We have a unique view of the world through a stakeholder lens, valuing reputation over short-term gain. We recognize the connection between brand and corporate reputation.

We help companies decide on policy, and then explain the rationale. Through a breakthrough idea, we spread the word through transmedia storytelling. And we create compelling content that lives at the center.

For our industry, this changed dynamic presents a new role and opportunity; the need for public relations to lead, and to do so under the Public Engagement framework. Fittingly, it’s the leadership Dan always believed that PR should have. He believed it sat above advertising in the communications hierarchy.

As l look to the future, I see five behavioral changes that will be required of us as an industry.

  • Provide clients with advice on what to do, and then how to communicate around the media cloverleaf (social, hybrid, owned and traditional). We believe that business must go beyond the minimum standard of license to operate to license to lead… taking on the major issues of the day and prove performance through transparency.
  • Aim to have the dominant creative idea. The stranglehold of advertising on the marketer is now loosened.
  • Be comfortable with interpreting data and insistent upon using it. On the front end, we must offer our clients fresh insights that lead to great ideas. We can generate true discussions and learn from communities of shared interest. We can find the new opinion formers, the passionate consumers, the social activists and empowered employees in the inverted pyramid of influence. We can use search insights and web analytics to tailor the delivery of content based on time of day.
  • Show, don’t just tell. In a world of increasingly limited attention spans, we need to harness the power of video and photos because they are more snackable, emotive and sharable. We must also provide deeper, more informative visuals, such as infographics, as well.
  • Find the right balance between global and local. We need to help clients shape global reputations, but at the same time remember that PR is inherently local. At the same time, agencies must find the right balance between being a firm with a strong U.S. heritage, and one that is truly global.

As Dan saw from an office in the Merchandise Mart 60 years ago… as we see with even greater clarity today… PR, at its best, can help move business and society forward in a complex world.

Simply put, it is PR’s time to lead.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.