Anyone who has studied public relations knows of the industry’s so-called “founding fathers”.
P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) cleverly promoted his eccentric museum and circus with media stunts and provocative ads. From salesman to circus king and politician to philanthropist, Barnum dubbed himself “showman by profession.” In choosing Barnum as one of the 100 most important people of the millennium, LIFE magazine dubbed him “the patron saint of promoters.” The PR industry credits Barnum for his mastery of promotion and press agentry, which helped developed the modern publicity model of PR.
Ivy Lee (1877-1934) was a journalist for the New York American, New York Times and New York World. In 1903 he became the publicity manager for the Citizens' Union and formed Parker and Lee public relations firm with colleague George Parker. In 1906 he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad company, which was under scrutiny for withholding information of an accident to reporters at the time. He immediately issued what is considered the first press release and took reporters to accident sites, regardless of the company’s scepticism to release such information. Lee was promoted after receiving positive feedback, and his job description provides archives for one of the first VP-level PR positions. He later became personal advisor to John D. Rockefeller.
Edward Bernays (1891-1995), a soldier exposed to WWI propaganda and marketing techniques, applied his uncle’s (Sigmund Freud) ideas in the commercial realm to control how people behaved and thought. Not only did he coin the term "counsel on public relations", but he also founded the first American public relations firm in 1919. His career led from journalist to press agent and publicist for the American Tobacco Company and General Electric Company. He tutored presidents, political leaders and companies in the use of mass media.
The 19th century seems to hold distant memories in American and Canadian history; back then the second largest country in the world was populated by roughly 400,000 people and business still revolved around fur trade. Meanwhile, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) China's population dramatically expanded to 400,000,000. Merchant guilds proliferated in all of the growing Chinese cities and often acquired great social and even political influence. Although this period was also faced with immense military and social conflict, it saw outstanding achievements in science, art and architecture.
All of this got me thinking. If the foundation of American public relations can be credited to a soldier with an understanding of psychology, a transparent journalist and an extravagant salesman, imagine all of the undiscovered PR practices that must have taken place in the great history of China.
I once wrote an article about Chinese medicinal pear candy that carries a story dating back 1300 years, to the Tang Dynasty period. The candy was supposedly developed by an emperor’s doctor and the recipe was made public after an inside leak… you see, these things happen with or without the help of Assange. Soon after, a group of hawkers paraded the streets selling the candy and generated public interest with improvised jokes, ballads and tongue-twisters. If the practices of these hawkers were also documented, is it possible that they too could be credited for shaping modern day public relations?
University professors, Ping Ping Fu and Gary Yukl, set out to prove that “cultural values can profoundly affect the attitudes, behavior, and performance of individuals” through their research that examines the perceived effectiveness of influence tactics in the United States and China. Their study focused on managerial behaviour and confirmed common perceptions that Americans prefer direct confrontation, while Chinese use indirect forms of influence, often involving a third party. They state, “Even though rational persuasion is a flexible tactic that can be useful in any culture, Chinese managers are likely to use it less than American managers, because it can provoke overt disagreement, which is considered highly undesirable.”
Contrary to most western efforts to influence public behaviour and perception, Chinese will build interpersonal relationships as a basis for influence. Leveraging on trust and respect that are woven into the relationship, individuals can covertly sway opinion. However, it is likely that a formal means of public relations never surfaced in earlier days due to strict government control and influence over business operations. The crafty merchants who originally sold medicinal pear candy were likely lacking the necessary credentials and connections to apply their skills in a professional setting.
Maybe there is another class of individuals who performed PR-type roles in China’s history. It would be fascinating to unveil some influential figures as the profession has begun to really take shape in the past decade.