#AEJMC17 Panel Preview: PR History

L: Ivy Ledbetter Lee; R: public relations activism

by Jeffrey Morosoff, Hofstra University

“Public Relations History in the Classroom: Making More Time for Meaning-Making.”

People have been practicing the art of influencing public opinion since the dawn of civilization. By viewing history through the lens of public relations and the development of interpersonal and mass communication, it quickly becomes evident that many events were initiated or influenced through campaigns to sway attitudes and behaviors. From cave paintings to moveable type to Twitter, the underlying skill of influencing opinion is always linked to understanding how people make decisions and take action. By studying the strategies behind the most successful movements of the past — the campaigns that influenced societies to seek independence, adopt new religions, and even start and end wars— we can learn from public relations’ history and better understand how best to build successful PR campaigns today.

The problem is–and it IS a problem–very little about PR history is understood or even known to practitioners, at partly because very little PR history is taught in university classrooms.

On Saturday, August 12 at 9:15 a.m., AEJMC’s Public Relations Division will present “Public Relations History in the Classroom: Making More Time for Meaning-Making.” The panel discussion will feature six seasoned university faculty,  including the founder of the Museum of Public Relations, whose passion for the history of PR will bring into focus the importance of making history relevant to college students.

What is (not) being taught?
Faculty charged with teaching the history of public relations typically relegate their efforts to a single chapter in a textbook and a brief session within a semester. A 2016 survey conducted by Museum of Public Relations Founder Shelley Spector and Dr. Emily Kinsky of West Texas A&M University revealed that while 73 percent of college instructors in schools of communication teach public relations history within an introductory fundamentals course, just 13 percent of their class time is spent on the topic. That’s only three-quarters of teaching using 13 percent of class time to teach PR within just a single course!

When  it is being taught, PR pedagogy is framed in a practical perspective, emphasizing research methods, media relations, crisis communication, reputation management, and traditional and online tools structured to prepare students for the professional workplace. Far less attention is dedicated to public relations as a social science and its impact on history. The most common reasons for the lack of focus on PR history are a lack of resources, low interest, pressure from department heads, and time stresses.

There’s no question of PR’s historical role
Public relations’ techniques and practical applications have been impactful on social, religious, cultural, and political movements since the beginning of recorded history, with direct parallels to the evolution of media technologies. Public relations strategies and propaganda have been used by governments, religious leaders, and influencers around the world to build public consensus and shift attitudes to support distinct military, political, social, and economic goals. PR has a long legacy and its lessons for the 21st century student and practitioner are deep and essential. They need to understand the influence that public relations theories, practices and strategies have formally and informally has had on the shaping of world events, and recognize the role that public relations has played in influencing social movements and cultural shifts around the world.

This panel will focus on PR history pedagogy
While undergraduate and graduate students may have some basic study of the history of public relations in their introductory courses, this panel will make the case that there should be a far deeper and more thorough examination of the parallel development of public relations, understanding of human behavior, and advancements in communication throughout human history. Here’s a synopsis of who they are and what they’ll cover:

  • Shelley Spector, founder of the Museum of Public Relations and instructor at Baruch College in New York, will present the aforementioned revealing 2016 survey conducted with Emily Kinsky of West Texas A&M University, which demonstrated how little time and effort is spent on teaching PR in the classroom.
  • Karen Russell, associate professor of public relations at Grady College, University of Georgia, will look at how textbooks influence our view the PR field, and how women are underrepresented in the literature despite their countless contributions..
  • Denise Hill, assistant professor at the School of Communications, Elon University, will ask and answer, “So why study the past?,” focusing on how the civil rights and other social movements of the 20th century relate to and inform the social movements of today.
  • Burton St. John, associate professor of public relations at Old Dominion University and expert on 20th century PR pioneer Ivy Lee, will discuss how attention should be paid to PR’s history of defining its effectiveness by appealing to individuals’ values.
  • Meg Lamme, professor of public relations at the University of Alabama, will address the questions: In what ways could history aid clarity, perspective, in understanding the PR spectrum playing out now? In what ways could a deeper grounding in PR help students and industry avoid misunderstandings and missteps in perceptions of what PR is–and isn’t?

The distinguished panel discussants were assembled and will be moderated by Jeffrey S. Morosoff, associate professor and director of the graduate program in public relations at Hofstra University. He will share his experience in developing and teaching his first course in PR history this summer, and will work hard to ensure that this panel discussion will be interactive, informative, entertaining, and essential.

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