The Shady Origins of PR – And How We’ve Risen Above It

Back in the early 1900s, public relations didn’t look exactly the way it does today. Many of the common practices we use now all came from dubious origins. Ivy Lee, one of the founders of modern public relations, invented the press release when he tried to control all information about a Pennsylvania Railroad accident. It worked so well they hired him on full time, and press releases slowly became the norm.

The more communication there is between potential customers, the more companies need to be aware of that conversation. Unfortunately, early practitioners decided to try and shape the conversations people were having.

Luckily today businesses are (generally) more honest, and PR agents changed their ways over the years. But it’s always good to remember how we got here.

Early Days

Have you ever heard the term “spin doctor?” No, not the 90s pop-rock band. A spin doctor is someone who can take bad news and make it good – and vice versa. Usually, politicians have one or two PR pros on staff who are really good at this. They have to be, as the other guy is spinning news the other way just as hard as they can!

Unfortunately, this term also originated in the early days of public relations. There were some pretty big corporations and industrialists back in those days, and they weren’t always up to 100 percent good. Again due to mass media communication, journalists were able to investigate and stir up interest in what these corporations were doing – and if they were doing it on the up and up.

Feeling nervous, these mega-rich companies would hire PR pros (like Ivy Lee) to send out “the real facts” on whatever was getting leaked at the time. For instance, if they caught wind a journalist was going to report on bad working conditions, the PR department could cook up a quick campaign saying just the opposite, more than likely with fake “worker testimonials” and a few pictures of pristine working conditions for good measure. This would all go out before the journalist’s story would air, effectively killing it.

Spin also involves “burying” a bad story when a bigger story breaks. For instance, United Kingdom government press officer Jo Moore got into trouble when it leaked she sent an email during the September 11th attacks saying “it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” This practice is as old as PR and still continues to this day.

But times did change. And it shows when people like Moore get into trouble for trying to get away with activities like that. The public won’t stand for it anymore, for one, and PR pros nowadays struggle to uphold a good reputation. They know PR today is more about trust then lying and manipulating, and they don’t want to betray their new position in the world.

That may have come from the origins of public relations, and a desire to overcome the industry’s less-than-stellar roots.

Still, we haven’t completely risen above. What are some of the most egregiously “spun” stories you’ve ever encountered?

This article is written by Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. Download a free copy of the PR Checklist – a 24 point list of Press Release Dos and Don’ts here:

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