PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
19th century social movements and public relations spurred one another's development
© 2013; 2016 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
main page
About the author

Because public relations now plays such a prominent role in business and corporate operations, many people think it emerged from and is primarily business-oriented. But, that isn't the case.

Historically, government agencies and religions made much earlier and greater use of what we now call public relations techniques than businesses did. So did citizen-activists and advocates who wanted to turn various social and political causes into full-fledged social movements.

It's generally accepted that public relations emerged as "a profession" - a distinct field of endeavor in which someone could earn a living - sometime during the last decades of the 19th century or the first decades of the 20th century. There are, however, differences of opinion among scholars about the exact date.

But, there is no disagreement about the fact that there were many, many efforts at relationship-building, publicity, and other activities that would now be classified as public relations long before public relations became a distinct profession. There were also many people who were very adept at performing such tasks. It's just that neither they nor their actions were labeled as "public relations" in earlier times.

The underlying concept of a "social movement" also predates the use of that term.

There have been sweeping changes in political, religious, and social thinking and behavior patterns for as long as human society has existed. Some of these transformations - what we now call "social movements" - reflected the views of the majority. Others emerged from the dreams of a small minority. Some won easy acceptance and brought only minor adjustments because that was all that was needed to adapt to new or changing social conditions. Others challenged fundamental beliefs and dramatically reshaped the established social order.

Whenever such changes in thinking occurred, whether they were labeled "social movements" or some other term, they tended to be most successful when they employed techniques that would today be considered public relations. Successful social movements that used such techniques long before public relations was recognized as a profession included:

Social movements and public relations both flowered in the 19th century.

By 1848, the term "social movement" was being used in academic journals and in popular usage. Similarly, publicity and public relations work were emerging as career paths, although the term "public relations" was still little used and would remain largely unknown until almost the end of the century.

It was, however, a century of dramatic social, political, and economic change. Starting in England and then spreading throughout Europe, the Industrial Revolution was transforming the economy and long-accepted notions of work, art, and manufacturing. Many of these changes were well and widely received. They were not, however, universally accepted. Some of the new ideas and the lifestyle changes they brought were vigorously, sometimes violently, challenged by Luddites who actually encouraged a violent revolt against mechanization and its dehumanizing impacts.

The result was two competing social movements. One advocated technology and progress. The other claimed to be defending traditional ways and cherished human values. Both made extensive use of publicity, communication, and other techniques we now associate with public relations.

In the U.S., the key social movements were abolition and temperance - one seeking the elimination of slavery; the other, the elimination of alcoholic beverages. - And, like industrialization in Europe, the abolition movement in the United States triggered a backlash and intense counter-movement (anti-abolition). And, as was true in Europe, all three of these American social movements - abolition, anti-abolition, and temperance - heavily relied on public relations techniques.

Abolition and temperance weren't new ideas. Academicians and philosophers had been discussing and writing about them for decades. However, neither had gained much visibility or support among average citizens. They certainly didn't constitute "movements." They might have more accurately been called ideas whose time hadn't yet come.

So, activists set out to change this. They wrote and spoke forcefully, vigorously spreading their messages in books, magazines, and pamphlets. They tried to inform the uninformed, sway the undecided, and unite their believers. Their goal was to transform their philosophical ideals into aggressive campaigns against slavery and alcohol respectively.

Opposition to slavery didn't just pop into existence in the 1800s.

Opposition to slavery had been present in America since colonial times. In fact, it was very prominent and widely discussed during the writing of the Constitution. However, once the Constitution was ratified, abolition faded somewhat from public view and became a back-burner issue until the U.S. began adding new states. Then, as new states were being considered, abolitionists who foresaw the unpleasant possibility that they might come into the union as slave states intensified their publications, speeches, marches, and protest meetings.

Stung by the criticisms of the abolitionists and by the economic impacts they produced, southern slave-holders responded with similar public relations tools and techniques. Many referred to themselves as "state's rights supporters," although they were most often called "anti-abolitionists" by Northerners.

The arguments and sometimes violent confrontations between these two movements continued for decades. It wasn't resolved until their public relations "war of words" had escalated into what ultimately became a real war of armies that we now call the U.S. Civil War.

Temperance had also been a long-standing issue in America.

When we think of temperance today, we often think in terms of its peak of success which occurred during Prohibition in the 1920s. But, that was a short-lived success for the temperance movement. In fact, prohibition is now seen as a failed experiment and is often regarded almost as a bad joke.

What many people forget, or simply don't think about, is that the temperance movement is still alive and operating in the form of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Looking back, we see that temperance, like abolition, also first arose during the colonial era in America and, like abolition, it also went through several cycles of rising and falling popularity long before the mid-nineteenth century. Its first real flowering occurred between 1830 and the start of the Civil War, a period when temperance activists began using what would today be called public relations tools.

The movement's take-off began with the formation of local temperance societies. Once these were established, the movement's leaders were able to build upon their success by adding state, regional, and a national organization, all of which held meetings and conventions. The members were encouraged to give speeches and write articles, poems, and songs decrying the horrors of "Demon Rum," and they responded by the thousands. They also staged demonstrations that dramatized their opposition to liquor and the evils that it promoted. Thousands and thousands of supporters - predominantly women - became active in the movement, and it seemed to be growing daily until its growth was brought to an abrupt end by the outbreak of the Civil War. -- Even this well-organized movement wasn't able to overcome the widely-perceived "need to drink" during a time of war.

After the war, the temperance movement really wasn't able to regain its momentum until almost the turn of the century. That's when the spokesperson who is still considered the prime figurehead of the movement arose.

Carrie Nation was a master of public relations. Marching into saloons with "her trusty hatchet" to destroy barrels of liquor and bar counters, this Kansas woman struck fear into the hearts of saloon owners and became a darling of newspaper editors nationwide. - Simply having her photo on their front-pages would sell extra newspapers. - Frequent news stories about her revived the whole temperance movement and pushed it into the 20th century and on to its greatest success, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act.

Not surprisingly, Nation's saloon-smashing rampages resulted in criminal charges and lawsuits against her. But, in a master stroke of irony and public relations, she paid her fines and court costs by selling autographed souvenir hatchets and performing in staged re-creations of her saloon-smashing escapades.

Technically, Carrie Nation wasn't an actual public relations person but, like Amos Kendall and P. T. Barnum other well-known nineteenth century pioneers of publicity, the persuasive and promotional techniques she used ultimately became a part of public relations. So, while advancing temperance as a social movement, she simultaneously fostered the emergence of public relations as a profession and demonstrated that its roots were not solely in business.

Today, there's not a single popular social movement -- whether it's the Tea Party, born-again Christians, same-sex marriage advocates, or supporters of international terrorism -- that doesn't use of public relations and its arsenal of communication and persuasion techniques.

On-line readings
table of contents
Underlying concepts
of public relations
Managing personal and
organizational encounters
Practicing Public Relations
home page
29 May 2016