Shelley Spector has been on a mission to establish and expand the Museum of Public Relations. She founded it in 1997, and recently moved into a space at Baruch College in New York City.
Our own firm has recently celebrated 50 years in the Public Relations industry, and has seen a lot of changes. We spoke with Shelley about the museum, the state of PR, and how she sees the landscape of the industry changing:
MEDIA CONNECT: Shelley, what was the motivation behind the Museum’s creation?
Shelley Spector: First, I think that it was an entity that needed to be created. Very few people truly understand the evolution of the field and especially, how the field has helped shaped our history. They might know certain names– like Bernays and Ivy Lee– but beyond that, practitioners today have little knowledge of the why and how modern PR began 100 years ago.
Besides which, unlike most professions, there are very few existing documents or records of the early days of PR, so there is hardly a way for people today to truly get a sense of our beginnings. As Harold Burson said at the museum’s opening, “Public Relations is one of the few professions with no institutional memory of its history.” I know Bernays, too, thought the same. He also felt it was important to preserve the records of that history for future generations. Bernays lived in a Victorian mansion near Harvard. Most of the first floor was lined with bookcases, and these were filled to the brim with very old, very important books, many from turn of the century social scientists. In the study on the second floor hung about 250 original photos and letters, going back to the early 1900s: Sigmund Freud, Enrico Caruso, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt– a pretty impressive collection.
MC: How did you go about creating it?
SS: One day, on the occasion of Bernays’ 101st birthday, we asked Bernays what he planned to do with all these books, photos, letters and artifacts. He said, “I’d like to use them to create a museum. A museum of public relations.”
At that moment, we offered to help him do that, and he was delighted. Of course, my husband and I had no idea how to start a museum. But we knew we could figure it out. A week or so after his death, in March of 1995, his family invited us come up to Cambridge to collect pieces to start the museum. We walked around the house alongside the librarian in charge of the Bernays’ collection at the Library of Congress. The LOC already had 800 boxes of Bernays’ papers. She had first dibs on the materials, of course, but nevertheless, we managed to collect a terrific selection of books, photos and other historical items that give a great sense of his life and career.
MC: Tell us more about who Edward Bernays was?
SS: Most people regard Bernays as the “father of public relations” but even Bernays would tell you that public relations-type activities had their start not with him but at the dawn of civilization. What Bernays did in 1920 was coin the phrase “counsel of public relations” and provide its first definition, which he did in his 1923 book “Crystallizing Public Opinion. ” It was the first book to lay out the principles, ethics and social science foundations of the modern PR practice.
He wrote nearly a dozen books on the field –far more than any other PR professional — and most are considered classics today. He also contributed frequently to scholarly journals covering politics, opinion research, sociology and international business.
MC: What don’t most people know about him?
SS: Few know that the first-ever university PR class was taught by Bernays– in 1923 at NYU. Fewer know how much Bernays championed the need for the licensing of PR professionals, something that, of course, never came about. Most people do know, however, that Bernays was the nephew–actually, the double-nephew– of Sigmund Freud. It’s quite understandable why Bernays was so influenced by the works of the early social scientists, and especially, by Freud himself. In fact, Bernays defines PR not as a communications activity, but as a social science, not unlike social psychology or anthropology.
MC: How do you define the museum’s mission?
SS: Our mission is to collect, preserve and exhibit records of the profession’s history and provide an educational resource for the world’s growing numbers of PR practitioners, scholars and students in countries around the globe. The museum collects, preserve and exhibits documents, photos and artifacts of historically significant PR programs and professionals. Its archives in the Special Collections Department of the Baruch College Library are open to the public by appointment. We’re considered the field’s foremost resource for PR history research.
MC: So what books does The PR Museum have in its collection?
SS: We have 650+ mostly old, first edition books collected over the years. About three dozen are directly from Bernays’ bookshelves, including books he has authored or contributed to. There are writings from Page, Garrett, Hill, Burger, Lee, as well as all the major social scientists and political writers of the day, including Walter Lippmann. We also have an extensive collection of writings from Bernays’ wife, Doris Fleischman Bernays.
MC: What other materials are at the Museum?
SS: Additionally, we have letters to and from Bernays (such as with Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Henry Luce) plus newer additions, most spectacularly, the first press release announcing the formation of the National Organization of Women, written in 1966 by Muriel Fox, NOW’s PR director.
We have an extensive collection of photos documenting many historical moments in PR history (e.g.: Light’s Golden Jubilee) as well as shots of Carl Byoir, Ivy Lee, Paul Garrett and Arthur Page. Our artifacts include a 1905 candlestick phone, a 1910 typewriter, a stereoscope w turn of the century 50 photos and items from Bernays’ desk, including his In Box as it was found after his death, a stapler in the shape of a banana, from Bernays’ work with United Fruit.
MC: What types of things are you hoping to acquire?
SS: We’re looking to collect historically significant documents, artifacts and photos from the last century. We especially want to broaden our collection to include materials from other countries, whether they’ve had a long PR history, like in the UK and Brazil, or are now in the early phases of development, such as in Vietnam, Iraq and Indonesia.
MC: What are five things others find interesting when you share the history of PR?
SS: I like to talk about not just the history of PR but how PR has shaped history. The class I teach at Baruch, “From Plato to Twitter: A History of Influence, Media and Public Opinion,” begins with the role of mass persuasion in ancient civilizations and goes up through the modern history, with emphasis on the many social movements impacted by planned communications campaigns: such as the American Revolution, the anti-slavery movement and equal rights.
MC: What are the challenges and rewards of launching the museum?
SS: The museum is non-profit and has been working hard to raise funds to support its exhibits and outreach. But the rewards have been significant. To see visitors’ eyes light up when they handle these century old telephones and typewriters, scan a previously unknown booklet from Ivy Lee, see actual edits on a speech written for Eleanor Roosevelt and go through century old corporate brochures. Another reward: gaining followers on the museum Facebook page from nations first developing PR industries: from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Mideast. We have 4200 followers from 52 countries. So obviously there’s a need for an international resource such as the museum to not only educate these students, but to enable them to have community of other students and practitioners the world over.
MC: Has the image of PR practitioners improved over the last 50 years – or declined? Why?
SS: The image of PR suffers because most don’t understand what it’s supposed to be and how it’s supposed to be practiced. This was one of the reasons for starting up the museum in the first place: to help achieve greater understanding of what PR is and is not.
It is not publicity. It’s not a matter of getting “good PR” or “PR-ing a client.” It is not about stunts, making a splash, or calling in a favor to a reporter. It is not “free advertising” — as some in Marketing may describe it. It is not getting “likes” or retweets.
Public relations as it was originally defined is a strategy to build mutually beneficial relationships with its various publics. That’s done best by actions rather than words. If public relations campaigns were conducted the way they were in the first part of the twentieth century, by Ivy Lee, Paul Garett, Carl Byoir, Edward Bernays and Arthur Page, we would not need to worry about its image.
Unfortunately, the need to “measure” and “explain” what we do makes us turn to visible metrics like placements, SEO and Facebook followers. Instead we should be measuring changes in our publics’ attitudes and behaviors that may have been impacted by our campaigns.
You can learn more about the Museum of Public Relations at the official website.