History of Public Relations in US Public Administration
Early American Practice
External communication by government agencies is as old as the Republic. In the beginning, there were annual reports. For executive branch departments and agencies annual reports were a routine form of accountability to the legislative branch. In those days, newspapers published articles that contained long excerpts of official documents. Knowing this, some media- savvy department heads began writing their annual reports in a popular style that would engage lay readers. Gradually, the motive of contributing to an informed public became an underlying justification for external communications by government agencies, usually indirectly through such press coverage and later with publications mailed directly to interested audiences (Lee 2014a).
The Progressive era in the US (1890-1920) was a period of major political and economic reform, largely triggered by the industrialization and urbanization. This period saw an increasing professionalization in the fields, which came to be called public administration and public relations. The former occurred in the context of the assassination of President
Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed seeker of a patronage job in the federal government. In abhorred reaction, public opinion pressed for installing a merit-based civil service system in the federal government in lieu of patronage. While the original scope of the US Civil Service Commission covered only a minority of federal employees, that proportion gradually increased to a majority, especially by the actions of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945).
In parallel, the profession of public relations was emerging in the American private sector as a way of influencing public opinion. Early practitioners were press agents seeking to improve the standing of their corporate clients or to enhance fundraising by private universities. Coming from a different direction, Progressive era civic reformers saw publicity as a power for good, whether through journalistic muckrakers writing exposes about corporate malfeasance, calls for transparency of corporate documents submitted to federal regulatory agencies, and good government reform initiatives by civic organizations (Greenberg 2016; Sheingate 2016).
Publicity became a tool for public administration as well. Besides using public relations to contribute to an informed citizenry, civil servants quickly saw that extensive public communication activities could be used to help implement their agencies’ missions. These bureaucrats also realized that a positive public image increased an agency’s ability to maintain its autonomy from meddling by politicians on Capitol Hill. The epitome of the power of agency public relations was the work of Gifford Pinchot, head of the US Forest Service (a bureau within the US Department of Agriculture) during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). Pinchot blanketed dailies, weeklies and special audience publications with all manner of press releases, columns, useful information and reports about the importance of conservation and multiple uses in the forests his bureau managed (Ponder 2000). He became so popular with the media and the public that he was untouchable by his conservative Congressional opponents.
Some examples of the use of publicity by government agencies in the 1910s and 1920s included the campaign by the US Children’s Bureau to reduce infant and maternal mortality (Straughan 2007) and the efforts by the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service to counter hostile public sentiment in the aftermath of World War I (Faith 2010).
By 1920, it was common for major federal agencies to employ public relations specialists, but not by that moniker. In 1913, Congress had passed a law prohibiting federal departments from employing “publicity experts.” These and other Congressional prohibitions on public relations in public administration were not much of a barrier. In the case of the ban on having publicity experts on staff, only the names needed to be changed to protect the innocent (Lee 2011).
A political game of hide-and-seek became a fixed element of Washington life, with politicians attacking propaganda from the bureaucracy and public administrators vehemently denying they were doing any such thing. They were merely disseminating information, they said. Sometimes this was an explicit part of their statutory mission, such as the US Department of Agriculture mailing helpful information to farmers or the National Weather Service distributing forecasts to radio stations. Furthermore, accountable governance called for a dedication to what was eventually called transparency. Agencies also claimed they needed staff professionals to deal with inquiries and requests from the news media.