Standing on the shoulders of past communicators

August 30, 2016

Yan Jin, Shelley Spector, Bryan Reber and Lucinda Austin

By Yan Jin, University of Georgia; Shelley Spector, Spector & Associates and the Museum of Public Relations; Bryan Reber, University of Georgia; and Lucinda Austin, University of North Carolina

Corporate communication is often overlooked from a historical perspective. We fail to examine the foundational wisdom of those who created the discipline. The mastery of these pioneers remains a source of fascination and inspiration for practitioners and academics alike.

Our project, funded by the Page Center, aims at viewing historical economic crises—namely the Great Depression and the 2008 Financial Crisis—through the eyes of public relations for the first time. We will combine findings from archival research completed this summer and forthcoming in-depth interviews with chief communications officers (CCOs) who were active during the 2008 crisis. What we find will supply empirical evidence on how corporate crisis history can inform ethical and effective crisis communication practice, and equip the CCOs of today with resources for crisis preparedness.

At this early stage of the research process, the specifics of the role and impact of public relations in America of the 1930s are still somewhat elusive, but there are some tantalizing tidbits. History teaches us that, after economic crises as profound as the ones the United States –and the world—suffered in 1929 and 2008, the public and private sectors may disintegrate into a competition for public favor.

We still have a vivid recollection of the intense public debate that, in late 2008, ended with the bailing out of the financial institutions responsible for the crisis. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that, however polarizing this decision was, its scale and impact did not rival the massive structural, economic and social changes that the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) administration implemented during the Great Depression, warding off strong opposition from politicians and corporate tycoons.

In contrast to President Hoover’s passivity during the years that followed the 1929 Crash, FDR and his New Deal offered the American population an unfamiliar solution based on welfare and regulatory policies. It took FDR and the various New Deal agencies years of constant efforts to move public opinion in their favor. For example, FDR’s famous Fireside Chats and public speeches were an especially popular initiative. They also used documentary photographs collected by the Farming Security Administration or the Works Progress Administration.

In response, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) ran radio advertising, developed promotional and educational films to portray industrialization in a favorable light and distributed syndicated columns by economists, among other tactics.

Transparency, timeliness and the placement of the citizen in a protagonist role were common themes across all governmental communications in the 1930s. With the birth of modern polling techniques by the American Institute of Public Opinion (now Gallup), we had insight for the first time into the public's mind and the effectiveness of the various communication initiatives aimed at gaining public support.

Our findings to date tell a story of accomplishment and reverence for strategic thinking, with communications at the epicenter of national politics and crisis management. The study of past best practices, when complemented with takeaways that the in-depth interviews with CCOs will provide, will offer an opportunity to identify the gold standards of public relations practice in times of crisis viewed through a historical lens.

Also contributing to this project are: 

Miquel Morales, Baruch College
Rosanna Palencia, Baruch College
LaShonda Eaddy, University of Georgia
Camila Espina, University of Georgia

For more information, email Yan Jin