Hospitality PR's Evolution Into Activation

By Mary Gendron Senior Vice President / Managing Director, Eric Mower & Associates | February 12, 2017

Back in the day – a little more than a century ago – what later became known as public relations had its genesis on Broadway and in Hollywood with the rise of press agents. Characterized as enthusiastic, energetic proponents of plays, movies and actors, these press agents nonetheless were stereotyped as scrappy, fast-talking hawkers (with dubious fashion sense!). The term "flack" was coined after Gene Flack, a notable theater agent of the day. The mission of these individuals was to sell tickets and gain celebrity for the talent they represented. The did so, using tactics from the ridiculous to the sublime.

PR as a profession took hold in the early 1900s thanks to pioneers including Edward Bernays who began to hone his craft while employed in Woodrow Wilson's administration during World War I. As part of the Committee on Public Information, Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud) was charged with communicating a message of democracy in the U.S. and abroad. Impressed with its effectiveness and convinced that this practice could be used in the private sector during peacetime, he decided to open his own company after leaving government work. His first PR initiative was to rename what had been referred to as "propaganda" during the war to "public relations". The name change was intended to eliminate any stigma attached to the word based on Germany's negative reaction to this communications practice during the war.

Bernays, who had emigrated from Austria to the U.S. with his family as a young child, hung out a shingle in New York City and became one of the world's first PR practitioners. To this day, he is considered the father of modern-day PR. Over several decades, his company introduced PR strategy and implemented tactical programs for many organizations including General Electric, CBS, American Tobacco Company and Proctor & Gamble. He served as the catalyst for a fledgling industry that grew and matured as organizations realized the value of positive publicity for their businesses. The field drew communications professionals, both in house and in agencies. And PR solidified as an increasingly important tool in the field that was becoming known as Marketing.

Today, the Public Relations Society of America' defines public relations as "a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics". It is a definition that both fit the propaganda days of World War I and applies to today's sophisticated techniques aimed at building awareness, providing information, educating and persuading consumers to buy.

Hospitality Embraces PR

In hospitality, the practice of PR took hold industrywide a little later -- about four decades ago -- as owners and operators began to understand the value of "third-party endorsement". This is what distinguishes press coverage – publicity – from paid messaging, such as advertising. A feature article in the travel section of a newspaper or magazine, or coverage on national television, would spark calls to reservations lines and, with the advent of the Internet, online bookings. PR was seen as a sales support tool and a practice that if well done could positively influence business. The third-party endorsement fostered credibility and trust because it was provided by informed individuals not directly connected (nor beholding to) the recipients of positive press coverage.

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