The history of public relations

Did you know that the first press release issued in America was a literal train wreck? No, it wasn’t full of grammatical and spelling errors—it gave the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad’s account of an electric train derailment (in which 53 people drowned as the train fell into the water below a swinging bridge) before reporters could start drawing their own conclusions. The release was the brainchild of Ivy Ledbetter Lee, known as the father of modern public relations. Lee started one of America’s first PR firms in 1905, a year before the train accident, and was later hired by the railroad, as what is believed to be the country’s first executive-level PR professional.

But spinning a train derailment was hardly the first example of public relations in action in America, even if its practitioners didn’t call it that. For history buffs, here are some interesting public relations gems:

  • Samuel Adams was one of the British colonies’ first PR pros, staging the Boston Tea Party (without Facebook or Twitter to get the word out) and naming the killing of five civilians by British troops (who were being assaulted by an angry mob) the “Boston Massacre.”
  • P.T. Barnum staged elaborate ruses and employed “freaks” in his circus and museum, including characters like the 3’4” Tom Thumb, the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, and a half-fish, half-donkey “Fee Jee” mermaid. Barnum said his acts and the claims he made about them “were advertisements to draw attention…to the Museum. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”
  • The Ku Klux Klan hired the Southern Publicity Association, which increased its membership a thousand fold to 3 million members in just three years, from 1920-1923.
  • Supreme Commander of Allied Forces and bang-up salesman Dwight David Eisenhower created the “United States Information Agency” during his presidency to tell the United States’ side of the story overseas during the Cold War.

And the list continues… The fact is, public relations has a long and fascinating history, perhaps even dating back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who convinced Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis that it was okay to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil after all. Now that was quite an accomplishment with far reaching implications. For more interesting historical treasures, visit

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