Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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“Fayned News: The Origins of Public Relations in Early Modern Europe”
Jonathan Rose

Last modified: 2018-01-26


When my students ask me, “What will be the next big thing in historical studies?,” I tell them to watch out for the history of public relations. Yes, plenty of work has been done on the history of advertising and propaganda, but PR is different: Dan Draper and Joseph Goebbels were perfectly upfront about what they were doing, but PR is a medium that commonly and deliberately disguises its own authorship, surreptitiously plants stories in various media.

The standard narrative holds that public relations was invented by Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays in the early twentieth century, but the basic concept was developed at least as far back as the sixteenth century, before the first newspapers were published. In the summer of 1588 Catholic publicists barraged England with pamphlets announcing that the vast and powerful Spanish Armada was on the way. Lord Burghley (top advisor to Elizabeth I) wrote to Francis Walsingham (the Queen’s intelligence chief) that he wanted “some expert learned man, would fayne an answer as from a number of Catholics that . . . profess their obedience and service with their lives and power against all strange foreigners offering to land in the realm.” Burghley envisioned a pamphlet that would create a misleading impression of grassroots support for Elizabeth among English Catholics, what would now be called “Astroturf.” The pamphlet would appear to be written by an English Catholic, but would in fact be authored by a PR “expert”—ultimately, Burghley himself. And note the ambiguous word “fayne,” which might mean to fashion or to make, but could also mean “to fake.”

This paper argues that the basic PR techniques commonly attributed to Lee and Bernays were in fact developed in Europe by 1650.  Burghley perfected the method of custom-tailoring his messages to suit different audiences (in this case Protestants and Catholics).  In 1625, just four years after the launch of the first English newspaper, and 300 years before The Front Page, Ben Jonson staged the first dramatic satire of journalism, The Staple of News.  Astonishingly, Jonson anticipated pervasive “fake news”, the organization of the modern newsroom, and something like People magazine.  In the Machivellian political arena of early modern Italy, Paolo Sarpi (in Venice) and Evangelista Sartonio (in Bologna), developed a sophisticated theories of public relations that reflected a keen understanding of what audiences would or would not find credible. And in the English Civil War, both Royalists and Roundheads published propaganda sheets that made liberal use of rumors, trial balloons, gossip, innuendo, and grossly slanted atrocity stories.

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