Does the UK need its own PR Museum?

I’ve been mulling over this question for several months now. PR’s history at practitioner level is not widely understood and therefore unappreciated. PR professionals, like their marketing cousins, tend to be future-biased; we obsess about trying to understand what’s coming next, while neglecting the knowledge, wisdom and value of what came before.

There are exceptions, of course. Two PR museums already exist in New York and Leipzig, Germany. These tell the story of PR’s origins and development in their respective countries. But I started thinking about who’s telling that story closer to home? Who’s making it accessible, relevant and engaging to the wider public? I discovered that a few people have had a go.

In 2004, academic Jacquie L’Etang published her critically-acclaimed book History of PR in Britain.  More recently (2013), former journalist turned PR practitioner Richard Evans published a biography of Sir Basil Clarke, the so-called ‘father of British PR’. And in 2018, academic Alexander McKenna published 100 Years of Government Communication, celebrating a centenary of the UK Government Communications Service.

An advanced Google search throws up a few summary-style articles that cover UK PR history – notably Tom Watson’s from a 2012 edition of Communications Director magazine.

These are all great efforts, but I think it’s time to step up a gear. The UK PR sector now uses hugely-powerful digital communications techniques with increasing sophistication. We have a rich history and have long been recognised as creative pioneers. Should we really be relying primarily on the printed word to convey this?

That aside, there’s also the long-standing public perception issue; those outside PR still have little idea what it is or where it started. Even if they do, they probably think of spin, propaganda or media manipulation.

There is, I think, a strong case for more effective public engagement with PR in the UK. The irony in that statement isn’t lost on me. We need to better explain our origins and show how far we’ve come; the progress to professionalisation, the wide range of work we do today, and how we create genuine, often hidden value. Plus, we need to address those enduring negative associations.

This is especially so if, as claimed, we genuinely want to attract talented secondary school students – people from diverse backgrounds – to consider PR as a future career.

A UK PR Museum could be a potentially great way to drive that public understanding and engagement. It’s a thought I first voiced on Twitter in February last year.

That led to a conversation with the PRCA’s Francis Ingham.  We discussed what form a museum might take. At first, we were thinking of physical premises, following the lead of New York; maybe using space at the PRCA. But that wasn’t practical.

I then researched mobile spaces – the kind of expanding exhibition trailer you see at outdoor events. This has some clear merits but would need to be fairly large and still needs storage space. They are costly too. So, we began to imagine a digital, online-only UK Museum.

Like most people I’ve spoken to, you’re probably wondering what would be inside. I have to admit that the contents have not so far been considered in any great detail. That’s for later. But I don’t think we’d be short of material.

There is a CIPR Archive hidden away up in Norfolk at the History of Advertising Trust. Its curator is interested in supporting us.

I can also imagine content that builds on the recent PR Week ’50 years of PR’ special reports charting the best PR campaigns, decade-by-decade.

Then there are plenty of major employers’ archives to explore. I started working in PR at BT and know that its archive dates back to 1846. What treasures of corporate communication might be found there, and other big companies?

We also now have a developing World Public Relations Archive. This has grown out of the International History of Public Relations Conference – both driven by Bournemouth University’s Tom Watson.

The UK PR Museum project is still in feasibility mode, but here’s what we’ve done so far. During my early research, I spoke to lots of people who were encouraging. One of them was Shelley Spector, founder of the PR Museum in New York. Shelley introduced me to David Davis (former executive chairman of Edelman, now retired). David was also interested in the concept, she said.

It was David who suggested we had to secure cross-industry support to make a UK Museum happen. And so, in September, a group of 17 people convened at the PRCA to hear about the idea and give the project due consideration. Academics, practitioners, the CIPR, IoIC, IABC, Women in PR, Edelman and city livery organisation the Company of Communicators were all present.  

Inevitably, there were many questions on the night, only some of which could be answered in the short time available. A subset of this group continued the discussion in December at the Museum of Brands. We tried to reach consensus on the purpose and benefits of a UK PR Museum. We debated its merits, who it was for and whether a documentary film or themed exhibition might do just as good a job, with none of the ongoing costs of a Museum – whether physical or digital.

We’re still not quite there. Do we need a PR Museum? In search of a better answer, I asked Shelley Spector, founder of the US Museum. In an email exchange, she said she’s often asked that question. This is how she responds:

“So many of the answers we’re looking for today can be found in what people were doing in the past. Younger generations need to see how PR was done before the Internet and social media, when the most important tools were big ideas, making news, inventing new ways to shape public opinion; a time when the basic talents of writing, thinking and presenting were cherished above all else.

“PR history also reveals to us a hidden, rich history of women and minority ethnic groups in PR. Their examples can inspire young people today, but their stories could so easily be forgotten. The records, documents, artefacts and objects we curate are treasures, not just for PR history, but the history of politics, business, culture and entertainment.

They show not just the history of the PR profession, but how PR has shaped history.”

I think that’s a pretty powerful answer. But enough of what I think. After our last meeting, I resolved to extend the discussion outwards from our small group to members of both the PRCA and CIPR. That’s why this article appears on the websites of both organisations.

We now want to know what you think. Should we continue trying to make this happen? You can tell us in this simple Twitter poll

*This article was first published by the CIPR and PRCA

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