Public Relations – The professional maintenance of a favorable public image by a company or other organization or a famous person; the state of the relationship between a company or other organization or a famous person and the public. -Oxford English Dictionary

For some in the public sector, the idea of public relations (PR) isn't directly connected to media relations. That is to say, the belief that PR considerations are separate from media relations runs rampant in the minds of quite a few in the upper echelon of some organizations. But as most of the younger generations know the channels used by everyone are open to the mainstream media, and many public sector agencies have learned (some, the hard way) that mainstream outlets follow the ebb and flow of social media trends. If you go viral on any social media channels (for good or ill) you will get that call from the mainstream media outlets to cover that viral story. Relevance and newsworthiness are now themselves relative terms and at the whim of likes and online traction.

That said, public relations remains rooted in media relations. To implement strategy in one is to have an understanding of the other. And it is imperative to have an understanding of exactly where our current “media” came from and how they came to be at all if we are to understand the role they play in a proper public relations strategy. The media we know and love (or love to hate, depending on your political leanings and sensibilities) has evolved from its infancy of the screaming of medieval town cryers to its current incessant roaring or mewling (again depending on your leanings and sensibilities) through our modern electronic devices. It is a massively intrusive technological monstrosity born of the simplest of ideas: the free sharing of knowledge and information with all.

But where did such an idea come from? How did it grow and become the force it is today? And what role does it play in your individual view of the world? But also, how does it feed the beast of public opinion with regard to you and your organization? To understand that we need to delve into the evolution of media from its earliest of days.

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” -James Madison

Information and knowledge have been two hallmarks of the privileged throughout history. Arguments can be made as to station and wealth, but without knowledge and information to use to their advantage the wealthy would not have had the wherewithal to maintain any advantage over the masses. The power gained from information is ultimate. With it the strong lorded over the weak and maintained their dominance over the ignorant. Some might argue that is still the case to date (manipulation of information and all that jazz—but I digress). As history progressed into the Middle Ages, medieval Europe culminated with the formation of notable classes or estates.

Those of longstanding property and wealth became recognized as the Nobility. An aura of prestige surrounded those of the learned and wealthy classes. Those high born not only had a seat at the table, but they lorded over the table and the home in which the table stood. The control over the masses was, by the time of the Middle Ages, all but absolute.

But too, how did such knowledge grow to the bounds in the Middle Ages to maintain its hold on the lowest of society? What mechanism was there to keep the lowest in check? Enter religion.

Irrespective of our own religious beliefs, the Clergy is recognized as part and parcel of the mechanisms that came to hold the lowest people in place into the Middle Ages. By the Middle Ages the Clergy had established itself as the conduit for information to the masses. And with its confirmation of the Nobility as the established leadership of man on earth, the Clergy maintained the status quo of the hierarchy that had insinuated itself into everyday life in the Middle Ages.

The third class was that of the Commons or commoners. Though not born of recognized nobility, the commoners with some amount of prestige or business acumen were represented in the day to day governing of most societies from the Middle Ages into the 19th century. Though they might not have been seen as equals to the Nobility or Clergy, the ruling classes were cognizant of the common class's importance in the continued growth and potential prosperity of the lands over which they held sway.

This is all a very (VERY) simplified explanation of the classes and how they came to be. It is, by no means, a historical account of the formation of such classes nor is it meant to explain the import of each. But a rudimentary understanding of these classes is somewhat important to gain an understanding of how the press (and subsequently what we call the Media) was born.

An unofficial class (or estate) emerged organically from the underrepresented masses. Through public word-of-mouth (or mob) most information was passed among the poorest of the populations. And it became more and more instrumental in the shaping of nations than previously imagined in earlier eras. To discount the poorest of the poor and the general workers of the land and their desires and needs proved catastrophic to many powerful rulers throughout history: Louis XVI and his beloved Marie Antoinette brought about the French Revolution with their dismissive views of the lowest class of France, and King George III incited and endured the American Revolution for similar reasons. It was the voice of the everyday man that became known as the Fourth Estate. That voice found home in what was formally recognized as the Press in the 19th century.

The printing press hastened the advancement of the Press as its own class and the voice of the previously voiceless. Leaflets, newsletters, weeklies, and dailies became more and more common; and the edicts and decisions of those on high were discussed more frequently among those who had previously had little or no voice at all. The framers of the Constitution saw the importance of a free press, unhindered by governmental or tyrannical oversight and control. The very first amendment to the Bill of Rights showed how important such an entity as a free and unencumbered press was to the foundation of our new republic.

By the 1800's the term Fourth Estate referred exclusively to the Press, that voice to the masses which became an integral part of the political, economic, and social landscape of not only the United States, but of almost every advanced nation on the planet.

But is the term Fourth Estate coming to represent a newly emerging voice? The voice of the independent journalist, perhaps? Maybe. A number of polls show a shrinking trust of mainstream media outlets and the information provided by them to the public. A corporate media landscape has contributed largely to this shift to independent journalists and "citizen" journalists. And their popularity is only growing.

As an agency, it behooves us to not only "feed the beast" of traditional media outlets, but we also have to pay attention to and provide "meat" to the new animal prowling about. If you aren't paying attention to the independents and citizen journalists, you are only doing yourself a disservice. They operate in those new spaces becoming more and more prevalent for sharing information with the public: social media.

We also need to be operating there with the understanding that the social media landscape has the potential to help us direct our own stories in new ways and in those more traditional media ways as well.

As always, tell your agency's story.

Wayne is a guest contributor to PIO Toolkit. See his PIO People interview here

Listen to Wayne on the PIO Podcast

This blog was originally published through Wayne's LinkedIn Newsletter

April 22, 2022
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