Well done Tom Watson for organising the hugely International History of Public Relations Conference #ihprc at Bournemouth University. Unfortunately I couldn't make day one but have watched the video of Karen Russell's opening keynote, Embracing the Embarrassing.
Here's a very rough snapshot of what she said (begins around 12m30secs into the posted video):
Karen began by giving examples from PR's embarrassing past, including the Bernay's Torches of Freedom march, PR support for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and "the guy we are all trying to get away from" circus showman PT Barnum. Citing German research (Bentele & Wehmeier?) she pointed out that all the PR textbooks tell a very similar story that traces the origins to Edward Bernays.
"PR started with Barnum and it has improved ever since. That is the mythic story that we have come up with and gets repeated over and over. Even though we keep telling ourselves it's not true it still keeps appearing." (16:27)
It is easy to understand the embarrassments but how should we embrace them? "I am not saying we have to hug these guys, what I am talking about is just claiming them - admitting that they are a legitimate part of historical past."
Karen built on her own work Miller, K. S. “U.S. Public Relations History: Knowledge and Limitations.” In M. E.
Roloff (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 23 (pp. 381-420). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE. which argued that we need to study earlier periods of PR, pre1900, because the way that the literature us the "PR emerged suddenly in the corporate sphere in the US" and her study with Carl Bishop, Understanding Ivy Lee's declaration of principles: U.S. newspaper and magazine coverage of publicity and press agentry, 1865–1904 (Public Relations Review Volume 35, Issue 2, June 2009, Pages 91-101).
She said that in St. Paul as a public relations practitioner: a metatheoretical speculation on messianic communication and symmetry, Public Relations Review, Volume 29, Issue 1, March 2003, pp 1-12) Brown argued that "PR theory as it rests on PR history is flawed because if we don't understand the history then any theory that rests on is also going to be mistaken (19:20)
(As they wrote in Margot Opdycke Lamme and Karen Miller Russell, “Removing the Spin: Toward a New Theory of Public Relations History.” Journalism & Communication Monographs). "We can't relegate that stuff that we don't like from PR history and say "Oh, that was press agentry or that was the Nineteenth Century and we are different now... It doesn't work that way."
Karen then went on (26:30) to give brief details of continuing research into mentions of press agentry that takes forward the Russell and Bishop study to look at 1875-1880, which she says marks the emergence of press agentry as we understand the term. She suggests, tentatively, that "press agent" might be a contraction of Associated Press agent (as in agent of AP). Most were allied to entertainment (but were well after Barnum):
"We have been so busy demonising press agentry we have missed the whole fun of it, the purple dresses and the yo-yos..." (29:00)
"By overlooking press agentry as a relevant part of PR history we missed all that."
In closing Karen reminded delegates that although it was important to re-evaluate the roots of press agentry she hadn't even touched on propaganda....