The dimensions of PR history: 52 x 73 x 79
Images of cooking were ‘front of mind’ when I was asked to write about my experiences in commissioning and editing a series of books on the history of public relations. First, I thought of a fruitcake in which all the ingredients were placed in a bowl and mixed together. That was wrong as there would only be one large cake, and there are six books in the series. Finally, I came to everyone’s favourite, the iced cupcake. All are the same shape but every one is subtly different with icing and decorations, and each is hand-made. So the history of PR can be expressed in an edible form.
If only it was so easy. The six books have a total of 52 chapters plus Introductions, Series Preface and Indexes. Making 52 cup cakes takes few hours. Six books have taken 20 months.
It was in July 2013 that I discussed the book proposal with the publisher. It was to be a different approach to previous histories of public relations, which, with few exceptions tell a repetitive story that PR was invented in the USA and introduced to the world. However, as scholarship has developed recently, the story of how PR evolved in many different forms has emerged. There is not one ‘PR’ but many.
The books were, in order of publication: Asia (including Australasia), Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Latin America and Caribbean, Western Europe and a final chapter of essays on historiography (the writing and theorization of history). My next step was to recruit authors. Each book was to have 10 chapters of 4000 words each plus references and Preface, Introduction, Index and other publisher information.
Fortunately, I knew many potential authors personally or we knew of each other. Others, such as in Latin America, had to be tracked down through friendly academics who knew someone who had met someone at a conference. In every book, there was at least one country for which there was difficulty in identifying the right person. The fastest acceptance was 10 minutes from dispatch of an email when a Singaporean author was looking at her computer around midnight and Skyped me immediately to discuss the project.
As the series was to be written in academic yet readable English, and most authors were not native English speakers, the editor’s role was very important. Some authors had studied and worked in the UK, North America or Commonwealth countries but many relied on colleagues and translators when writing academic material.
It was an inter-dependent relationship. The standard of research and writing had to be of very good international standard, yet the book needed chapters submitted on time. So my relationship with authors was as friendly mentor and editor: firm when I needed to be but always encouraging.
Only one chapter was rejected outright. Despite two editor’s revisions, the author just couldn’t accept basic academic standards of referencing to support assertions. Three other authors didn’t produce chapters on time, even after extensive extensions. Two of them just disappeared and no further email or other contact was made. Luckily, I was able to replace one elusive author with an academic who had written to me when he had read about the first book.
Other chapters to cause surprise and grief included a European author who submitted a chapter without any references to support the story being told. As he was the ‘expert’ on that country, his view was that no source material was needed. OK, I said, no sources means no chapter. After a tense gap, references were added and the chapter accepted, but there was a strong chance that another author would be needed.
Historians aren’t expected to be mathematical geniuses but some struggled with the 4000 word limit. Chapter lengths ranged from 3000 to 7500 words. Some Latin American authors were upset when told that 3500 words had to be taken from their chapter. I aided the process by proposing changes. They further edited the chapter but weren’t happy at the time.
A chapter from Latin America illustrated the problems of thinking in one language and writing in another. I just couldn’t understand what the author was trying to say in parts of it. Fortunately, a Spanish academic was visiting my university and working on her chapter for the series. If the text defeated me, she re-imagined it into Spanish sentence structures, which answered some questions. But some sections defeated us. The solution was to rewrite them sand propose revisions to the author who, happily for me, accepted them with minor changes.
Although native English speakers should be very proficient, it wasn’t always the case. Some chapters needed as much work as those for whom English is a third or fourth language. That’s a teeth-grinding annoyance for editors.
The outcome of 20 months’ effort is that 79 authors wrote 52 chapters that include the histories of 73 countries in six books. And we are all on friendly terms. That’s a multiple achievement.
Tom Watson is Professor of Public Relations at Bournemouth University in England. He is chair of the International History of Public Relations Conference and an active historian. The series that he edited, National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.