Russell uncovers earliest known corporate PR practitioner in new book

Karen Russell, a Jim Kennedy New Media Professor at Grady College, has written a new book, “Promoting Monopoly: AT&T and the Politics of Public Relations, 1876-1941.”

Promoting Monopoly,” examines the publicity efforts of the competitive industry from the invention of the telephone in 1876 through its early years when Alexander Graham Bell’s patents expired and the fight to control the market became heated. The book examines what is described as “one of the earliest and most effective public relations programs of its time,” along with the discovery of AT&T’s first publicist and the first known corporate public relations practitioner in the U.S., William A. Hovey.

Russell, an associate professor in public relations and a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor, is also the author of “The Voice of Business: Hill and Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations.”

Following are some excerpts from an interview with her about the new book:

Grady College: Can you provide a brief summary of the “Promoting Monopoly”?

Karen Russell: “Promoting Monopoly” is a history of public relations at AT&T, showing how corporate publicity helped build the company and, at the same time, how the company helped to create the formal practice of U.S. corporate PR. It starts with the earliest publicity stunts by the inventors in 1876 and continues to World War II, by which time AT&T was well established as the telephone monopoly in the United States.

The thing I’m most excited about is that I identified a previously unknown publicist, William A. Hovey, who started doing publicity work for AT&T in 1886. That makes him the earliest known corporate practitioner in U.S. public relations history—I’m not saying he was the first, but the first we know about so far. His story is my favorite part of the book, because it means that corporations cared about and systematically tried to improve their reputations and communication earlier than anyone realized.

I also learned that James Ellsworth, who created the Information Department in 1910, played a far more significant role in the development of a sophisticated public relations and advertising program than scholars previously understood. For example, he was one of the earliest U.S. corporate practitioners to embrace film as a medium for conveying messages to the public, and he championed the development of a benefits program because he understood the PR implications of having satisfied employees.

GC: Why did the topic of a monopoly and the public relations surrounding it catch your interest?

KR: Some scholars have argued that corporate PR is inherently political by nature. A monograph about one company can’t prove that’s the case with all corporate PR, but it allowed me to analyze how public relations was deeply politically motivated in the case of the telephone industry.

AT&T is well known for Arthur Page, who was identified as one of the most important PR practitioners in American history. Some members of the Arthur Page Society approached me about the possibility of doing a book on the company to understand Page’s approach and influence better. The Society gave me a grant to do the original round of research, which included visits to the AT&T corporate archives, the Page Society archive, and the Mass Communication History Center at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I was fortunate to get a fellowship from the college to work on it for a semester to continue my research. This time allowed me to focus more on the company before Page started work there and put his contributions into the larger context of corporate history and culture. Finally, the contract through the AEJMC Peter Lang Scholarsourcing program published the project.

GC: What did you learn in your research from this era that is still applicable/relevant to public relations professionals today?

KR: Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was how intertwined early corporate publicity and advertising were. We think of the convergence of advertising and public relations as a 21st century phenomenon driven by digital communication, but actually my research showed it’s a return to early corporate communication practice. James Ellsworth, who built the company’s Information Department after he started working at AT&T in 1908, supervised both the advertising and the publicity programs and saw them as all part of the same messaging system.

Another thing that still resonates today is the importance of sponsored content. In its earliest years, starting in 1903, AT&T’s corporate publicity program focused on getting syndicated content shared in newspapers around the country, preferably without anyone knowing they had created the stories. Later the company used advertising directly, to promote its messages, and indirectly, to pressure newspapers to run publicity handouts as news. By the 1920s James Ellsworth and other executives were committed to identifying AT&T as the source of such information, but it does remind me of the debates we’re having today about native advertising and other forms of sponsored content, and how corporate sponsorship of news should be identified for readers.

Karen Russell: 2017 Josiah Meigs Teaching Professor

Karen Russell, a Jim Kennedy New Media Professor and associate professor of public relations, was recognized by the University of Georgia community in April 2017, as a Meigs Professor, the highest teaching honor at UGA. Following is a profile that was published in the April 17, 2017, Columns newspaper.

Karen Russell begins each new session of her Online Reputation Management course discussing the difference between reputation and character.  She is well qualified to lead this conversation considering that she has a power-house online reputation that frequently lands her on lists of top Tweeters. More importantly, her character as a professor makes lasting impacts on her students who stay in touch years after their studies and influences public relations educators and professionals, alike.

“Dr. Russell is an inspiration to her students,” Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College, said. “As a role model, she has planned and executed a number of innovative classes and programs that extend the classroom and prepare students for exciting careers.”

In addition to teaching students about the power and pitfalls of social media, Russell also teaches public relations campaigns courses, as well as graduate level courses in media history, public relations management and the department’s 4+1 master’s degree program.

Russell not only inspires her students, but she has had a major impact on the field of public relations education, too. She authored one of the first blogs in the industry, “Teaching PR,” and recently wrapped up six years editing “The Journal of PR Research,” a journal for PR theory development. Russell was recognized with the Pathfinder Award by the Institute for Public Relations for outstanding research in 2001 and was one of two educators recognized in 2010 by “PR Week” as a Top 30 Tweeter.

“There’s a whole generation of public relations teachers influenced by Dr. Russell’s work, and each one is, in turn, influencing the future of the field in their teaching,” Tom Kelleher, chair of the Department of Advertising at the University of Florida, said.

Russell’s teaching also influenced Marie Hardin during her doctoral studies at Grady College. Hardin serves as dean of the College of Communications at Penn State.

“Dr. Russell is a deeply caring and engaging teacher who seeks to connect her material to students,” Hardin said. “She focuses on learning and on making knowledge relevant and accessible. She asks students to participate in the learning process, and she holds them accountable for doing so.”

Cory McCollum, a 2011 graduate, echoes those themes of engagement and self-learning.

“There was a feeling that you were walking into a living room more than a classroom,” McCollum said. “Learning from Dr. Russell throughout the entire semester felt like a conversation. It was like she had tricked me into learning. How wonderful is that?”

Russell, who has taught at Grady College since earning her Ph.D. in 1993, says the ever-changing field and classroom conversations keep her motivated.

“It’s not just me teaching but me learning,” Russell explains. “The students always bring things to the class that I didn’t know, whether it’s something small like a new platform or bigger like a new way of looking at things.”

While she hopes to prepare her students professionally, she hopes some of her classroom lessons become life lessons, as well.

“It’s about collaboration and teamwork — that’s how it actually works in the real world,” Russell concludes. “Invariably a student will complain that so-and-so didn’t pull their weight. My standard response is ‘life is a group project.’ There aren’t very many things that they are going to do where they aren’t going to depend on other people doing their part, as well.”