The industry of public relations began with the spread of theatrical performances and circuses. Those publicists who specialized in promoting public spectacles are thought to be the predecessors of public relations. Most of PR practitioners started their careers in journalism. In order to give their clients proper media coverage, they used their understanding of the news media.
The First World War also contributed to the development of public relations as a profession. The Committee of Public Information gave start to many PR practitioners, including such professionals as Ivy Lee, Carl Byoir and Edward Bernays. Edward Bernays is considered to be the founder of the public relations trade, while Ivy Lee is regarded to be the first practitioner of the profession.
The modern press release (often called a "news release") is the creation of Ivy Lee. He espoused the philosophy which is now called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, according to which the task of public relations is to help clients not only to communicate messages to the public, but to listen to it as well. As PRSA has proclaimed "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other". Lee's career ended with a scandal. In the first years after the Second World War the U.S. Congress "held hearings to investigate his work on behalf of Nazi Germany".
The first theorist of public relations profession was Edward Bernays. Being a nephew of Sigmund Freud, he picked up a lot from Freud's theories of human behavior and the unconscious motives that shape it. He is the author of a series of books, including Propaganda, The Engineering of Consent and Crystallizing Public Opinion. Unlike Lee's, Bernays' philosophy was that public relations is an "applied social science" that combined features of sociology, psychology, etc. He was sure that PR was nothing but manipulating of the thinking and behavior of public. In Propaganda he wrote: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country".
Among Bernays' clients were large corporations, actors, government and the president. He was the one who changed the American attitude to ballet and dance, women's smoking and solved the so-called "radio problem". He succeeded in creating and developing strong and healthy public relations in many aspects of human life.