When PR met Communism

Professor Tom Watson’s seven-book National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations series
Professor Tom Watson’s seven-book National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations series

This is an article by Balint Brunner.


As Professor Tom Watson’s seven-book National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations series is about to be complete, I have recently been listening to the various Eastern European voices in the first book.

Among the numerous accounts of the advance of Western-style public relations theory and practice in the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungarian PR scholar György Szondi’s chapter on Hungary covers a much longer period.

PR in Hungary

As a Hungarian myself, many questions come to mind. How did a discipline of this kind survive decades of socialist management?

Not only does the idea of PR in the world of my parents’ youth go against my earlier conceptions of socialist Hungary, but it also refutes the conclusion drawn from the case of the former Yugoslavia that there was no PR in Eastern Europe before 1989 as the socialist system did not accept such practices (Grunig, Grunig and Verčič 2004).

Nevertheless, I maintain that this severely under-researched (and, according to Szondi, sometimes deliberately ignored) period of Hungary’s PR history has had a lasting impact on what Hungarians call ‘public relations’ today.

While most Eastern European countries tend to favour the view that public relations made its debut in the period 1989-1991 (Watson 2014), the concept of PR was relatively well known in Hungary decades before the fall of Communism in Europe.

To avoid confusion, I’m not referring to the various forms of propaganda one might identify as “almost like PR”. In fact, Szondi (2014) argues that the English term ‘public relations’ has been used in Hungary ever since the early 1960s.

And while Hungary was not the only Eastern Bloc country to adopt the term so early on, it is apparent that ‘PR enthusiasts’ in countries such as Poland had lost the battle, with public relations staying relatively unknown for the remainder of the socialist period. Poland’s first published article on the subject dates back to 1973 – yet the history of Polish public relations is thought to have started with ‘the shift from socialist democracy to a pluralistic political system’ in the early 1990s (Ławniczak, Rydzak and Trębecki 2008).

Based on all this, some might argue that the current state of Hungarian PR does not live up to our expectations of an over 50-year-old field. However, a closer look at the various challenges that the pioneers of Hungarian PR had to face in a socialist state suggests the introduction and development of this new Western idea was anything but a smooth process.

It goes without saying that initial attitudes towards this Western ‘capitalist tool’ were predominantly negative. Szondi (2014) believes the first mention of public relations was in Varga’s 1960 book on advertising, in which the author argued PR had no significance at all for companies in socialist Hungary.

After all, what’s the use of PR in a world where citizens (allegedly) already have goodwill towards the firms in question? Why do we need media relations in a country where the media represent the interest of the people?

In other words, PR simply did not fit in with the core values of European socialism.

Nevertheless, the first ever Hungarian-language book on the subject, published in 1968, called for the establishment of PR departments in organisations.

Lipót’s Public Relations a gyakorlatban (Public Relations in Practice), a combination of the author’s own experience with existing literature in English and German, sold out within a year. But the book’s popularity was rather short-lived: it was soon banned, together with any existing and future books that featured the words ‘public relations’ (Szondi 2004).

Despite the Hungarian socialist management’s attempt to suppress the emergence of PR in the country, propagandists and advertising experts continued to show an interest in the new field. A committee was set up to organise PR clubs on a monthly basis, to offer week-long training courses, and eventually the first national PR conference of 1972. As a loophole, the Hungarian word ‘közönségkapcsolatok’ was used to refer to PR which, though isn’t a true reflection of the English term, allowed the enthusiasts of Western PR to continue their work in Hungary despite the ban.

As a measure of the dramatic shift in attitudes towards public relations, the Hungarian trade magazine Külkereskedelmi propaganda (Foreign Trade Propaganda) – which had published numerous articles since 1964 referring to PR as ‘a manifestation of capitalist ideology’ – changed its name to Propaganda, Reklám, Public Relations (Propaganda, Advertising, Public Relations) in 1970.

Did this also mean that the term was no longer frowned upon by those in control? Unfortunately not. Szondi (2014) states that the rebranding was temporary and, although the magazine remained a source of PR-related articles, the words ‘public relations’ disappeared from its name from the next issue onwards.

It wasn’t until long after the concepts of marketing and market research gained ground that the term ‘public relations’ began to re-emerge. PR was now increasingly viewed within the context of marketing. The inclusion in books on marketing in socialist economies of a chapter dedicated to public relations meant that PR had successfully survived two decades of repression and defended its independence from other simultaneously emerging Western disciplines.

Eventually, the drastic political and economic changes in 1989 enabled public relations to gain recognition in Hungary.

According to Szondi (2014), the first ten years of Hungarian PR in a free-market economy were ‘characterised by a variety of initiatives and developments towards professionalisation’ (p.49).

PublicPress, the first Hungarian-owned PR agency, was founded a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within a year, the Hungarian Public Relations Association (HUPRA) was established and efforts had been made to develop a standardised PR terminology (Szondi 2014). The number of PR agencies in Budapest increased rapidly, with international PR giant Burson-Marsteller joining the scene in 1991 (Hiebert 1994).

Although there isn’t such thing as a unique Eastern European approach to public relations (Watson 2014) and modern PR practice in many of these countries ‘represents a process of imitation of Western values, practices and doctrine’ (Rogojinaru 2014 cited by Watson 2014), could we argue that the isolated evolution of Hungarian PR in the socialist era gave birth to a slightly different perspective to that of the West?

As we now know, the political situation in Hungary had forced the discipline to take a new turn several times throughout the period. Thus, Hungarian PR theory and practice should have been more likely to develop a unique approach in the post-communist years than other Eastern European countries where public relations had been virtually unknown before its post-1989 introduction.

References

Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., and Verčič, D., 2004. Public Relations in Slovenia: Transition, Change, and Excellence’. In: D. J. Tilson, and E. C. Alozie, eds. Towards the Common Good: Perspectives in International Public Relations. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hiebert, R. E., 1994. Advertising and Public Relations in Transition from Communism: The Case of Hungary, 1989-1994. Public Relations Review, 20(4), 357-372.

Ławniczak, R., Rydzak, W. and Trębecki, J., 2008. Public Relations in an Economy in Transition: The Case of Poland. In: Sriramesh, K. and Verčič, D., eds. The Global Public Relations Handbook: Theory, Research, and Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 257-271.

Szondi, G., 2004. Hungary. In: van Ruler, B. and Verčič, D. eds. Public Relations and Communication Management in Europe: A Nation-by-Nation Introduction to Public Relations Theory and Practice. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 185-200.

Szondi, G., 2014. Hungary. In: Watson, T., ed. Eastern European Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 41-53.

Watson, T., 2014. Introduction. In: Watson, T., ed. Eastern European Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1-4.

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