When public relations executive Shelley Spector G’75 and her husband, Barry, had dinner with Edward Bernays 34 years ago, she couldn’t believe she was sitting with a pioneer in her industry.
Bernays, dubbed “the father of public relations,” was a publicist for highly influential people including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and former President Calvin Coolidge. He was also psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s nephew.
Bernays became the inspiration for the world’s only museum dedicated to public relations, which the Spectors launched to share information about the profession’s foundation and key figures.
This year, The Museum of Public Relations celebrates 25 years of providing important resources to students, scholars and professionals in the industry around the world. It is also the first public relations organization to focus on the PR histories of minority populations. Last year, the museum began offering summer school classes led by experts in the field.
“We wanted to not only show the history of the PR profession, but [also] how PR impacts history,” says Spector, who is also the founder and president of marketing communications agency Spector & Associates and a public relations professor at New York University.
The Spectors quickly became friends with Bernays, and started work on an oral history project. They’d visit him three to four times a year to record interviews about his life and career, which they shared with public relations organizations and classrooms across the country.
That project eventually led to the idea of starting a public relations museum, which Bernays asked the Spectors to base in New York City. The first official exhibit included documents, portraits and other artifacts donated by Bernays’ family, Spector says.
The museum has expanded since then. Originally located at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system, it’s now in a building in the Financial District, which the Spectors designed as a replica of Bernays’ office in 1919.
“When you come and visit, you’re getting a sense of what PR was way before the internet,” Spector says. “You get to learn about the roots of the industry and the practice [of PR], and understand what [it] was when [Bernays] first created it, which is a very deep and much more interesting way of looking at PR than how many people look at it today.”
Representation in PR
Spector says she felt it was important to show how minority groups, such as people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community, help shape the PR industry.
Two years ago, one of her students at NYU approached her and asked why none of the people in the course textbook looked like her.
“I realized that the PR textbook didn’t include any minorities or women,” Spector says. “I wanted to start changing that, and I wanted everybody to feel more included and connected to the industry.”
To help close that gap, Spector and her team launched exhibits, workshops and events such as the Black PR History celebrations, which showcase the extraordinary yet often overlooked contributions of African Americans in the field, and the LGBTQ Experience in Public Relations event, which featured panelists who talked about the challenges they face as LGBTQ PR professionals.
Spector says the museum also celebrates women in the industry—recognizing not only how they’ve influenced public relations, but also society at large. As a woman who has dealt with discrimination and sexism professionally, Spector says it’s critical to showcase women’s stories, voices and accomplishments.
Spector, who entered public relations after graduating from Newhouse’s television, radio and film program and working as a radio and television journalist, says she was the first woman at her PR firm.
“Sometimes, the men would think that I was there to bring them coffee,” Spector says. “It wasn’t easy. You had to prove yourself all the time and work harder than the guys around you.”
In 2018, the museum launched free classes and networking receptions for students, interns and young professionals to help make industry resources accessible to all.
One of the museum’s classes, held this past summer, was led by PR professional Adam Ritchie ’03. Ritchie, an alumnus of Newhouse’s public relations program and the principal at Adam Ritchie Brand Direction, led a workshop on using public relations to invent new products and services.
Ritchie says he heard about the museum through social media. Last March, on the morning after the PRWeek Awards, he realized he was near the museum and decided to call the number on the website.
Spector picked up and told him to come by. While leading Ritchie on a tour of the museum, she told him about the summer school series, and he told her about his Invention in PR speaking tour. “It was a perfect match,” Ritchie says.
Forty people attended the workshop, and an additional 200 people watched the live stream, according to Ritchie.
“It was an honor sharing this material with an engaged community,” he says. “Between the venue and the people who were there, it felt like a career milestone.”
Spector says the museum will continue offering diverse events and workshops in the coming months. The next event, on Sept. 12, will celebrate Latino PR history and will feature Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens, as the keynote speaker.
Micah Castelo is a graduate magazine, newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.