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What have the Romans ever done for PR?

Jamie Brownlee | 28.09.2023

According to a new trend sweeping social media, men are obsessed about the Roman Empire…. 

Not one to let the side down, I’ve joined all the other men this week in thinking about the Roman Empire, but specifically I’ve been thinking about how the Roman Empire helped to establish the way the modern-day public relations (PR) and communications industry operates.  

The Romans were not just adept at conquering lands and building architectural marvels; they were also the original masters of spin, and their key principles have shaped the dynamic field of PR and communications we know today (although we’ve dropped the toga and sandals dress code). 

Here are some of the key principles that can be drawn from the Roman Empire’s approach to communication: 

Managing reputations: The Romans were skilled propagandists – so much so that I’m writing this blog piece about them 1,500 years after the collapse of the empire. Leaders and politicians of the time meticulously wove narratives that celebrated the empire and carefully managed public perception. Now while we’re not advocating for the invasion of Germania – these tactics are still at the very core of the job in PR. The Romans also used a wide range of channels to convey their messaging including speeches, inscriptions, and art. Under Julius Caesar, the Acta Diurna, the first public newsletter, was issued to provide citizens with the latest information on the affairs of the empire.  

Choosing a channel: When we speak to clients, one of the most important considerations we discuss is what medium we’re leveraging to convey their message. Audience demographics, relationships, engagement are all factors we must consider when it comes to choosing between a social media campaign or a traditional PR approach for instance. Often, it comes down to the right balance – another lesson the Romans left us. They used a wide range of channels to convey their messaging including speeches, inscriptions, and art. An amazing example of this was under Julius Caesar – he launched the Acta Diurna, the first public newsletter. It was issued to provide citizens with the latest information on the affairs of the empire. 

Branding: The Roman Empire used symbols and icons extensively. The Roman Eagle and the SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) acronym were powerful symbols of Roman authority. They were influential symbols with instant recognition, the ancient equivalent of a swoosh or an apple, providing instant brand recognition and identity. Augustus Caesar, in an inspired bit of rebranding to avoid the same fate as his adopted father, rejected monarchical titles and instead called himself ‘First Citizen of the State’. 

Flexibility: As the Roman Empire expanded, it adapted its methods to suit the cultures and languages of the regions it conquered. Just because a message resonates in Carthage doesn’t mean it resonates in Constantinople. They would use different communication strategies and narratives for different audiences – underlining their flexibility. Even in Rome, messaging between the general populace, the Senate, and the army, all differed – recognising that one size does not fit all. Modern PR needs the same flexibility and adaptability to deal with different audiences and nuances.  

The Roman Empire didn’t last for centuries by winging it. They had a long-term vision, maintaining continuity and stability through consistent, flexible and strategic communication efforts. Now I’m not saying that we should be engraving our press releases on tablets (there’s an iPad joke in here somewhere) but we would do ourselves good to think of the Roman Empire a little more often, who, it seems, did quite a lot for us after all. 

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