In many ways, life is about perception: whether or not we are having a good or a bad day depends on how we perceive and relate to the events that are occurring to us throughout the day. In many ways, organizations are like people, and the function of perception is handled by a “press officer.” Though we may think of the word as being a relatively modern invention that has grown out of our mass communication environment, press officer is actually celebrating its centenary in the English language.
Generally speaking, a press officer’s function is to control what information is shared outside of the organization. However, over the years, this relatively narrow term and description have both grown and developed a complexity on their own. In literal terms, a press officer circa 1915, who would have initially worried about disseminating information to certain investors and newspapers, has become, circa 2015, someone who is prepared to deal with all aspects of public relations, from attracting investors and handling corporate inquiries to addressing an organization’s image issues and not only disseminating information to media outlets, but also assuring that the information displays the company in the best possible way. With more organizations taking an active role in managing their image, the importance of good PR through a press officer can truly make or break a venture.
Speaking of making or breaking a venture, the word itself was first used, in its basest and most vital form, as referring to a military press officer in Frederick Palmer’s My Year of the Great War (1915), which states, “No one in his heart envies the press officer, who holds the blue pencil over us,” which is a reference to censorship and classified information. After the war, the term started to be applied to more non-military institutions, such as in John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novel, Mr. Standfast, which notes seeking out press officers that “would…be in the way of knowing things.” Clearly, considering the growing necessity of press officers as well as the multiple methods of communication that are now being used (more traditional methods plus various electronic methods from e-mail and Facebook to Pinterest and Instagram), this appears to only be the first 100 years for this word.