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Much like atmospheric pressure, the practice of public relations affects all of us even though we usually are not aware of its presence. What you read, what you see, and what you hear in the media are often the direct or indirect effects of organizations trying to establish and maintain relationships with those important to their success or failure. The organizations include corporations, nonprofits, associations, health care organizations, educational institutions, governmental agencies, military branches, and many more.
Archeologists have found evidence of public relations activity in ancient Iraq, India, Greece, and Italy. Historians documented that kings in England several centuries ago had the Lord Chancellor to attend to their relationships with “the people.” The Catholic Church employed “propaganda” in the 17th century when it established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith). U.S. historians have documented what was likely the first systematic fund-raising campaign by Harvard College in 1614, how the revolutionaries stirred public opinion to fight a war against England and to form a new government and promoted the expansion and settlement of the new country (Basham, 1954; Cutlip, 1995; Davidson, 1941; Nevins, 1962).
Much of contemporary practice, however, can be traced to early practitioners in the 20th century, with two “founding fathers” typically credited with much of the emerging profession’s “DNA” and its evolution from press agentry to public relations—Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward L. Bernays.
Origins of Modern Public Relations
Public relations today reflects the evolving roles of organizations in society, the growing power of the media and public opinion, the increasing interest in applying the findings of the social sciences, and the never-ending march of social and cultural change. Contemporary public relations developed during four eras: (1) public-be-damned, (2) publicbe-informed, (3) mutual understanding, and (4) mutual adjustment (Broom, 2009, pp. 92–93).
This era took its name from the infamous remark allegedly made by William Henry Vanderbilt, son of the wealthy shipping and railroad businessman “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt: “The public be damned.” Although this was reported by a Chicago freelance writer in 1882, the young Vanderbilt denied having made the remark disparaging the public interest versus the rights and privileges of the wealthy titans of industry. Nevertheless, the words epitomized the tone of the time and the often abusive power of big business in the 19th century.
For example, Bank of the United States president Nicholas Biddle and his associates attempted to influence public opinion in their political battles with the popular President Andrew Jackson and his adviser, Amos Kendall. By making loans to editors and buying advertisements in their papers, banks were able to influence many newspapers and silence others in the public debate.
Biddle’s publicist, Mathew St. Clair Clarke, decided to promote “a brash, loud-talking Tennessee Congressman, the colorful Colonel Davy Crockett and to build him up as a frontier hero to counter Old Hickory’s [President Andrew Jackson’s] appeal to the frontiersmen” (Cutlip, 1995, p. 100). As Scott Cutlip reported, “The transmogrification of Davy Crockett from a boorish, backwoods boob into a colorful frontier statesman was the work of several ghostwriters and press agents,” when in fact Crocket “spent four years loafing and boasting at the Congressional bar” (p. 101).
The Crockett campaign included ghostwritten books, widely distributed ghostwritten speeches (not the words he actually spoke!), and ghostwritten letters to editors. The strategy failed, however, to keep Jackson from winning a second term as president and to prevent the election of his successor, Martin Van Buren, in 1836. After failing to get himself reelected, Crockett headed to Texas, where he was killed by Santa Ana’s troops in the siege of the Alamo. It was Walt Disney who revived the legend and polished the “Legend of Davy Crockett” to cash in on the creative work done by press agents more than 100 years earlier.
Press agents also introduced many practices to promote circuses and traveling road shows:
Today’s patterns of promotion and press agentry in the world of show business were drawn, cut, and stitched by the greatest showman and press agent of all time—that “Prince of Humbug,” that mightiest of mountebanks, Phineas Taylor Barnum. (Cutlip, 1995, p. 171)
Barnum employed his own press agent, Richard F. “Tody” Hamilton, whom he credited with much of the success of his circus (now known as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus). Likewise, Colonel William F. Cody (“Buffalo Bill”) used press agentry and hyperbole to promote his “Wild West Show.” As a result of such successful promotions, press agentry spread from show business to closely related enterprises, including powerful business interests.
Westinghouse Electric Company created the first corporate department to engage in press agentry in 1889. George Westinghouse and his new electric corporation were promoting his revolutionary alternating-current (AC) system of electricity. The “battle of the currents” followed as Thomas A. Edison’s Edison General Electric Company, which used direct current, tried to prevent the adoption of Westinghouse’s AC technology (Cutlip, 1995, pp. 199–200).
Edison and his business associate, Samuel Insull, launched a propaganda scare campaign against the “lethal” AC, including the electrocution of stray cats and dogs:
Edison General Electric attempted to prevent the development of alternating current by unscrupulous political action and by even less savory promotional tactics. . . . The promotional activity was a series of spectacular stunts aimed at dramatizing the deadliness of high voltage alternating current, the most sensational being the development and promotion of the electric chair as a means of executing criminals. (McDonald, 1962, pp. 44–45)
Westinghouse recognized the need for specialized help to counter the scare campaign and to get his story to the public. He hired Pittsburgh journalist Ernest H. Heinrichs, who moved quickly to challenge the misrepresentations of AC. When Westinghouse’s system won public acceptance despite the Edison-Insull propaganda scare campaign, it demonstrated “that performance and merit are the foundation stones of effective public relations” (Cutlip, 1995, p. 203).
As press agents’ exploits became more outrageous, it was not surprising that they would arouse the hostility and suspicion of editors and an increasing skeptical public. Pressures for change led to changes in how public relations’ predecessors would deal with both the media and the public in the 20th century.
Powerful business interests in the early 1900s employed publicists to defend themselves and their monopolies against muckraking journalists and a growing push for change and regulation. Thus, the first public relations firms—actually publicity agencies—were established to serve such clients. The strategy was to tell their side of the story and to counterattack to influence public opinion. The goal was to prevent increased governmental regulation of business.
The nation’s first publicity agency—The Publicity Bureau—was founded in Boston in mid-1900. Although it would take on corporate clients later, Harvard University was the Publicity Bureau’s first client and was paid on what was surely the first fixed-fee-plus-expenses arrangement:
In the matter of payment, we understand that you are to pay the Bureau $200 a month for our professional services, and those of an artist where drawings seem to be required. That this sum is to include everything except the payment of mechanical work, such as printings and the making of cuts, and the postage necessary to send out the articles themselves to the various papers, which items are to be charged to the University. (Cutlip, 1994, p. 11)
The Publicity Bureau came into national prominence in 1906, when it was employed by the nation’s railroads to head off adverse regulatory legislation then being pushed in Congress by President Theodore Roosevelt. Operating in secret, the firm used the tools of fact-finding, publicity, and personal contact to saturate the nation’s weeklies with railroad propaganda. In spite of the Publicity Bureau’s effort, a moderately tough regulatory measure—The Hepburn Act—was passed in 1906, after President Roosevelt had used the press and his “bully pulpit” to argue a more persuasive case. The Publicity Bureau faded from the scene in 1911 (Cutlip, 1995, p. 16). Also early in the public-be-informed era, the former Buffalo reporter and veteran political publicist George F. Parker and a young Ivy Ledbetter Lee established Parker & Lee in New York in 1904. They worked together in the Democratic Party headquarters handling publicity for Judge Alton Parker’s unsuccessful presidential race against Theodore Roosevelt. The firm lasted less than 4 years, but the junior partner—Lee—was to become one of the most influential pioneers in the emerging craft of public relations.
The Princeton graduate and former New York newspaper business reporter, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, was among the first to recognize the potential of honest publicity and helping corporations tell their story. Even though this former journalist had difficulty labeling what he did for clients, he changed public relations forever.
Going against the prevailing feeling on Wall Street that “the public be damned,” Lee declared that the public was no longer to be ignored, in the traditional manner of business, or fooled, in the manner of the press agent. It was to be informed. Unlike the Publicity Bureau, which operated in secrecy, Lee sent a “declaration of principles” to all city editors in 1906 and introduced what would later become the “press release”:
This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. . . . In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about. (Morse, 1906, p. 460)
The oil and mining magnate John D. Rockefeller, then the world’s richest man and one of its most reviled, would become one of Lee’s clients. Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904/1987), described at the time as “a fearless unmasking of moral criminality masquerading under the robes of respectability and Christianity,” exposed abusive practices and energized calls for breaking up the oil monopoly. In 1911, upholding the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and trust-busting President William Howard Taft’s attempt to break up the Standard Oil Trust, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Trust to break with 33 affiliated companies and to distribute stock to each company’s shareholders.
The unpopular Rockefeller was finally persuaded to retain Ivy Lee in 1914 after a disastrous strike and killings at the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Ludlow, Colorado. Rockefeller and his family were blamed for “Bloody Ludlow”—the massacre of women and children living in the tent city set up by the striking miners. In the years that followed, Lee used his journalistic skills and reputation for dealing with the press to highlight Rockefeller’s generosity and philanthropy. By the time Rockefeller died in 1934, 2 months short of age 98, he was known for his philanthropy and the many foundations, universities, and medical schools he had endowed.
Lee was still working for the Rockefeller family when he also died in 1934. He sometimes described what he did as “publicity,” but he also counseled his clients, thus establishing the principle that performance determines what is said in the publicity written by others. But the journalist publicity model was not the only approach.
Preparing the nation to enter World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a presidential commission, the “Committee on Public Information.” George Creel headed a staff of young propagandists whose goal was to unite public opinion supporting the United States entering the war. During those early years, public relations took the form of one-way persuasive communication— “propaganda.” Some staff members, having learned new skills, formed public relations firms after the “Great War.” Even today, many practitioners work with managers and clients who think that public relations is simply one-way communication to persuade others.
One of the Creel staff members who did not subscribe to the one-way communication concept was Edward L. Bernays. Thus began what Bernays labeled the era of mutual understanding.
Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, had translated his uncle’s books on psychology and psychiatry into English, so he had background in early behavioral science that he had not acquired as a forestry major at Cornell University. He, like Lee, recognized that there was a business opportunity in what he called engineering public consent. Based on his propaganda work with the World War I Creed Committee, he was ready to apply the lessons learned to the needs of paying clients. Bernays also wrote the first public relations book, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923/2004), and with his wife and business partner, Doris E. Fleischman, introduced the term public relations counsel. If Lee and Bernays are to be called the “fathers of public relations,” which they are, Fleischman surely deserves recognition as the “mother of public relations.”
Bernays saw public relations as an applied social science, drawing on the newly available findings of psychology, sociology, and political science. He was not a publicist. Rather, he sought ways to change public views of what was acceptable or desirable and to change public behavior. For example, he is credited with and was greatly remorseful in his last years for having helped make smoking in public acceptable behavior for women in the 1920s. He also is credited with introducing orange juice as a staple with breakfast, to help Florida growers have a market for their produce that otherwise was fed to pigs. During his long career until he retired from active practice in 1962, he counseled the heads of major corporations, U.S. presidents, and uncounted practitioners aspiring to his status and position in the field. Before he died in 1995 at age 103, Life Magazine included Bernays in its 1990 special issue as one of “The 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.”
Doris Fleischman, an early feminist, also left her mark on the field and society. After marrying Bernays, she used her maiden name long before the feminist movement made that fashionable:
During the next three decades, Fleischman continued to sign into hotels—and twice into maternity hospitals—as “Miss Doris E. Fleischman,” and in 1925 she received the first U.S. passport granted to a married woman under her birth name. That was her name on the 1928 book she edited on careers for women and on the seven magazine articles and book chapters she published between 1930 and 1946. (Henry, 1998, p. 1)
Although Bernays credited her as being an equal partner in their firm, Fleischman struggled for professional equality during a time when women simply did not advise males in leadership positions. As she wrote in one of her books, written after she adopted her married name:
Many men resented having women tell them what to do in their business. They resented having men tell them, too, but advice from a woman was somewhat demeaning. I learned to withdraw from situations where the gender of public relations counsel was a factor or where suggestions had to be disassociated from gender. If ideas were considered first in terms of my sex, they might never get around to being judged on their own merits. (Fleischman Bernays, 1955, p. 171)
No list of the pioneers shaping today’s practice would be complete without the name Arthur W. Page. Page had three successful business careers yet found time to contribute his considerable talent to many public service efforts. He was a writer and editor at the publishing company he was being groomed to lead, Doubleday, Page and Company, from 1905 until 1927. Then, he accepted an offer to become vice president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co., from fellow Harvard graduate and AT&T president, Walter Gifford.
Page made it clear, however, that he would accept only on the conditions that he was not to serve as a publicity man, that he would have a voice in policy, and that the company’s performance would be the determinant of its public reputation. As a result, Page is widely recognized as having been the first corporate vice president of public relations. He was among the first to use systematic public opinion polling to probe public perceptions in order to help shape company policy. He later summarized his philosophy in this statement:
All business in a democratic country begins with public permission and exists by public approval. If that be true, it follows that business should be cheerfully willing to tell the public what its policies are, what it is doing, and what it hopes to do. This seems practically a duty. (Griswold, 1967, p. 13)
Even while vice president ofAT&T during World War II, he devoted much of his time to the war effort. As Page’s biographer Noel Griese reported, Page’s most widely distributed news release, written for President Harry S. Truman, was issued in Washington, D.C., at 11:00 a.m., Monday, August 6, 1945:
Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare. The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid manyfold. . . . It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its powers has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. (Griese, 2001, pp. 229–230)
Page retired on January 1, 1947, after integrating public relations concepts and practices into the Bell System. He died in 1960 at age 77. However, Page’s precepts and principles not only endure in the companies that used to be part of AT&T (broken up in 1984 by court order to foster competition) but also are renewed and promoted by the Arthur W. Page Society, an association of senior corporate public relations executives and leaders.
Although sophisticated opinion measurement methods were not introduced until the 1930s, the postwar work of social scientists contributed much to advance behavioral research and communication science. Page was among the first to apply the new skills and knowledge to public relations practice.
Even before World War II, research on media effects did not appear to support assumptions about powerful media effects, instead suggesting a limited-effects model with more active and more resistant audiences. More realistic concepts of public relations evolved to include notions of two-way communication and relationships. Definitions began to include words such as reciprocal, mutual, and between, indicating a maturing view. For example, an interactive concept appeared in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary’s definition: “The art or science of developing reciprocal understanding and goodwill.” The British Institute of Public Relations defined the practice as an effort to establish and maintain “mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.”
Early editions of the field’s leading text also defined public relations as an interactive concept—“the planned effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance, based on mutually satisfactory two-way communications” (Cutlip & Center, 1952/1984). Another influential text published in 1984 presented yet another version of the interactive concept—“the management of communication between an organization and its publics” (Grunig & Hunt, 1984, p. 6).
Ahead of his time, Yale professor and Public Opinion Quarterly founder Harwood L. Childs introduced an even more advanced concept in the late 1930s. Childs concluded that the goal of public relations “is not the presentation of a point of view, not the art of tempering mental attitudes, nor the development of cordial and profitable relations.” Instead, he said the basic function “is to reconcile or adjust in the public interest those aspects of our personal and corporate behavior which have a social significance” (Childs, 1940, pp. 3, 13). Childs saw the function of public relations as helping organizations adjust to their social environments, a concept that reemerged many decades later in contemporary public relations. “Consumerism,” “environmentalism,” “racism,” and “sexism” became serious issues on the public agenda beginning in the 1960s. Add to those “isms,” “peace.” A new breed of investigative muckrakers and powerful new advocacy groups pushed for social change, new social safety nets, and increased government oversight of business and industry. Protecting the environment and securing civil rights became the flagship causes of this era.
Reminiscent of the early part of the 20th century, books led the charge against “big business.” For example, many credit Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, with beginning the environmental movement. President John F. Kennedy directed his science advisory committee to study the book’s documented charges that DDT indiscriminately killed all manner of insects and animals when applied to crops as a pesticide and that DDT had contaminated the entire food chain. Public apathy soon changed to public demand to regulate the pesticide industry and to protect the environment.
General Motors also became a target of protest and public scrutiny, opening the door to greater corporate accountability. Ralph Nader gave birth to the consumer movement in 1965, when he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. Nader charged that the Chevrolet Corvair’s suspension system made the car subject to rolling over. GM’s legal department responded by investigating Nader’s private life. Subsequently, the company’s president had to appear before a Senate subcommittee and apologize to Nader for resorting to intimidation. In addition, the company settled lawsuits out of court for invading Nader’s privacy and agreed to change the Corvair suspension system. Nader used the cash settlement and his book royalties to establish the Project on Corporate Responsibility, staffed by young lawyers and investigators. Corporations suffered many setbacks as “Nader’s Raiders” continued to press for corporate accountability for decades. For example, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 spelled out safety standards for all vehicles. Congress also mandated safety in the workplace when it passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970.
However, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the icon of this era of social change and empowerment. His rise to national leadership began in 1955, when he stood up for Rosa Parks, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger. He gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Dr. King gave his prophetic last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He became the martyr and symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, which produced, among many other changes, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Open Housing Law of 1968. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement played a major role in defining this as the era of change and empowerment.
Surely the Vietnam War protests were the most divisive of this era, contributing to the “generation gap,” “hippies,” the “sexual revolution,” and—ultimately—Watergate and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. A popular saying of the time “Power to the People” surely captured the essence of this era.
Public relations textbooks written during this era also reflected a major change in public relations practice from the “journalist-in-residence” model based on telling our story. The changed balance of power in society required a new role for public relations in organizations responding to the heightened change pressures. For example, the sixth edition of Effective Public Relations by Cutlip, Center, and Broom (1985) introduced “adjustment and adaptation” as the basis of contemporary practice. Research courses became part of the public relations curriculum on many campuses, and practitioners who engaged in information gathering joined the management decision-making teams in many organizations.
Contemporary public relations deals with adaptation and adjustment both inside and outside organizations, whereas the one-way concept of public relations relies almost entirely on propaganda and persuasive communication. Typically in the form of publicity, the two-way concept emphasizes communication exchange, reciprocity, and mutual understanding. Additionally, the two-way concept includes counseling management on changes needed within the organization. Although old concepts still dominate in many settings, contemporary practice is increasingly a management-level function that has a major role in determining both corrective action and two-way communication strategy. As the Burson-Marsteller cofounder Harold Burson (1990) observed, early in his firm’s history, clients’ questions changed from “ How do I say it?” to “What should I say?” Beginning in the 1980s, however, clients began asking, “What should I do?” That question is a fitting transition to defining contemporary practice.
Concept and Definition of Contemporary Practice
People enter into relationships with others to satisfy mutual wants and needs. The continuum of social systems formed by these relationships runs from the smallest—the dyad, two people—to the largest—the global community of nations. Because these relationships are essential to meeting common needs, establishing and maintaining relationships at all levels of social systems are important areas of scholarly study and professional practice.
For example, human relations, marital relations, and interpersonal relations describe the study and management of relationships between individuals. Professionals specialize in counseling individuals and couples to resolve relational problems and improve relationships. At the other extreme, international relations deals with relationships among nations in the largest social system. Likewise, there are specialists and political leaders who practice the art and science of helping nations deal with their ever-changing and sometimes threatening relationships. Courses and books are devoted to the study of all these relationships, as well as relationships in families, work teams, groups, organizations, and other social entities.
Public relations deals with the relationships between organizations and their stakeholder publics—people who are somehow mutually involved or interdependent with particular organizations. The social system of interest comprises organization-public relationships, and public relations deals with establishing and maintaining those relationships. It is one of the fastest-growing fields of professional practice worldwide.
Elements of the Concept
Hundreds have attempted to capture the essence of public relations by listing the activities that make up the practice— what public relations does. Such lists provide little guidance to help define public relations conceptually. A blue-ribbon panel of Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) leaders in 1982 wrote a definition that stresses public relations’ contributions to society—the “Official Statement on Public Relations.” The many definitions suggest elements common to the underlying concept. Public relations
- holds membership on an organization’s management team;
- focuses on the organization’s relationships with its stakeholder publics;
- monitors knowledge, opinions, attitudes, and behavior inside and outside the organization;
- assesses the impact of the organization’s policies, procedures, and actions on stakeholder publics;
- counsels management on the establishment of new policies, procedures, and actions that benefit both the organization and its stakeholders;
- facilitates two-way communication between the organization and its stakeholder publics to change knowledge, opinions, attitudes, and behavior both inside and outside the organization; and
- produces new and/or maintains relationships between the organization and its publics.
Public Relations Defined
Definitions help us understand the world around us and to argue for a particular worldview of how one concept relates to other concepts (Gordon, 1997, p. 58). Consequently, the following definition of public relations describes what public relations is and does, as well as sets parameters for deciding what is not public relations. “Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends” (Broom, 2009, p. 7). This definition positions the practice of public relations as a management function and implies that management in all organizations must attend to public relations. It also identifies building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics as the moral and ethical basis of the profession. And finally, it suggests criteria for determining what is and what is not public relations.
Relationship to Marketing
Marketing is the management function most often confused with public relations. Whereas public relations is charged with taking into account all of an organization’s stakeholders, marketing typically focuses on customers or clients. It is as if marketing uses a telephoto lens to zero in on the target customers, while public relations uses a wide-angle lens to scan the scene for all the stakeholders.
Confusion is common, however, as job openings for “public relations representatives” turn out to be positions as sales representatives or telephone solicitors. In many small organizations, the same person does both public relations and marketing, often without distinguishing between the two. Practitioners add to the confusion themselves when their business cards say that they do “marketing communications” (often referred to as “marcom”) or “integrated marketing communications.” Some public relations firms have “marketing communications” or “marketing public relations” in their titles and on their letterheads.
Although the two are not always clearly defined in practice, public relations and marketing can be distinguished conceptually and their relationship clarified. Fundamental to the concept of marketing is the marketer delivering a product or service to a customer in exchange for something of value. According to the marketing scholars Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong (2008), “Exchange is the act of obtaining a desired object from someone by offering something in return. . . . Marketing consists of actions taken to build and maintain desirable exchange relationships . . .” (p. 7).
Successful marketing attracts and satisfies customers on a sustained basis to secure “market share” and to achieve an organization’s economic objectives. It is the special relationship—two parties exchanging something of value with each other—that creates quid pro quo relationships in which ownership changes hands that distinguishes marketing from public relations: “Marketing is the management function that identifies human needs and wants, offers products and services to satisfy those demands, and causes transactions that deliver products and services in exchange for something of value to the provider” (Broom, 2009, p. 6). Product publicity and media relations are among the tactics used to support marketing. Because public relations specialists typically know how to write for the news media, how to work with journalists, and how to plan and implement internal communication programs for sales staff, marketers call on them to help in the marketing effort. Apple Computer, for example, capitalized on the news value of their new products by using publicity to launch new models and new products—even getting CEO Steve Jobs on the cover of Time magazine and in the lead stories of television news programs. Mattel used press conferences and other publicity to defend the company and to announce product recalls during the marketing crisis associated with lead paint on toys made in China as toy sales plummeted during the holiday shopping season.
Effective public relations contributes to the marketing effort by maintaining a hospitable social and political environment and by dealing with the news media. For example, a hospital that maintains good relationships with volunteers, nurses, physicians, local employers, local government, and community groups will likely enjoy success in the marketing effort to attract patients, physicians, and referrals. Likewise, successful marketing and satisfied customers help build and maintain good relations with employees, investors, government regulatory agencies, and community leaders.
On the other hand, misguided marketing strategies and gimmicks illustrate how these efforts can backfire and create public relations problems. “Joe Camel” may have been an effective marketing tactic for reaching children and teenagers, but it may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for the tobacco industry as it defended itself in numerous court cases. Nestlé’s marketing of the Nan baby formula—ignoring the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing Milk Substitutes—prompted the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy to charge Nestlé with “using a vulnerable population for a grab at market share” (Jordan, 2004, n.p.).
Confusion With the Parts
The contemporary concept and practice of public relations includes many activities and specialties. Some practitioners, for example, focus on relations with employees—the “number one public” or “the organization’s most important asset.” They work in departments called “employee communication,” “employee relations,” or “internal relations.” They plan and implement communication programs to keep employees informed and motivated and to promote the organization’s culture. “Internal relations is the specialized part of public relations that builds and maintains mutually beneficial relationship between managers and the employees on whom an organization’s success depends” (Broom, 2009, p. 10).
Much news and information in the media originates as publicity. But because sources do not pay for the placement, they have little or no control over whether the information is used; when it is used; and how it is used, or misused, by the media. Media gatekeepers may or may not use the information, based on their judgment of its news value and interest to their audiences. From the perspective of readers, listeners, or viewers, the medium carrying the information is the source.
Publicity is information provided by an outside source that is used by the media because the information has news value. This is an uncontrolled method of placing messages in the media because the source does not pay the media for placement. (Broom, 2009, p. 11)
Events also generate publicity by attracting media coverage. Groundbreaking ceremonies, ribbon cuttings, open houses, reunions, dedications, telethons, marathons, ceremonial appointments, honorary degrees, contract and legislation signings, protest demonstrations, press conferences, and other “media events” are designed to be “news.” Successful publicity events have real news value; appeal to media gatekeepers; offer photo, video, or sound opportunities; and communicate the source’s intended message.
Unlike when using publicity, advertising gives the source control of content, placement, and timing by paying for media advertising time and space. “Advertising is information placed in the media by an identified sponsor that pays for the time or space. It is a controlled method of placing messages in the media” (Broom, 2009, p. 13). Organizations use advertising for public relations purposes when they want to address criticism in the media—over which they have no control, when they feel that their point of view is not being reported fairly, when they feel that their publics do not understand the issues or are apathetic, or when they are trying to add their voices to a cause. For example, when Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture, the company placed advertisements in business publications announcing the new name. Kuwait’s embassy in the United States purchased full-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers announcing “America is our ally” and supporting “the international effort to eradicate terrorism.” Merck & Company used advertising to announce its
withdrawal of VIOXX™ from the market. The American Cancer Society has long relied on advertising to achieve its public awareness goals:
The society was the first traditional health charity to engage in paid advertising and, to be sure, for years our ad budget, which is less than 2% of our revenues, was spent raising awareness of things such as colorectal cancer and breast cancer screenings and tobacco prevention. (Wender, 2007, p. A17)
In Walking the Tightrope, the late Hollywood publicist Henry Rogers (1980) summarized his view of press agentry: “When I first started, I was in the publicity business. I was a press agent. Very simply, my job was to get the client’s name in the paper” (p. 14). In other words, the goal of press agentry is to create the perception that the subject of the publicity is a newsworthy subject deserving public attention. Press agentry is creating newsworthy stories and events to attract media attention in order to gain public notice.
Negative publicity seldom has positive outcomes, however. Press coverage featuring the antics of Britney Spears, Michael Vick, and one-time presidential candidate John Edwards may bring public notice—even celebrity—but surely will not positively affect their respective lives and careers. Confusion results when press agents describe what they do as “public relations” or use that term to give their agencies more prestigious titles. As a result, many journalists still mistakenly refer to all public relations practitioners as “flacks,” even though the Associated Press Stylebook defines “flack” as “slang for press agent.”
The armed services, many governmental agencies, and some corporations use public affairs as a surrogate title for public relations. This title is part of a name game dating back to the 1913 Gillett Amendment to an appropriation bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. The amendment stipulated that federal funds could not be spent for publicity unless specifically authorized by Congress. The historian J. A. R. Pimlott (1951/1972) concluded that limitations imposed on government public relations “springs from the fear lest programs undertaken in the name of administrative efficiency should result in an excessive concentration of power in the Executive” (p. 76).
In fact, the 1913 amendment did not refer to public relations. Many federal, state, and local governmental officials nevertheless confuse publicity with the larger concept of public relations. As a result, governmental agencies typically use titles such as “public affairs,” “public information,” “communications,” “constituent relations,” and “liaison.”
In corporations, public affairs often refers to public relations efforts related to public policy and “corporate citizenship.” Corporate public affairs specialists serve as liaisons with governmental units; implement community improvement programs; encourage political activism, campaign contributions, and voting; and volunteer their services in charitable and community development organizations.
Public affairs is the specialized part of public relations that builds and maintains relationships with governmental agencies and community stakeholder groups to influence public policy.
An even more specialized and often criticized part of public affairs, lobbying, attempts to influence legislative and regulatory decisions in government. The U.S. Senate (2008) defines lobbying as “the practice of trying to persuade legislators to propose, pass, or defeat legislation or to change existing laws.” Registration laws and their enforcement vary from state to state, but all who engage in lobbying the U.S. Congress must register with the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate. Twice a year, lobbyists also are required to report their clients, expenditures, and issue-related activities.
News stories sometimes report illegal or questionable cash contributions to legislators, lavish fund-raising parties, and weekends at exotic golf resorts. However, lobbying more often takes the form of open advocacy and discussion on matters of public policy.
Lobbying is a specialized part of public relations that builds and maintains relations with government primarily to influence legislation and regulation.
Issues management requires early identification of issues with potential impact on an organization and a strategic response designed to mitigate or capitalize on their consequences. As originally conceived, issues management included identifying issues, analyzing issues, setting priorities, selecting program strategies, implementing programs of action and communication, and evaluating effectiveness (Chase, 1977). Conceptually, if not always administratively, issues management is part of the public relations function.
Issues management is the proactive process of anticipating, identifying, evaluating, and responding to public policy issues that affect an organization’s relationships with its publics.
Another specialized part of public relations practice is also the highest paid. Sometimes referred to as “IR” or “financial relations,” investor relations is part of public relations in publicly held corporations. Investor relations specialists work to enhance the value of a company’s stock. This reduces the cost of capital by increasing shareholder confidence and by making the stock attractive to individual investors, financial analysts, and institutional investors.
Investor relations is a specialized part of corporate public relations that builds and maintains mutually beneficial relationships with shareholders and others in the financial community to maximize market value.
Investor relations specialists keep shareholders informed and loyal to a company in order to maintain a fair valuation of a company’s stock. They track market trends, provide information to financial publics, counsel management, and respond to requests for financial information. Those aspiring to careers in investor relations typically combine studies in public relations with coursework in finance and business law. An MBA degree is often necessary preparation.
If investor relations helps finance publicly held corporations, fund-raising and membership drives provide the financial support needed to operate charitable and nonprofit organizations. Development specialists work for charities, public broadcasting stations, disease research foundations, hospitals, community arts groups, museums, zoos, youth clubs, universities, and religious organizations. Organizations that rely on donations, membership fees, and volunteers often have a “director of member services and development.”
Development is a specialized part of public relations in nonprofit organizations that builds and maintains relationships with donors and members to secure financial and volunteer support.
Toward Recognition and Maturity
Whatever name is used, the basic concept and motivation of public relations are similar from one organization to the next—large or small, local or global. All organizations strive to establish and maintain relationships with those identified as important to their survival and growth.
Some scholars credit public relations for the heightened attention to public accountability and social responsibility among government administrators and business executives. Others emphasize the function’s role in making organizations more responsive to public interests and more accepting of their corporate social responsibility. As one business leader long ago said,
We know perfectly well that business does not function by divine right, but, like any other part of society, exists with the sanction of the community as a whole. . . . Today’s public opinion, though it may appear as light as air, may become tomorrow’s legislation for better or worse. (Cutlip & Center, 1958, p. 6)
So public relations also helps organizations anticipate and respond to public perceptions and opinions, to new values and lifestyles, to power shifts among the electorate and within legislative bodies, and to other changes in the social and political environment. Public relations also makes information available through the public information system that is essential to both democratic society and organizational survival. Finally, the practice serves society by mediating conflict and by building the consensus needed to maintain social order. In summary, public relations’ social mission is to facilitate adjustment and maintenance in the social systems that provide us with our physical and social needs.
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