See our list of public relations research paper topics. However old the practice of public relations is (Heath 2005a), in the identity we know today it became a serious professional practice in the latter part of the nineteenth century in the USA and in other democratized parts of the world, especially in Europe. Its emergence paralleled the development of mass production society, as a means both for promoting goods and services and for engaging in public policy debates and issues management. The twentieth century witnessed the profession’s development as a selected set of strategic best practices, an academic discipline to prepare future practitioners, and a subject for refinements through sophisticated scholarly investigation and discussion. Public relations is on its way to becoming a matured practice all over the world, not least because academic and professional development research continues to mature by generating a wide variety of perspectives and theoretical approaches.
Public Relations Research Paper Topics
- Consensus-Oriented Public Relations
- Co-Orientation Model of Public Relations
- Cultural Topoi in Public Relations
- Determination Theory in Public Relations
- Excellence Theory in Public Relations
- Intercultural Public Relations
- Intereffication Approach in Public Relations
- Media Influence on Public Relations
- Organization–Public Relationships
- Professionalization of Public Relations
- Public Affairs
- Public Diplomacy
- Public Relations Ethics
- Public Relations Evaluation
- Public Relations Field Dynamics
- Public Relations Planning
- Public Relations Roles
- Rhetorical Theory of Public Relations
- Situational Theory of Publics
Nature and Image of Public Relations
In the opinion of some, public relations can be defined as the art of stealthy manipulation of public opinion, of the opinions of consumers and of politicians. As viewed by some, it consists of spinning the truth to the selfish interest of some organization or interest, issue advocate, person, or viewpoint – usually to the disadvantage of others.
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In contrast, public relations has equally been seen as a professional practice and academic discipline dedicated to spreading rational and trustworthy information from and about an organization in order to open up the organization and its practices for those who are interested. At the same time, public relations is also seen as a professional practice and academic discipline dedicated to fostering effective two-way communication between some organization or entity, such as an industry, and persons whose opinions can make or break the future success of the sponsor. Some discussants of the nature of public relations, for example in South Africa, New Zealand, and the USA, have advocated that instead of focusing on fostering sham relationships, senior practitioners are first of all the consciences of their employers. They know better than other disciplines the moral standards by which their employers are judged. They advocate that first the organization must be good before it can be effective in its communication efforts. The core goal of public relations is then not so much to open the organization or produce good relationships as to help the organization to produce quality and acceptable strategic decisions.
Practitioners recognize both that the challenge of ethics is broad and that the devil is in the detail. Each strategic decision as well as each word that is spread can pose ethical challenges and, consequently, needs to be discussed in terms of its consequences for the well-being of the organization, of its publics, and of society at large. The first step in public relations is to create sound management policy that deserves the fruits of good will, as John W. Hill, the co-founding principal of Hill & Knowlton, argued in the mid1900s. At the time of his retirement in the late 1960s, his firm was the largest in the world. “Public confidence in the corporation as an institution must be earned and deserved. ‘Smart publicity’ will never replace sound management policies and acts in building a solid foundation of good will,” he rightly claimed (Hill 1958, 163).
History of Public Relations
To many, modern public relations was born in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century. That may be so for the naming of this phenomenon but not for the practice itself. World history in general and European history in particular offer many instances of what can be termed evidence of public relations practice, if not by that name. In Europe, public relations as practice has a long history (see for an overview, van Ruler & Vercic 2004). The period of the Enlightenment, as developed in the eighteenth century in France and Germany, strongly influenced the evaluation and practice of public relations in many European countries. In the eighteenth century, science and knowledge were no longer seen as being relevant only for the elite, but had to be diffused. One of the countries that were the first to institutionalize this concept as a practice was the Netherlands. The means for the diffusion of knowledge became known as “voorlichting,” which is a literal Dutch translation of “enlightenment.”
In the Netherlands the concept of “voorlichting” soon developed into institutionalized “giving full information to all people to enable them to mature and emancipate.” Already in the mid-nineteenth century, the administration as well as civil society organizations started to introduce “voorlichters,” specialists who traveled around to give information about health, good farming, housekeeping, sexuality, politics, etc. At the same time, the elite remained skeptical about this full enlightenment of ordinary people. That is why most of the time “voorlichting” was also used to show people how to conduct themselves as good citizens/subordinates and to control their behavior. When industrialization became a fact (late 1800s), industries started to provide information about themselves to the press as well as to the general public. The first official press departments originated in the early 1900s. The government soon followed. Dutch journalists, however, preferred to keep direct access to administrators and politicians. Thanks to the strong “pillarization” (denominational segregation) of the society, with each pillar using its own media and therefore its own political contacts, their lobby was successful for a long time and the governmental public relations departments were forced to aim their press releases at foreign journalists only.
Directly after World War II public relations became an established part of company life. The Dutch claim to have established the first national public relations association, in early 1946. There was an enormous growth in the area during the 1980s, when US management approaches became the vogue.
In Germany also, public relations has a long history, based on the concept of “Öffentlichkeitsarbeit,” which can be translated as “work for the public sphere.” According to Bentele (1997), the first press offices engaged in politics and economics as well as in communities, associations, and organizations originated in the early 1900s. Alfred Krupp, founder of the steel company Krupp, established the first press department in a private company in 1870. The duty of this department was to read all newspapers that were considered important to the firm and at the same time to write articles, brochures, and “correspondences” in order to advertise products and the firm as a whole. As in the Netherlands, a characteristic feature of this first period is that public relations was used both to inform and to manipulate.
During the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), new social conditions arose such as the parliamentary, democratic state and an economically independent and active press; the media, no longer directed or controlled by the state, gave a boost to the growth of public relations. After the National Socialists came to power, the conditions of public relations changed abruptly. In sharp contrast with the Weimar period, the media were now controlled and manipulated by the party. After the end of World War II in 1945, not only did public relations have to redefine itself under the new conditions of a parliamentary democracy, it also had to dissociate itself from (Nazi) propaganda. The US influence on West German society was widely felt in the development of postwar public relations: besides new German advertising and public relations agencies, branches of US agencies started to settle in Germany (and in many other European countries), and today research in public relations has been established in several German-speaking universities in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Similar distancing occurred among US practitioners, who rejected the connection between propaganda and public relations even though they had initially embraced the connection and cut their professional teeth on propaganda efforts in support of both world wars.
Another country with early maturation of public relations is the United Kingdom. L’Etang (2004) placed the beginning of public relations in Britain in the 1920s. Emphasis focused especially on the role of local government, which contributed to public relations ideology and key concepts of professionalism. These articulated a strong public service ethos, laying the foundation of the (now Chartered) Institute of Public Relations, which was established in 1948. It all started with an emphasis on public service rather than on business activities being the roots of public relations in the UK (as well as in most of the Scandinavian countries and in Northern Ireland). Today, public relations seems more oriented toward propaganda and control, even within governmental departments.
Public relations is big business all over Europe, in the western as well as the eastern European countries. In most countries US agencies as well as US scholars have dominated the development, except for the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, and France. In most of the eastern Europe countries public relations could only begin to flourish after the fall of the Soviet Regime in 1989. In all these countries public relations is growing rapidly and many universities provide bachelor’s as well as master’s degrees in public relations (often, however, named communication management or corporate communication). There is yet hardly any theory building in these countries and the practice has to lean on German, French, and Anglo-American approaches. Despite the US influence, robust innovations and new directions are being explored that may add important refinements to the understanding and practice of public relations internationally.
United States of America
Modern public relations in the United States started in the mid-nineteenth century. Its rise paralleled the mass media’s growth, which allowed mass-produced publicity and promotion, as well as the sort of issues management that resulted from the efforts of the robber barons to craft the public policy that was needed to support a mass production society. The practice in the USA has been dominated by public relations agencies, such as Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, and Porter Novelli, as well as the public relations departments of major corporations. It has also been a valued tool of activism and the management of government agencies. Scott Cutlip (1994) has written in depth on the history of public relations agencies in the United States. In Cutlip’s opinion, the beginnings of modern public relations are found in the American Revolution, which brought the struggle for power between the patrician-led patriots and the commercial-propertied Tories – as well as indicting the British monarch for conditions that had become insufferable in the minds of leading colonial radicals. The twentieth-century developments in this field are directly tied to the power struggles evoked by the political reform movements led by master politicians from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. These movements reflected strong tides of protest against entrenched power groups.
As a profession, the public relations vocation began with the establishment of the Publicity Bureau in Boston on the eve of the twentieth century and grew into large organizations. Starting with the rise of powerful monopolies, the concentration of wealth and power, and the rough-shod tactics of the robber barons in exploiting human labor and the nation’s resources, contemporary public relations emerged out of the melee of the opposing forces in this period of the nation’s rapid growth and emergence from isolationism into an imperial power, most of all for promotional and propagandistic reasons, Cutlip (1994) said. Efforts to refine the practice produced an interest in reshaping the profession as public affairs and issues management.
Although not the first pioneer in public relations, Ivy Lee remains today one of the most influential who helped define and build public relations. As a former journalist, he issued his Declaration of principles of public relations, which were, over time, to have a profound influence on the evolution of press agentry into publicity and of publicity into public relations. In an era of “the public be damned,” his declaration accentuated the positive right of the public to know:
—–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 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. (Cutlip 1994, 45)
Also famous worldwide is Edward Bernays, who defined public relations as propaganda and the engineering of consent in the early 1900s.
Other Parts of the World
In other parts of the world public relations has been a timeless craft and now is a growing field. As on other continents, the practice of public relations in Asia can be traced back for over a thousand years, ever since emperors realized the importance of public opinion and building harmonious relationships with people.
The use of modern public relations started in the 1970s. In China, for example, public relations became popular after President Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open China to the west. The popularity of the TV series Miss Public Relations in the late 1980s and early 1990s colored the perception of public relations among the Chinese, as the Chinese public relations scholars Flora Hung and Regina Chen detailed in Sriramesh (2004), where the development of public relations in Asia is described. The TV show, which showed young women hosting guests at expensive hotels, led most Chinese to think that public relations professionals were only involved in guest relations. In recent years, as multinational companies established a foothold in the country, Chinese practitioners and scholars wanted to incorporate western perspectives of public relations practice. The fundamental question was how to apply the western concept of public relations – brought in by young scholars who had studied in the United States – in a Chinese context. With the unique characteristic in Chinese culture of maintaining harmonious relationships with people, relationships are more critical and require more distinct obligations in China than in the west, Hung and Chen claim. That is why public relations in Asian countries can best be seen as a combination of western (USA-oriented) approaches and the so-called personal influence approach.
We cannot give here a full picture of the development of public relations in the world. We encourage our readers to familiarize themselves with overviews of public relations on the different continents, as well as The global public relations handbook (Sriramesh & Vercic 2003), the Encyclopedia of public relations (Heath 2005b), and articles in Public Relations Review on the development of public relations in specific countries, for example in Latin America and Africa.
Public Relations Research
The scholarly literature on public relations features one generic principle of public relations: It is the function that communicates for each organization and helps its management to favorably position the organization to earn the favor of targeted markets, audiences, publics, and society at large. This, however, is accomplished in different ways and guided by different theories. These theories define the different approaches to public relations, as can be found in the literature of the discipline. Some scholars seek one general theory of public relations. Perhaps it is to be seen as a proof of the effort to achieve the maturity of the discipline that so many perspectives exist and are challenged by so many researchers. Each perspective offers a unique and important contribution to theory building and valuable strategies to guide and foster ethical practice. For more details than can be provided here on theories and perspectives, see Bentele et al. (2005) (only in German), Botan and Hazleton (2006), Hansen-Horn and Neff (2007), Heath (2001b), and many other handbooks, as well as the Encyclopedia of public relations (Heath 2005b).
The Information Model
The information model of public relations focuses on the dissemination of information, which targets groups to inform (enlighten) them about the plans of the organization and the decisions made. In the former Soviet countries in Europe, one of the major topics is the education of the organization as well as the public to practice this information model, instead of the propagandistic persuasion model of the Soviet regime (Tampere 2003).
The information model is rooted in classical mass communication theories, such as the two-step flow of information (and the multi-step flow), the diffusion of innovations theory, the knowledge gap theory, the uses-and-gratifications approach, and information processing theories. Successful public relations in this approach engages in informing the right people at the right time about the plans and decisions of the organization, but most people are not easy to reach directly, and the most widely used channels to inform key, targeted members of the public and society at large are consequently the mass media. Thus, informational communication management is primarily broadcasting management.
The Persuasion Model
The persuasion model of public relations focuses on the persuasion of target groups to accept the organization’s view on relevant issues, and is also known as the corporate communication approach (van Riel & Fombrun 2007). The basis for this approach stems from Bernays’s theory of public relations as propaganda (for an overview of his ideas, see Cutlip 1994), and the expanded introduction of a psychological approach to mass communication instead of a sociological one in the study of public relations, which give this model wings. The key aspect of these theories is the seeking of control through the assumptions of asymmetrical propaganda.
John Hill (1963, 6) offered tried and true advice for practitioners to be cautious about how they seek to persuade: “It functions in the dissemination of information and facts when non-controversial matters are involved. But when controversy exists, public relations may become the advocate before the bar of public opinion, seeking to win support through interpretation of facts and the power of persuasion.” Whether such communication options on matters of controversy are propaganda or rhetoric can be examined by the extent to which the message is manipulated to obscure enlightened choice or framed to maximize it. Hill realized that propaganda could not be the rationale for public relations, but knew that organizations could not and should not avoid engaging in controversy, which starts with information and includes the interpretation of that information and the application of it to make informed and enlightened decisions.
Receiving and processing the message (which is key in the information model) is not enough here; the targeted public must also be convinced there is a predefined meaning for the situation rather than one that emerges through dialogue. Successful public relations, by this logic, means “convinced publics,” or ensuring a positive image is held by important target groups. Since it is difficult to convince people, research is thought to be important for discovering what the publics will accept. Persuasive public relations is therefore primarily impression management. Defined by both means and ends, persuasion can corrupt public relations if it presumes only to advantage the source and to control the judgments and actions of a targeted public.
The Critical Model
Habermas (1962) claimed that the development of public relations and advertising changed open democratic discourse into a non-critical force of acclamation of the powerful elite. In light of this view, critical models of public relations have been developed, with a main tradition in the United Kingdom. Cottle (2003) edited a volume with different critical approaches (see also Davis 2002). Critical approaches to public relations are rooted in symbolic interactionism, the cultural approach of Stuart Hall, the sociology of news production, and social drama theory.
As in the persuasion model, public relations is seen as a persuasive power, tough not from the angle of the benefit of the organization, but from the angle of the benefit to (or deficit from) society as a whole. What may be successful public relations for the organization is not necessarily successful (or even detrimental) for society, these scholars argue. Critical perspectives will call public relations impression management or spinning.
The Two-Way-Symmetry Model
Grunig et al. (2002) offered a critical view, but not so much from a societal perspective as from a strategic management perspective based on the logics of systems theory. They call the scientific persuasion model an asymmetrical approach to public relations that presumes that to solve a relationship problem a key public has only to alter its view to conform to that preferred by the organization. Grunig et al. prefer a two-way-symmetrical model, in which relationships are built and maintained through interaction. The essence of the interaction is to understand the concerns of a public through research, make those concerns known to management, and seek appropriate changes in management policy. The aim of the relationship is the creation of consensus on important issues to avoid conflict and assure cooperation, for the sake of the publics as well as of the organization itself.
To accomplish this outcome, it is important to focus on communication processes not toward publics or target groups, but between interdependent parties. The premise is that communication between parties will lead to a balance of interests. Another premise is that parties are willing to act as involved and rational citizens instead of selfish consumers and producers. Theoretically this approach is rooted in balance theories of communication, e.g., co-orientation models. In this approach, successful communication management is seen as negotiating with the publics for an acceptable meaning of issues, which is a matter of balancing the give and take. By this logic, two-way-symmetrical public relations is primarily negotiation management.
The Interpersonal Model
Most public relations theories are closely associated with mass communication. As early as 1984, Ferguson promoted the use of interorganizational and interpersonal relationship as the focus in public relations theory. Yet, in most public relations literature, relationships are conceptualized for the most part as interactions between groups (“publics”) rather than individuals, Toth (2007) claimed.
Sallot was one of the first scholars to explore the rich interconnectedness of public relations practice and theory and interpersonal communication (IPC) theory in several presentations (see for an overview Sallot, 2005). Only recently (see, e.g., Botan & Hazleton 2006) have researchers started to apply IPC theory in a comprehensive manner to public relations and practice. The central logic of public relations theory derived from IPC theory is that relationship quality counts and that the quality of what is done by relational partners can increase or decrease the harmony between the partners. Harmonious relationships lead from and to an incentive to cooperate and support, to distribute resources that are available in the relationship. Disharmony results from qualitatively inferior relationships that give participants a motive to sanction relational partners.
Another typical interpersonal approach to public relations is the interpersonal influence model, developed in Asia (Sriramesh 2004) in order to feature the importance of interorganizational and interpersonal relationships in Asian countries. It is critical in this approach to make efforts to cultivate interorganizational and interpersonal relationships by exchanging gifts, favors, and hospitality and do this in an ethical manner. In this approach, successful public relations is most of all people management.
The Reflective Model
The reflective model of public relations (called communication management) is trying to integrate many of the leading perspectives on public relations. Dialogue is an important strategy to develop trust, but it is rather naïve to believe that it is an answer to all mistrust (van Ruler & Vercic 2005). First of all, it is impossible to engage all publics, let alone public opinion, in this dialogue; second, in most cases interests are fuzzy or conflicting. That is why managers use all kinds of strategies, including manipulation of frames (persuasion), in order to earn the favor of publics and get things done. The constraint on this manipulation is public legitimacy, which, because of increased public counteraction, has become increasingly necessary for business to survive.
The reflective model differentiates between the societal/institutional and the economic/ administrative roles each organization plays in its public relations. The economic role is concerned with the meso- (group) and micro- (interpersonal) level of communication among members of the organization, and between the organization and its publics in order to become legitimate in the eyes of specific publics. The societal role is concerned with the macro-level of societal legitimization. Public relations is concerned with the reproduction of the underlying principles that enable organizations to emerge, develop, and prosper. Living in an organizational society, these organizational challenges are communicatively enacted.
This model also differentiates between the organization as organization and as institution. The reflective model looks at the organization as an empirical realization of an institution in society, and the organizational dimension is subordinate to the institutional dimension when it comes to survival. That is why public relations is empirically working in and through the social construction of public identity. In this approach, public relations is primarily concerned with public legitimatization, and in order to get public license to operate, it focuses on public opinion (the public sphere) as a quantity as well as a quality. The institutional dimension of an organization triggers the reflective model of public relations, while the organizational dimension triggers the existing models, now seen as strategies of the reflective model (van Ruler & Vercic 2005).
The primary concerns of public relations from a reflective approach are an organization’s inclusiveness and preservation of the “license to operate.” As marketing is viewing organization from a market view, reflective communication management is viewing organization from a societal or public view. The basic question in this approach to communication management lies in the empirical definition of what is seen as legitimate.
The Rhetorical Model
The rhetorical model builds on what has been called the rhetorical heritage reaching back to treatises central to the humanities, crafted by Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, Quintilian, and many others, including more recently the work of Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman. This body of literature continues to be a robust part of the standard curriculum of welleducated persons and vital to the democratic spirit of countries around the world (Heath 2001a, 2007).
The essence of the rhetorical model at its best is to know the strategies and forces that lead to co-created meaning, collaborative decision-making, and identification. It can also be applied to evil ends using offensive means. Enriched by reflective management and guided by the commitment to demonstrate cases through fact, weigh the values central to each case, and seek to recommend the wisest policy, public relations can apply the rhetorical heritage to increase the likelihood that interested markets, audiences, and publics can make enlightened choices as stakeholders and stakeseekers.
The essence of rhetoric is statement and counter-statement. It is advisory, invitational, and propositional, with as its basic paradigm a thoughtful contest between choices. At its best, it can lead to enlightenment and wise choice. At its worse, it obscures, obfuscates, and centers on ad hominem dispute that ultimately may be damaging (Ihlen 2002).
Thus, the theory and practice of public relations as relying on the rhetorical heritage arm it better to engage in discourse as the rationale for individual and collective decisionmaking in society. This approach allows insights into how meaning is crafted, how ideas are enlivened and framed, and the rich connections between the meanings of the actions of companies and those of other organizations, which are also part of the meaning they create, as well as yield to, in the fostering of harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships. In these endeavors, character counts, a theme that continues to be central to the rhetorical heritage. Not only does the character of the organization speaking add to or detract from the impact its opinions and information have, but the kinds of statements made, the care for the interests of others, and the efforts to achieve enlightenment and reveal good character add to the reputation of the organization.
In more current terms, the rhetorical model presumes that society is created for the collective management of risks. Each individual and organization is conjoined in this arrangement. Dialogue is the rationale for bringing information to bear on risks, but the evaluation of such information is not centered in one body, but institutionalized for the collective good of all members of the society.
The Future of Public Relations
The major work of Sriramesh and Vercic (2003), The global public relations handbook, shows that the democratization of the world, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, goes hand in hand with an enormous growth of public relations all over the world, as well as the necessity of viewing public relations on a global scale. The rapid expansion of new communication technologies such as satellite television and the Internet has increased the dissemination of information about products, services, and lifestyles around much of the world, Sriramesh and Vercic claim. Coupled with the freedom that accompanies democratization, the result has been a significant increase in the global demand for products and services, as well as of global suppliers who can meet this demand.
As a result, countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle-East, eastern Europe, and Latin America have already become, or will soon become, major centers of manufacturing as well as consumption, requiring the organizations of these countries to trade and communicate with a global audience. The formation of multinational trading blocks has also contributed to shrinking the global market, thereby increasing organizational activities among and between trading blocks. These factors, Sriramesh and Vercic claim, have contributed to a significant spurt in global communication, placing public relations practitioners at the forefront of managing the relationships among people of varied nations and cultures on behalf of organizations of all types. For professionals to engage in strategic public relations management in a global setting, it is essential that they have knowledge of globalization and competencies in multicultural communication.
The major works of Heath (2001b) and Botan and Hazleton (2006) show how robust the discourse on public relations theory and practice has become. From the 1970s, when much of the discourse on the topic existed in a few textbooks, professional trade publications, and the emerging Public Relations Review, the discipline has grown steadily. The breadth and depth of analysis have increased. The discipline is slowly becoming less derivative and more original in its theory building. It continues to seek to make critical and practical advances that have pedagogical and real-world application.
Last but certainly not least, globalization and the necessity of corporate social responsibility will urge public relations to rethink its ethical devices and its position in the organization as well as in society. The question is how public relations, with such a tarnished image, can grow steadily into a professional and academic discipline by realizing its potential for making society more fully functional.
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