Public relations

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Public relations is, simply-stated, the art and science of building relationships between an organization and its key audiences. Examples include:

• Corporations use marketing public relations (MPR) to convey information about the products they manufacture or services they provide to potential customers to support their direct sales efforts. Typically, they are supporting sales in the short run, i.e., to boost immediate revenue, and the long run, i.e., to establish and burnish their brand name for a strong, ongoing market presence.

• Corporations also use public-relations vehicles to reach legislators and other politicians, seeking favorable tax, regulatory, and other treatment, and they may use public relations to portray themselves as enlightened employers, in support of human-resources recruiting programs.

• Non-profit organizations, including schools and universities, hospitals, and human and social service agencies, use public relations in support of fund-raising programs and staff recruiting, and to increase patronage of their services.

• Politicians use public relations to attract votes and raise money, and, when successful at the ballot box, to promote and defend their service in office, with an eye to the next election or, at career’s end, to their legacy.

Public Relations vs. Publicity

Although many people believe that “public relations” and “publicity” are synonyms, that view is outdated. Publicity is certainly an important tool in the public-relations professional’s kit, but not the only tool. Publicity refers to activities designed to generate favorable editorial coverage of a product, service, candidate, etc. in the print, broadcast, and online media. The most widely known and used techniques are the news release (press release), news conference (press conference), spokesperson interview, and ghost-writing of articles and essays.

The common factor in these and other publicity techniques is that the public relations professional provides information and expert sources to journalists. The journalists then combine what is provided to them by competing public relations professionals with their own independent research. In the best cases, the resulting report in the mass media is a balanced, authoritative, and accurate. If the public relations person’s product, service, or client receives a fair shake from the journalist, and is portrayed accurately, the PR person (or publicity agent) has done his or her job.

What techniques does public relations encompass besides publicity?

• Direct communication (carrying messages directly to constituents, rather than through the mass media) with, e.g., newsletters – in print and e-letters.

• Collateral literature, traditionally in print and now predominantly (in most cases) as Web sites.

• Speeches to constituent groups and professional organizations; receptions; seminars, and other events; personal appearances.

“That’s just PR!”

Public relations is often misused as a synonym for deceptive or unscrupulous efforts to mislead people. But, like other disciplines, such as accounting, sales, and research, public relations is not inherently good or evil. Sincere, honest people use public relations techniques to convey their beliefs, opinions, and recommendations. Dishonest people with talent and experience in public relations sometimes use it to deceive. The same is true of not only other disciplines mentioned above, but also the three learned professions – law, medicine, and the clergy. We all know good lawyers, doctors, and priests – and bad ones who abuse their abilities, status, and professions. In this respect, public relations is no different from accounting or the law.


Precursors to public relations can be found in publicists who specialized in promoting circuses, theatrical performances, and other public spectacles. Later, most PR practitioners were and are still recruited from the ranks of journalism. Journalists concerned with ethics question former colleagues for using their inside understanding of news media, helping clients receive favorable media coverage. Highly paid PR positions remain a popular career change choice for many journalists. PR historians say the first PR firm, the Publicity Bureau, was established in 1900 by former newspapermen, with Harvard University as its first client. [1]

The First World War also helped stimulate the development of public relations as a profession. Many of the first PR professionals, including Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and Carl Byoir, got their start with the Committee for Public Information (also known as the Creel Committee), which organized publicity on behalf of U.S. objectives during World War I. Some historians regard Ivy Lee as the first real practitioner of public relations, but Edward Bernays is generally regarded today as the profession's founder. In describing the origin of the term Public Relations, Bernays commented, "When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans.. using it. So what I did was to try to find some other words, so we found the words Council on Public Relations".

Ivy Lee, who has been credited with developing the modern news release (also called a "press release"), espoused a philosophy consistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, in which PR consists of helping clients listen as well as communicate messages to their publics. In the words of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." In practice, however, Lee often engaged in one-way propagandizing on behalf of clients despised by the public, including Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. Shortly before his death, the US Congress had been investigating his work on behalf of the controversial Nazi German company IG Farben.

Bernays was the profession's first theorist. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays drew many of his ideas from Freud's theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that shape human behavior. Bernays authored several books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), and The Engineering of Consent (1947). Bernays saw public relations as an "applied social science" that uses insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and "herdlike" public. "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society," he wrote in Propaganda. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

One of Bernays' early clients was the tobacco industry. In 1929, he orchestrated a legendary publicity stunt aimed at persuading women to take up cigarette smoking, which was then considered unfeminine and inappropriate for women with any social standing. To counter this image, Bernays arranged for New York City débutantes to march in that year's Easter Day Parade, defiantly smoking cigarettes as a statement of rebellion against the norms of a male-dominated society. Photographs of what Bernays dubbed the "Torches of Liberty Brigade" were sent to newspapers, convincing many women to equate smoking with women's rights. Some women went so far as to demand membership in all-male smoking clubs, a highly controversial act at the time.

The industry today

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 122,000 public relations specialists in the United States in 1998, while there were approximately 485,000 advertising, marketing, and public relations managers working in all industries. Public relations agents or "officials," most often called "executives," deliver info to the media or directly to the public to convey messages toward wider audiences, or to specific demographic segments within the public, called "target audiences." Because similar opinions tend to be shared by a group of people rather than an entire society, research may be conducted to determine a range of things such as target audiences, appeal, as well as strategies for coordinated message presentation. PR may target different audiences with different messages to achieve an overall goal. Public Relations sets out to effect widespread opinion and behavior changes.

Modern public relations uses a variety of techniques including opinion polling and focus groups to evaluate public opinion, combined with a variety of high-tech techniques for distributing information on behalf of their clients, including satellite feeds, the Internet, broadcast faxes, and database-driven phone banks to recruit supporters for a client's cause. According to the PRSA,

"Examples of the knowledge that may be required in the professional practice of public relations include communication arts, psychology, social psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and the principles of management and ethics. Technical knowledge and skills are required for opinion research, public issues analysis, media relations, direct mail, institutional advertising, publications, film/video productions, special events, speeches, and presentations."

Although public relations professionals are stereotypically seen as corporate servants, the reality is that almost any organization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the media employs at least one PR manager. Large organizations may even have dedicated communications departments. Government agencies, trade associations, and other nonprofit organizations commonly carry out PR activities.

Public relations should be seen as a management function in any organization. An effective communication, or public relations, plan for an organization is developed to communicate to an audience (whether internal or external publics) in such a way the message coincides with organizational goals and seeks to benefit mutual interests whenever possible.



As industry consolidation becomes more prevalent, many organizations and individuals are choosing to retain "boutique" firms as opposed to so-called "global" communications firms. These smaller firms typically specialize in only a couple of practice areas and thus, often have a greater understanding of their client's business. And because they deal with certain journalists with greater frequency, specialty firms often have stronger media contacts in the areas that matter most to their clients. Added benefits of smaller, specialty firms include more personal attention and accountability and as well, cost savings. This is not to say that smaller is always better, but there is a growing consensus that specialty firms offer more than once considered.

A number of specialties exist within the field of public relations, including:

Methods, Tools and Tactics


Audience targeting

The most fundamental rule in public communications is to know who one's audience is, and to tailor every message to appeal to that audience. An "audience" can be a general, nationwide or worldwide audience, but it is more often a segment of a population. Marketers often refer to economy-driven "demographics," such as "white males 18-49," but in public relations an audience is more fluid, being whoever the client wants to reach. For example, recent political audiences include "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads."

In addition to audiences, there are usually stakeholders, literally people who have a "stake" in a given issue. All audiences are stakeholders (or presumptive stakeholders), but not all stakeholders are audiences. For example, a charity commissions a PR agency to create an advertising campaign to raise money to find a cure for a disease. The charity and the people with the disease are stakeholders, but the audience is anyone who is likely to donate money.

Sometimes the interests of differing audiences and stakeholders common to a PR effort necessitate the creation of several distinct but still complementary messages. This is not always easy to do, and sometimes – especially in politics – a spokesperson or client says something to one audience that angers another audience or group of stakeholders.

Press conferences

Main article: press conference (also called a "news conference")

A press conference consists of someone speaking to the media at a predetermined time and place. Press conferences usually take place in a public or quasi-public place. Press conferences provide an excellent opportunity for speakers to control information and who gets it; depending on the circumstances, speakers may hand-pick the journalists they invite to the conference instead of making themselves available to any journalist who wishes to attend.

It is also assumed that the speaker will answer journalists' questions at a press conference, although they are of course not obliged to. However, someone who holds several press conferences on a topic (especially a scandal) will be asked questions by the press, regardless of whether they indicate they will entertain them, and the more conferences the person holds, the more aggressive the questioning may become. Therefore, it is in a speaker's interest to answer journalists' questions at a press conference to avoid appearing as if they have something to hide.

But questions from reporters – especially hostile reporters – detracts from the control a speaker has over the information they give out. For even more control, but less interactivity, a person may choose to issue a press release.

Press releases

Main article: press release (also called a "news release")


A press release is simply a written statement distributed to the media. It is a fundamental tool of PR work. Press releases are usually sent via a newswire service (such as PR Newswire or Business Wire) to media outlets, where journalists may pick them up and use them as they see fit. Very often the information in a press release finds its way verbatim, or minimally altered, to print and broadcast reports. If a media outlet reports that "John Doe said in a statement today that...", the "statement" was almost always a press release.

The text of the press release is usually (but not always) written as a news story, with an eye-catching headline and an article written in standard journalistic inverted pyramid style. This style is effective for reaching harried, and often skeptical journalists who rarely read entire releases. It also makes it easy for journalists to lift entire passages from a release and insert them into their own article. While this practice is frowned upon in newsrooms, journalism is a deadline-driven industry, and it is not uncommon for reporters to occasionally copy or modify a line or two from a press release. PR practitioners, on the other hand, design releases to encourage as much "lifting" as possible, so in essence, the less professional a journalist is, the more successful the release is judged to be.

The only time that journalists may copy from a press release in good conscience is if the release provides a direct quote, as in: Senator Smith said, "This is the most fiscally irresponsible bill that the Congress has passed since the Buy Everyone A Mercedes Act." In this case, a journalist may copy the quote verbatim into his or her story, although most reporters prefer to try soliciting an individual quote from the speaker before filing their story.

However, because press releases reflect their issuer's preferred interpretation or packaging of a story, journalists are often skeptical of their contents. Of course, the level of skepticism, if any, depends on what the story is and who's telling it. Newsrooms receive so many press releases that, unless it is a story that the media are already paying attention to, a press release alone isn't always enough to catch a journalist's attention.

With the advent of modern media and new technology, press releases now have equivalents in these media - video news releases and audio news releases. However, many television stations are hesitent to use VNR's as they appear slighted and not actually newsworthy.


  • Publicity events or publicity stunts
  • The talk show circuit. A PR spokesperson (or his/her client) "does the circuit" by being interviewed on television and radio talk shows with audiences that the client wishes to reach.
  • Books and other writings
  • After a PR practitioner has been working in the field for a while, he or she accumulates a list of contacts in the media and elsewhere in the public affairs sphere. This "Rolodex" becomes a prized asset, and job announcements sometimes even ask for candidates with an existing Rolodex, especially those in the media relations area of PR.

Politics and civil society

Defining your opponent

Political campaigns are peak times for defining one's opponents, though the process occurs continually. Organizations and other groups of people can be defined just as easily as candidates.

In the 2004 US presidential campaign, George W. Bush defined John Kerry as a "flip-flopper," among other characterizations, which were widely reported and repeated by the media, particularly the conservative media. Similarly, George H.W. Bush characterized Michael Dukakis as weak on crime (the Willie Horton ad) and as hopelessly liberal ("a card-carrying member of the ACLU"). In 1996, President Bill Clinton seized upon opponent Bob Dole's promise to take America back to a simpler time, promising in contrast to "build a bridge to the 21st century." This painted Dole as a person who was somehow opposed to progress.

In the debate over abortion, pro-abortion rights groups defined their opponents by defining themselves instead: "pro-choice." Anti-abortion rights groups responded in kind, branding themselves "pro-life." Extrapolating their respective rhetorics, pro-choice groups refer to their opponents as "anti-choice," and pro-life groups refer to their opponents as "pro-abortion."

More recently, opponents of same-sex marriage in the U.S. have declared that their opponents are not the gay couples suing for the right to marry in various state courts, but rather the judges who rule in their favor. They are now calling them "activist judges," implying that they impose their personal beliefs instead of objectively interpreting the law. This sidesteps the thorny issue of making millions of gay people an "enemy," and instead focuses attention on the much smaller judiciary, who all Americans can ostensibly agree should be prevented from being "activists" on the bench.

Managing language

If a politician or organization can use an apt phrase in relation to an issue, such as in interviews or news releases, the news media will often repeat it verbatim, thus furthering the message. (This may be considered an example of a meme.)

"New Deal" became a description of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's anti-Depression economic plans, and "states' rights/state sovereignty" became near-code words for anti-civil rights legislation.

Recent examples come almost solely from Republican politicians: "death tax" for estate tax, "racial preferences" for affirmative action, "faith-based" instead of religious, among others.

Entertainment and celebrity

Playing up one's weaknesses

A famous saying goes "Any publicity is good publicity," and celebrities tend to be fans of this dictum. If a celebrity says or does something embarrassing, he or she will often turn it into a strength and make it part of his or her "image." Of course, this tactic is used just as much with favorable situations as much as with unfavorable ones.

A current (2004) example involves the entertainer Jessica Simpson, who gained nationwide prominence when she wondered aloud on a reality show if "Chicken of the Sea"-brand tuna fish was actually chicken or tuna, garnering her a reputation for being slow-witted. But by the summer of 2004, she was being paid to endorse a brand of breath mints called "Liquid Ice." In the product's television commercial, Simpson replicates her earlier confusion by debating whether the mint is really liquid or ice. So although she was previously ridiculed, she (and her advisers) turned her nationwide embarrassment into a lucrative endorsement deal.

Top US entertainment publicists include Lizzie Grubman, Karen Ammond (KBC Media Relations), and PMK Public Relations.

Branching out

As Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not to be talked about at all. Many celebrities seem to take this truism to heart, because when their popularity (and income) wane, they take on new projects that attract media attention. Considering that a celebrity's celebrity is a brand unto itself, many celebrities are under constant pressure to "reinvent" themselves, as a prophylactic against obscurity.

A current trend among American celebrities is the transformation of musicians, comedians, and almost every other sort of performer into children's book authors. Madonna, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, and several other celebrities have recently written children's books, accompanied by much media coverage.

A more traditional way of branching out is the celebrity restaurant. This is especially common among professional athletes, whose time in the spotlight is often limited by the physical demands of their jobs. Basketball player Michael Jordan opened a restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, and singer Britney Spears opened an ill-fated eatery in New York which closed a few months later.

Male celebrities like Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Charlton Heston seem to gravitate toward politics, although some female celebrities, such as Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand, also become strong political voices.

Younger female celebrities on the other hand are often drawn into the fashion world. Hotel heiress Paris Hilton recently announced that she was starting her own line of jewelry, and Jennifer Lopez has started a line of clothing. And fading star Elizabeth Taylor launched a fragrance called "White Diamonds" several years ago, bringing renewed interest from the media.

Ethical and social issues

Many of the techniques used by PR firms are drawn from the institutions and practices of democracy itself. Persuasion, advocacy, and education are instruments through which individuals and organizations are entitled to express themselves in a free society, and many public relations practitioners are engaged in practices that are widely considered as beneficial, such as publicizing scientific research, promoting charities, raising awareness of public health concerns and other issues in civil society.

One of the most controversial practices in public relations is the use of front groups -- organizations that purport to serve a public cause while actually serving the interests of a client whose sponsorship may be obscured or concealed. The creation of front groups is an example of what PR practitioners sometimes term the third party technique -- the art of "putting your words in someone else's mouth." PR Watch, a nonprofit organization that monitors deceptive PR activities, has published numerous examples of this technique in practice. According to PR Watch, it "specializes in blowing the lid off today's multi-billion dollar propaganda-for-hire industry, naming names and revealing how public relations wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phony 'grassroots' front groups, spy on citizens, and conspire with lobbyists and politicians to thwart democracy." [2].

Instances of the use of front groups as a PR technique have been documented in many industries. For example, the coal mining corporations have created environmental groups that contend that increased CO2 emmissions and global warming will contribute to plant growth and will be beneficial, trade groups for bars and beer distributers have created and funded citizen's groups to attack Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and tobbacco companies have created and funded citizen's groups to advocate for tort reform and to attack personal injury lawyers. [3][4]

Current issues in ethical and social arenas have been brought to the attention of people from all stratas of the population when it was determined that more than one journalist with a platform had received money from a Public Relations firm for espousing a certain point of view.

Public relations in fiction

File:Absolute Power.jpg
Absolute Power, a British comedy series
  • Absolute Power (2000 - ) is a British comedy series, set in the offices of Prentiss McCabe, a fictional public relations company in London.


  1. ^  Clarke Caywood, The Handbook of Strategic Public Relations & Integrated Communications, McGraw Hill, New York, 1997, p. 23


See also

List of Marketing TopicsList of Management Topics
List of Economics TopicsList of Accounting Topics
List of Finance TopicsList of Economists
Topics related to public relations and propaganda

External links

About the industry

Professional organizations

Research organizations

Watchdogs and critics

  • Provides background on PR agencies and practitioners. Focuses mostly on conservative and right-wing PR
  • PR Watch, critiques deceptive PR campaigns
  • Spinwatch Monitors public relations and propaganda
  • CorporateWatch, a critical overview of the public relations and lobbying industry
  • Talespin PR disasters, interactive site and book that looks for, posts and discusses examples of PR malpractice from all over the world


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