Public relations (PR) is the practice of conveying messages to the public through the media on behalf of a client, with the intention of changing the public's actions by influencing their opinions. PR practitioners usually target only certain segments of the public ("audiences"), since similar opinions tend to be shared by a group of people rather than an entire society. However, by targeting different audiences with different messages to achieve an overall goal, PR practitioners can achieve widespread opinion and behavior change.
The precursors to public relations can be found in the publicists who specialized in promoting circuses, theatrical performances, and other public spectacles. Many PR practitioners have also been recruited from the ranks of journalism and have used their understanding of the news media to ensure that their clients receive favorable media coverage.
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.
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 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 robber baron 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 debutantes 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, public relations specialists held approximately 122,000 jobs in 1998, while there were approximately 485,000 advertising, marketing, and public relations managers working in all industries. 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.
The skills and techniques used to manage the public have also expanded over the years. 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 coporate 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 enough 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 mutal interests whenever possible.
A number of specialties exist within the field of public relations, including:
Also, many large agencies separate their work into area-specific "practices," while smaller agencies specialize in only one or a few:
- foodservice PR
- healthcare PR
- technology PR
- public affairs PR
- online PR
...and others, depending on the agency.
There are disciplines with public relations functions that, though closely related to PR, have differing and unique characters and goals.
Marketing and Advertising
While public relations generally tries to influence the public's perceptions and behavior in a variety of ways and arenas, marketing concentrates on influencing the public to buy goods and services. Advertising is an important tool for marketers, though not the only one. As in other areas of PR, publicity events are also used, and, if used correctly, generate enough "buzz" and free media coverage that would be impossible or impractical to replicate with a traditional advertisement.
Propaganda is certainly an area of public relations, albeit a far less nuanced one. PR most often tries to convince the public of something using a wide array of intellectual and emotional tools, while propaganda usually relies on visceral emotions like love, fear, loyalty, prejudice, and others, to control a population. If the population can be convinced (as is often the case), so much the better for the propagandist, but achieving control is the primary objective of propaganda, with or without the audience's "hearts and minds."
A few influential propaganda pieces include the film "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of the Will"), made by Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. It is widely considered the best propaganda film ever made, both for its effect on the German people and for its artistry. Another instrument they used was a fraudulent document entitled "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" that seemingly detailed a Jewish plot to take over the world. The "Protocols" were a major factor in whipping up anti-Semitic fervor in Germany, and had earlier also been very effective in Russia. In the US they had been popularized by Henry Ford in a book that would later be cited by Adolf Hitler.
On the American side of World War II were the Four Freedoms by Norman Rockwell, a series of four paintings that were meant to motivate Americans to fight to preserve four basic freedoms outlined in a speech by President Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The "Why We Fight" films, produced by Frank Capra, were also influential.
In the present day, one controversy over the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11 is whether it is a documentary or propaganda. The film's fact-based format leads some to label it a documentary, but its highly emotional approach echoes the fundamental methods of propaganda.
Audiences and Stakeholders
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 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.
Methods, Tools and Tactics
The 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 obligated 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.
The 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.
The typical press release announces that the statement is "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" across the top, and lists the issuing organization's media contacts directly below. The media contacts are the people that the release's issuer wants to make available to the media; for example, a press release about new scientific study will typically list the study's lead scientist as its media contact.
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.
The bottom of each release is usually marked with ### or -30- to signify the end of the text.
Press releases are usually sent via a Newswire service (such as PR Newswire) to media outlets.
PRESS RELEASES ARE an ideal way for organizations to control the information they give to the media. 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.
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.
The Publicity Event
(Also called a publicity "stunt")
The "circuit" generally refers to 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
Press Contacts, or 'The Rolodex'
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.
In the most recent U.S. presidential campaign, George W. Bush defined John Kerry as a "flip-flopper," among other characterizations.
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.
But organizations and other groups of people can be defined just as easily as candidates.
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 called "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.
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.
"New Deal" became a description of President Franklin 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, and several 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 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 advisors) turned her nationwide embarrassment into a lucrative endorsement deal.
Ducking the Media
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, 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.
However, a number of strong criticisms of public relations have been made over the years.
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.
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.
About the Industry
Major public relations agencies
Watchdogs and Critics
SourceWatch.org Provides background on PR agencies and practitioners. Focuses mostly on conservative and right-wing PR
PR Watch, critiques deceptive PR campaigns
CorporateWatch, a critical overview of the public relations and lobbying industry