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Public relations


Public relations (PR) is internal and external communication (use of symbols and symbolic acts) to inform orinfluence specific publics using writing, marketing, advertising, publicity, promotions, and special events. Some publicrelations specialists work as full-time employees of companies, politicians, nonprofit organizations, or governments; whileothers work for PR agencies or as freelance PR consultants that contract their services to clients (usually corporations , nonprofit organizations, wealthy individuals or other special interests ) who pay for their expertise at keeping them in or out ofthe spotlight, according to the client's wishes.

According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), one of the profession's leading tradeassociations, public relations "has been defined in many widely differing ways. ... [T]he earliest definitions emphasized theroles of press agentry and publicity since these were major elements from which modern public relations grew." More recently, thePR industry has pushed to redefine itself as a management function. Indeed, the PR firm Burson-Marsteller describes itswork as "perception management."

Some critics of the industry refer to PR activities as the manufacturing ofconsent , following a phrase popularized by Edward Herman and NoamChomsky (see Manufacturing Consent ), which wasprobably a reference to the 1955 book The Engineeringof Consent by Edward L. Bernays , founder of the modernPR industry. The practice of public relations is often disparaged using terms such as " spin ," and public relations practitioners are sometimes disparaged as "spin doctors" or "flacks."



The precursors to public relations can be found in the publicists who specialized in promoting circuses, theatricalperformances, and other public spectacles. Many PR practitioners have also been recruited from the ranks of journalism and haveused their understanding of the news media to ensure that their clients receive favorable media coverage.

The First World War also helped stimulate the development ofpublic relations as a profession. Many of the first PR professionals, including IvyLee , Edward Bernays , and Carl Byoir , got their start with the Committee for Public Information (also known as the Creel Committee), which organizedpublicity on behalf of U.S. objectives during World War I. Some historians regard Ivy Lee as the first real practitioner ofpublic 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 philosophyconsistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, in which PR consists of helpingclients listen as well as communicate messages to their publics. In the words of the PRSA, "Public relations helps anorganization 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 . His career ended in scandal, when the U.S. Congress held hearings to investigate his work on behalf of Nazi Germany in the years immediately preceding World War II .

Bernays was the profession's first theorist. A nephew of SigmundFreud , Bernays drew many of his ideas from Freud's theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that shape humanbehavior. Bernays authored several books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), andThe Engineering of Consent (1947). Bernays saw public relations as an "applied social science" that uses insights frompsychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrationaland "herdlike" public. "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is animportant element in democratic society," he wrote in Propaganda. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of societyconstitute 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 womento take up cigarette smoking , which was then consideredunfeminine 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, defiantlysmoking cigarettes as a statement of rebellion against the norms of a male-dominated society. Photographs of what Bernays dubbedthe "Torches of Liberty Brigade" were sent to newspapers, convincing many women to equate smoking with women's rights. Some womenwent 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 LaborStatistics , public relations specialists held approximately 122,000 jobs in 1998, while there were approximately 485,000advertising, marketing, and public relations managers working in all industries. Modern public relations uses a variety oftechniques including opinion polling and focus groups to evaluate public opinion, combined with a variety of high-tech techniquesfor distributing information on behalf of their clients, including satellite feeds, the Internet, broadcast faxes, anddatabase-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 theknowledge that may be required in the professional practice of public relations include communication arts, psychology, socialpsychology, sociology, political science, economics, and the principles of management and ethics. Technical knowledge and skillsare 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 anyorganization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the media employs at least one PR manager. Large enough organizations mayeven have dedicated communications departments. Government agencies, trade associations, and other nonprofit organizationscommonly carry out PR activities.

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 ora few:

  • foodservice PR
  • healthcare PR
  • technology PR
  • public affairs PR

...and others, depending on the agency.

Offshoots of Public Relations

There are disciplines with public relations functions that, though closely related to PR, have differing and unique charactersand 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. Asin other areas of PR, publicity events are also used, and, if used correctly, generate enough "buzz" and free media coverage thatwould be impossible or impractical to replicate with a traditional advertisement.


Propaganda is certainly an area of public relations, albeit a far lessnuanced 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. Ifthe population can be convinced (as is often the case), so much the better for the propagandist, but achieving control is theprimary objective of propaganda, with or without the audience's "hearts and minds."

A few influential propaganda pieces include the film " Triumphdes 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 theGerman people and for its artistry. (Another influential piece of Nazi propaganda was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion , a fabricatedbook "discovered" by the Nazis that they claimed detailed a Jewish plot to take overthe world. The "Protocols" were a major factor in whipping up anti-Semitic fervor in Germany.)

On the American side of World War II were the Four Freedoms by NormanRockwell , a series of four paintings that were meant to motivate Americans to fight to preserve four basic freedoms outlinedin a speech by President Roosevelt : freedom ofspeech, 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, there is a debate about whether the Michael Moore film " Fahrenheit 9/11 " is a documentary or propaganda. The film'sfact-based format leads some to label it a documentary, but its highly emotional approach echoes the fundamental methods ofpropaganda.

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 tothat audience.

An "audience" can be a general, nationwide or worldwide audience, but it is more often a segment of a population. Marketersoften 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 politicalaudiences include "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads."

In addition to audiences, there are usually stakeholders , literally peoplewho have a "stake" in a given issue. All audiences are stakeholders (or presumptive stakeholders), but not all stakeholders areaudiences. For example, a charity commissions a PR agency to create an advertising campaign to raise money to find a cure for adisease. 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 severaldistinct but still complementary messages. This is not always easy to do, and sometimes - especially in politics - aspokesperson 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 takeplace in a public or quasi-public place.

Press conferences provide an excellent opportunity for speakers to control information and who gets it; depending on thecircumstances, speakers may hand-pick the journalists they invite to the conference instead of making themselves available to anyjournalist who wishes to attend.

It is also assumed that the speaker will answer journalists' questions at a press conference, although they are of course notobligated to. However, someone who holds several press conferences on a topic (especially a scandal) will be asked questions bythe press, regardless of whether they indicate they will entertain them, and the more conferences the person holds, the moreaggressive the questioning may become. Therefore, it is in a speaker's interest to answer journalists' questions at a pressconference 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 theinformation 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 themedia. 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 issuingorganization's media contacts directly below. The media contacts are the people that the release's issuer wants to make availableto the media; for example, a press release about new scientific study will typically list the study's lead scientist as its mediacontact.

The text of the press release is usually (but not always) written as a news story, with an eye-catching headline and anarticle 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 iteasy for journalists to lift entire passages from a release and insert them into their own article. While this practice isfrowned upon in newsrooms, journalism is a deadline-driven industry, and it is not uncommon for reporters to occasionally copy ormodify a line or two from a press release. PR practitioners, on the other hand, design releases to encourage as much "lifting" aspossible, 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, asin: Senator Smith said, "This is the most fiscally irresponsible bill that the Congress has passed since the Buy Everyone AMercedes Act." In this case, a journalist may copy the quote verbatim into his or her story, although most reporters preferto 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 thetext.

Press releases are usually sent by fax to media outlets the issuer wishes to reach, but email is sometimes used too.

See this tutorial for an industry insider's discussion on press releasewriting.

PRESS RELEASES ARE an ideal way for organizations to control the information they give to the media. Very often theinformation in a press release finds its way verbatim, or minimally altered, to print and broadcast reports. If a media outletreports 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 oftenskeptical 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 pressrelease alone isn't always enough to catch a journalist's attention.

The Publicity Event

(Also called a publicity "stunt")

"The Circuit"

The "circuit" generally refers to the "talk show circuit." A PR spokesperson (or his/her client) "does the circuit" by beinginterviewed on television and radio talk shows with audiences that the client wishes to reach.

Books and Other Writings

Press Contacts, or 'The Rolodex'

Politics and Civil Society

Defining Your Opponent

Managing Language

If a politician or organization can use an apt phrase in relation to an issue, such as in interviews or news releases, thenews 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 ordoes something embarrassing, he or she will often turn it into a strength and make it part of his or her "image." Of course, thistactic is used just as much with favorable situations as much as with unfavorable ones.

A current example involves the entertainer Jessica Simpson , whogained 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 thesummer of 2004, she was being paid to endorse a brand of breath mints called "Liquid Ice." In the product's televisioncommercial, Simpson replicates her earlier confusion by debating whether the mint is really liquid or ice. So although she waspreviously ridiculed, she (and her advisors) turned her nationwide embarassment into a lucrative endorsement deal.

Ducking the Media

Branching Out

As Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, the only thing worse than beingtalked 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 aprophylactic against obscurity.

A current trend among American celebrities is the transformation of musicians, comedians, and almost every other sort ofperformer into children's book authors. Madonna , Jay Leno , Billy Crystal , and several other celebritieshave 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 restaurantin 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 gravitatetoward 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 startingher own line of jewelry, and Jennifer Lopez has started a line ofclothing. And fading star Elizabeth Taylor launched a fragrance called "White Diamonds" several years ago, bringing renewed interest from themedia.

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 freesociety, and many public relations practitioners are engaged in practices that are widely considered as beneficial, such aspublicizing 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 thatpurport 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 nonprofitorganization that monitors deceptive PR activities, has published numerous examples of this technique in practice.

See also

List of MarketingTopics List of ManagementTopics
List of EconomicsTopics List of AccountingTopics
List of FinanceTopics List of Economists
Topics related to public relations and propaganda

External links

About the Industry

Major Public Relations Agencies

Professional Organizations

Watchdogs and Critics

  • Disinfopedia.org Provides background on PR agencies and practitioners. Focuses mostlyon conservative and right-wing PR
  • PR Watch , critiques deceptive PR campaigns


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