What is ‘Public Relations’?

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Public relations, or PR as it is called today, made its first impact in this country with the publication of the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in 1788 explaining and urging the adoption of the Federal Constitution.

Public relations as a career first surfaced in 1906 when a one-time newspaperman, Ivy Lee, began the work of rescuing John D. Rockefeller from a reputation for greed and ruthlessness. According to a Science Research Associates brief, in the early years public relations was synonymous with publicity, and usually the PR man's success was judged by the number of favorable press stories he was able to produce. Gradually, however, PR came to be recognized as an effective way to build public goodwill on a solid, long-range basis, as a continuing-not an occasional effort. Today there are more than 1,800 independent public relations agencies and over 100,000 employees in this field.

Public relations, publicity, promotion are three names for the same set of skills. Their use and mastery is currently being taught in more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from Ivy League universities to public junior colleges. In some of them students are required to take more work in related fields-journalism, English, history, social sciences, humanities, business administration and communication. Opinions differ in both the academic and professional world as to how much use college training in PR is to the future practitioner or his employer.



A course at Northern Illinois University is like on-the-job training in that students form their own PR agencies, find their own clients, and conduct their own PR campaigns. The clients do not pay for the PR services but must want them and be willing to pay the expenses. Weekly progress reports are given both the client and class instructor. Other members of the class, rival "agencies," evaluate these progress reports.

The consensus of opinion in the business world is that fitness for PR depends on personality, general education and, if possible, on some experience in communications.

In school or out of school, the young man or woman can generally find opportunities to develop skills in public relations. He may offer his services to a local organization. There is no lack of demand for PR volunteers in many areas. Politics, for instance, welcomes young workers; so does music and art, charitable enterprises and civic and religious groups.

Whatever area the beginning publicist enters, the target is the same: acceptance by the public. The public-whichever one lie chooses to address-is master. The public takes or rejects. Nothing can survive without some degree of acceptance by that impersonal mass known as "the public." In a flexible and quixotic service such as public relations the campaigns described later have their own format and coloration. Insofar as they have gotten favorable attention for a client, these examples may be taken as pilots or models.

Public Relations is one of the most powerful man-made forces, and the most adaptable. It can do anything-from starting a war to selling a cake of soap. It can make people question their best instincts, and their lowest. The church relies heavily on public relations; so does the government. The U.S. Information Agency which promotes the interest of the United States abroad, according to Science Research Associates, is one of the largest government employers of PR workers.

Almost everything we think or do is influenced by public relations. We are a walking mass of reflexes to the effect of countless PR campaigns. Kurt Lewin has said that the behavior of an individual is the result of all the forces acting on him at a given time. Undeniably, most of those forces are PR-inspired.

Celebrities are often affected by their own PR campaigns. Actors begin to believe their press agents. Politicians have been known to "rise to the office." In short, public relations, or press agency, can inflate a man's ego; it can also elevate his response and his thinking by showing him the power and the glory of his office.

It might even be said that a kind of power and glory have been recently conferred on youth. As the purchasing power of young people grew, so did the PR campaigns by manufacturers directed toward them. Youth became the number one target for the merchandising of every product from phonograph records to fashions. And youth was flattered; it believed the publicity and assumed the power handed to it. It is a mistake to suppose this power of the under-thirty generation came like a wind out of nowhere. It was a wind, but a cleverly contrived one directed by the best PR brains in the country.

What Does PR Try to Do?

Public Relations as a force has been described by the Public Relations Society of America as consisting of:
  1. Writing. News releases, reports, booklets, radio and TV copy, speeches, trade paper and magazine articles, and technical material.

  2. Editing. Employee publications, newsletters, share-holder reports and other management communications.

  3. Placement. Contacts with the press, radio and television, as well as with magazines, weekly newspaper supplements, and trade editors to interest them in publishing the news and features of an organization or client.

  4. Promotion. A publicizing tool used to promote acceptance and favor among groups of people. Special events include press parties, convention exhibits and special shows, open house, anniversary and new facilities celebrations, special day, week or month observances, contest and award programs, guest relations, institutional motion pictures and visual aids.

  5. Speaking. Planning appearances before groups. The person who can skillfully address groups has an advantage over those limited to writing.

  6. Production. Some knowledge of graphics (art and lay-out) either for preparing brochures and reports, or to supervise their use.

  7. Institutional advertising. Advertising a company's name and reputation, not its product.

  8. Programming and Counseling. The determination of need, the definition of objectives, and recommended steps in carrying out the project. (The job of a senior PR executive.)
In the average PR job many of these skills are not needed. What is especially needed is the ability to write:
  1. A release-news story about the product or service being publicized.

  2. A Fact-Sheet or "Backgrounder." This is designed to tell a more complete story than the release, and to interest magazines, syndicates or networks in a story or program based on the account.

  3. Interview Memo, or "tip-sheet." When someone connected with the project is available for interviews, this interview memo is attached to the general release. It gives possible dates for interviews, enough biographical material to interest and inform the interviewer, and often three or four suggested subjects for interview.

  4. Picture Captions. A picture caption must accompany every picture sent out. It must identify the person or persons, object or scene in the photograph, and say whom to contact for further information. Rubber cement the caption to one edge of the photograph.

  5. Press kit. The press kit is a more elaborate and complete presentation of the story. Physically it is a folder containing pictures (captioned), background material, and a series of news stories emphasizing various aspects of the project.
Here are the tools of the campaign. Learning to write and distribute the release, the interview memo, etc. is a basic requirement in PR work. Sophistication builds on these beginnings. For instance, the sophisticated PR man has in mind the audience it will reach when he writes a story. The putting together of words and sentences is a minor chore; communication is his objective.

Here are the different interpretations that can be given one news story-a release announcing a price decline in a major product:
  1. The financial community will read into this lower profits for your client.

  2. The consumer will expect lower prices.

  3. To the employees it may mean lower wages.

  4. The competition will be concerned with the effect on the market for their own product.

  5. The government will be concerned with the effect on the economy.

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