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The Career of Public Relations

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Professor Eric Goldman, Princeton University historian, traced the development of the meaning of the phrase "public relations" in his book Two Way Street. Originally used in a talk before the Yale Law School graduating class in 1882, the words meant "relations for the general good." They dropped out of sight until the late 19th century, when they were again used in circumscribed circles in public utility, railroad, and streetcar trade journals, but they had a new meaning. Whitewashing practices were being carried on by trusts and monopolies to counterattack the battles against them waged by Christian Socialists, labor unions, and populists. As a counteroffensive to these attacks, newspaper men were hired to fight the enemy with words. This activity was called public relations, but the term did not gain public currency outside of the trade papers of the period.

Public relations came to have a broader meaning after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson rallied the peoples of the world to support his goals of making "the world safe for democracy" and letting the war be "the war to end wars." Returning from the Peace Conference in Paris, where I had been a staff member of the United States Committee on Public Information (1918-19), I realized that the informational activities that helped win the war could be harnessed to peacetime pursuits. I opened an office in New York to carry on an activity I called "publicity direction." Our clients were the War Department, for which we helped to further the reemployment of former servicemen, and the Lithuanian National Council of the United States, for which we worked to win national recognition for Lithuania. We soon recognized that "publicity direction" was a misnomer. To win public approval, actions are more important than words. All relations of principals with their publics must be geared to their publics. We changed the name of our activity to "counsel on public relations."

H. L. Mencken, in The American Language: Supplement I, quotes a memorandum from the Bernays office describing how this took place. The Bernayses "were dissatisfied with the term publicity director and searched for terminology that would come to mean the functions they were performing and no others . . . the two hit upon an expression that seemed to them to fit the need. They took the word counsel from legal nomenclature and added it to on public relations . . ."

Crystallizing Public Opinion, published in 1923, was the first book on the scope and function of the professional public relations practitioner. It might be well to dwell at some length on the profession as then described. It was based on two new concepts-that good public relationships depend on socially sound behavior by all activities, profit and nonprofit, and that there is a cooperative relationship between principal and publics.

Public relations functions on a two-way street of adjustment, on a coincidence of the public and private interests. It depends on principals' actions deserving public support and on informing and persuading of the public. It differs from publicity, propaganda, promotion, and similar activities.

The public relations adviser is a societal technician, either employee or outside adviser, who gives advice to the principal on relationships with these publics and then aids in providing information for and persuasion of the publics concerned.

Obviously, this activity of counseling requires knowledge and understanding of present-day social sciences, of all aspects of human behavior-motivations, attitudes-of adjusting to groups and individuals. The activity applies art to science, in this case social science. The professional public relations practitioner is an applied social scientist.

Today public relations is in every sense a profession, except one. It has its professional codes of ethics, voluntary associations, literature, educational curricula. It still lacks registration and licensing of practitioners by the state, a protection to the public and profession alike. And this should come in time.

The rise of the public relations profession can be ascribed to a number of factors. Society has become increasingly complex as a result of revolutions in technology, communications, and transportation. All of us have been brought closer together as a result. The interdependence of people with people, of group with group has been emphasized. A professional trained in the fundamentals of individual and group behavior aids in adjusting group to group and person to person.

We need mutual understanding. Sound public relations is vital in all areas of life. As an instance, business is dependent on many publics, including stockholders, bankers, the community in which it functions, purveyors, customers, and government at local, state, and national levels. A university, as another instance, has as its publics its professors and teachers, prospective teaching staff, present and prospective students, alumni, donors, the community in which it functions, and city, state, and national government.

Every public of every activity demands study and action to assure the highest attainable level of adjustment and understanding.

Summing up, public relations does not mean selling a product, idea, service, personality, or organization. It means action, deeds, behavior geared to public understanding and acceptance. Words are incidental to the process.

The time will come, we hope soon, when a prospective public relations client or employer will know that the public relations practitioner being considered for engagement is qualified by character, education, and training to carry out promises made. This will be the result of state registration and licensing.

Today, unfortunately, this is not the case. The client or employer has to depend on his own judgment in appraising the qualifications of someone he does not know, possibly by recommendation of friends or acquaintances.

Society, in this time of increasing complexity and specialization, has adopted registration and licensing to protect public and professions alike.

Certainly a societal technician is needed to advise on adjustment, information, and persuasion. Individuals and groups-all of us-are more and more dependent on our publics for viability. With increased literacy and interest of the public in all matters, organizations and individuals dependent on the public need advice on how to achieve maximum adjustment with the public through their actions and on information to and persuasion of the public.
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