The Bright 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 service-men, 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."

Initial Hostility to Term

When Crystallizing Public Opinion was published, reviews of the book revealed initial hostility to the term public relations and to my conception of its meaning. The editor of The Survey, answering a letter from the publisher on whether a book on public relations would serve a useful purpose, wrote: "I guess there is a big need in my part of the world for a book on the new profession of public relations-for hell, I didn't know there was any such animal!" H. L. Mencken's The American Language (1926) treated the words "counsel on public relations" as a euphemism. "A press agent," Mencken wrote, "is now called a publicist, a press representative, or a counsel on public relations, just as realtor and mortician are used for real estate man and undertaker." It was not until 20 years later, in his supplement to the original volume, that Mencken devoted the two pages al-ready referred to, ascribing the coinage and definition of the term to me.

Between 1923 and the present, developing acceptance of the term came about, together with a growing literature, an expanded university interest, and widespread discussion and examination of the field in the trade and lay press. Public relations was increasingly used by profit and nonprofit organizations alike. In 1949, however, Fortune magazine said in an article titled "Business Is Still in Trouble" that the reason business was not rolling in goodwill was that about 95 percent of what was labeled public relations was sheer press agentry. According to Fortune, a company or product was noticed, but this did not necessarily result in good public relations. The article offered a short definition: "Good public relations is good performance  publicly appreciated."

In 1952 I reformulated my 1923 definition in a new book, Public Relations. I defined the term as (1) efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of a unit with its publics and its publics with the unit; (2) providing information to the public about the unit; and (3) directing persuasion at the public to build support for the unit's services, products, or ideas.

What Public Relations Is Not

Public relations is not publicity, although it may use publicity. Public relations functions on a two-way street; publicity is a one-way street. Publicity seeks to promote a unit by dissemination of news, ideas, and points of view through the media.

Press agentry, stemming from the circuses that toured the United States through the 19th century, is not public relations.

Advertising is not public relations, although it is often used as a tool of public relations. Advertising is the purchase of space in broadcast, print, or other media for a message, even though the term is sometimes used to mean any attempt to win public acceptance. People occasionally speak of "advertising a nation to win international goodwill."

Propaganda is not public relations. Propaganda as defined by The Random House Dictionary of the English Language means "information, rumors, etc. spread widely to help or harm a per-son, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." First introduced in the 16th century, propaganda took its name from the Societas de Propaganda Fide (Committee for the Propagation of the Faith) of the Roman Catholic Church. Not until the propaganda of Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I did the word begin to have negative connotations. In the 1920's the word became associated with the propaganda of Soviet Russia. Even then the word was not so black in the American public mind as to keep me from using the title Propaganda for my second book (1928). For that period it became a synonym for public relations.

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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