Public relations (PR) is the art of managing communication between an organization and its key publics to build, manage, and sustain a positive image. Public relations involves evaluation of public attitudes and public opinions; formulation and implementation of an organization's procedures and policy regarding communication with its publics; coordination of communications programs; developing rapport and good-will through a two way communication process; and fostering a positive relationship between an organization and its public constituents. Public relations often involves news management—optimizing good news and forestalling bad news. Equally, good public relations managers conduct "damage control" when a disaster occurs, gathering the facts and assessing the situation to prepare appropriate information to be offered to the mass media. While public relations may be criticized as propaganda on occasion, the role of managing communication between the organization and the public is a necessary one in society. As technologies have developed, it has become both more difficult to hide information and equally easier to distort it. The quality of PR material produced, and how much it reflects the truth of the situation, depend on the character and motivations of all involved.
Precursors to public relations are found in publicists who specialized in promoting circuses, theatrical performances, and other public spectacles. In the United States, where public relations has its origins, many early public relations practices were developed in support of the expansive power of the railroads. In fact, the first documented use of the term "public relations" appeared in the 1897 Year Book of Railway Literature.
Later, public relations practitioners were—and are still often—recruited from the ranks of journalism. Some journalists, concerned with ethics, have criticized former colleagues for using their inside understanding of news media to help clients receive favorable mass media coverage.
The First World War also helped stimulate the development of public relations as a profession. Many of the first public relations professionals—including Edward L. Bernays and Carl Byoir—got their start with the Committee on Public Information (also known as the “Creel Commission”), 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 Bernays is generally regarded today as the profession's founder. In describing the origin of the term “public relations,” Bernays commented, "When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it. So what I did was to try to find some other words, so we found the words Council on Public Relations."
Lee, who has been credited with developing the modern "news release" (or "press release"), espoused a philosophy consistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, in which public relations consists of helping clients listen as well as communicate messages to their publics. In the words of the Public Relations Society of America, "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."
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. 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. Bernays arranged for New York City débutantes 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.
Bernays authored several books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), and The Engineering of Consent (1947), regarding 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. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
In 1950, PRSA enacted the first "Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations," a forerunner to the current Code of Ethics, revised in 2000 to include six core values and six code provisions. These six core values are "Advocacy, Honesty, Expertise, Independence, Loyalty, and Fairness." The six code provisions are "Free Flow of Information, Competition, Disclosure of Information, Safeguarding Confidences, Conflicts of Interest, and Enhancing the Profession."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 122,000 public relations specialists in the United States in 1998, while there were approximately 485,000 advertising, marketing, and public relations managers working in all industries.
The practice is also growing across the world. As other countries are entering into the globalized free market economy, they find they would like to promote their best face to the public. Countries in the former Soviet Union are finding the opportunity for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over one hundred public relations firms have emerged in the formerly Soviet Ukraine. Similar numbers are developing all over Europe, Africa, and South America.
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.
Although public relations professionals are stereotypically seen as corporate servants, the reality is that almost any organization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the public arena employs at least one public relations professional. Large organizations may even have dedicated communications departments. Government agencies, trade associations, and other non-profit organizations commonly carry out public relations activities.
An effective public relations plan for an organization is designed to communicate to an audience (whether internal or external publics) in such a way that the message coincides with organizational goals and seeks to benefit mutual interests. The process of developing such a plan consists of a number of steps.
One common model has four steps. The first step is "defining public relations problems," usually in terms of a "situational analysis," or what public relations professionals call a "SWOT analysis" (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). This should answer the question, "What's happening now?" The next step in the public relations process is "planning and programming," where the main focus is "strategy." This step should answer the question "what should we do and say, and why?" The third step in the public relations process is "taking action and communicating," also known as "implementation"; This step should answer the question, "How and when do we do and say it?" The final step is "evaluating the program," making a final "assessment," which should answer the question "how did we do?" This is where public relations professionals make a final analysis of the success of their campaign or communication.
Another model defines the process of public relations through four steps: "Fact-finding and data gathering; Planning and programming; Action and communication; Evaluation." A different process model uses the acronym "ROSIE" to define a five-step process of research, objectives, strategies, implementation and evaluation.
People who are professionals in public relations use different methods for analyzing the results of their work such as focus groups, surveys, and one-on-one interviews. These same methods are used in defining what medium of communication will be used in the process of strategy and what tools will be used in relaying the message, such as press releases, brochures, websites, media packs, video news releases, news conferences, and in-house publications.
Public relations and publicity are not synonyms. Publicity is the spreading of information simply to gain public awareness of a product, service, candidate, and so forth. Publicity and public relations may use similar techniques, such as press conferences and press releases.
A fundamental technique used in public relations is to identify the target audience, and to tailor every message to appeal to that audience. The audience can be local, nationwide, or worldwide, 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 someone wants to reach. For example, political audiences may 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 charitable organization may commission a public relations 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 is likely to donate money.
Sometimes the interests of differing audiences and stakeholders common to a public relations 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.
A press conference consists of a presentation to the news media at a predetermined time and place, usually public or quasi-public place. Press conferences provide an opportunity for speakers to control information and who has access to 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. For example, the communist government in China has used regular press conferences to share the party's latest policy decisions or to afford reporters access to officials.
It is also assumed that the speaker will answer journalists' questions at a press conference, although they are not obliged 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.
However, questions from reporters—especially hostile reporters—detracts from the control a speaker has over the information they give out. For more control, but less interactivity, a person may choose to issue a press release.
A press release is a written statement distributed to the media. It is a fundamental tool of public relations. Press releases are usually communicated by a newswire service to various news media and journalists may use them as they see fit. Very often the information in a press release finds its way minimally altered or verbatim to print and broadcast reports.
The text of a release is usually (but not always) written in the style of a news story, with an eye-catching headline and text written standard journalistic "inverted pyramid" style. This style of news writing makes it easier for reporters to quickly grasp the message. Journalists are free to use the information verbatim, or alter it as they see fit. Public relations practitioners research and write releases that encourage journalists to lift the information as directly as possible.
Since press releases reflect their issuer's preferred interpretation or positive packaging of a story, journalists are often skeptical of their contents. Newsrooms receive so many press releases that, unless it is a story that the media are already paying attention to, a press release alone often is not enough to catch a journalist's attention.
With the advent of electronic media and new technology, press releases now have equivalents in these media—video news releases and audio news releases.
The advent of the Internet has ushered in another kind of press release known as an "optimized press release." Unlike conventional press releases of yore, written for journalists' eyes only, in hopes the editor or reporter would find the content compelling enough to turn it into print or electronic news coverage, the optimized press release is posted on an online news portal. Here the writer carefully selects keywords or keyword phrases relevant to the press release contents. If written skillfully, the press release can rank highly in searches for the chosen keyword phrases by anyone searching the news portal.
Lobby groups are established to influence government policy, corporate policy, or public opinion. These groups purport to represent a particular interest. A lobby group that hides its true purpose and support base is known as a "front group." Lobbying can take the form of private conversations with people in power, or large scale public demonstrations on behalf of a client. Lobbyists also direct people wanting to donate money to campaigns to politicians they believe would best serve those donors. These same lobbyists will also often set up meetings between influential citizens with politicians. Lobbyists are often accused of having a corrupting influence over legislators. As a result of this suspected influence, many states and countries require lobbyists to register with a central commission. Some groups that spend a lot of money on lobbying are representatives of the finance, energy, labor, transportation, and legal sectors.
Another public relations practice is that of "astroturfing." This is the creation of artificial "grassroots" movements in order to sway public opinion over an issue. A typical example would be the writing of letters to multiple newspaper editors under different names to express an opinion on an issue, creating the impression of widespread public feeling but being controlled by one central entity. Another example would be if people are hired to put on a protest under the auspices of being genuinely concerned citizens.
In public relations, "spin" is a sometimes pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often—though not always—implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position.
The term is borrowed from ball sports such as cricket, where a spin bowler may impart spin on the ball during a delivery so that it will curve through the air or bounce in an advantageous manner.
The techniques of "spin" include:
Skilled practitioners of spin are sometimes called "spin doctors." Alastair Campbell, who was involved with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's public relations between 1994 and 2003, and also played a controversial role as press relations officer to the British and Irish Lions rugby team during their 2005 tour of New Zealand, has often been referred to as a "spin doctor."
State-run media in many countries also engage in spin by selectively allowing news stories that are favorable to the government while censoring anything that could be considered critical. They may also use propaganda to indoctrinate or actively influence citizens' opinions. The Russian state-owned natural gas firm Gazprom has relied on favorable coverage in newspapers loyal to the government to give it an image boost.
A tactic used in political campaigns is known as "defining one's opponent." Opponents can be candidates, organizations, or other groups of people.
In the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, George W. Bush defined opponent John Kerry as a "flip-flopper," among other characterizations, which were widely reported and repeated by the media, particularly the conservative media. Similarly, George H. W. Bush characterized Michael Dukakis as weak on crime 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 twenty-first century," thus painting Dole as a person who was somehow opposed to progress.
In the debate over abortion, pro-abortion rights groups defined their opponents by defining themselves instead as "pro-choice." Anti-abortion rights groups responded in kind, branding themselves "pro-life." Extrapolating their respective rhetoric, pro-choice groups refer to their opponents as "anti-choice," and pro-life groups refer to their opponents as "anti-life."
Opponents of same-sex marriage in the U.S. have declared that their opponents are not the couples suing for the right to marry in various state courts, but rather the judges who rule in their favor. They are now calling them "activist judges," implying that they impose their personal beliefs instead of objectively interpreting the law. This sidesteps the thorny issue of making millions of homosexual 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.
In Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was able to win the election for prime minister in 2004 after characterizing his opponents in the People's Party as weak on security following the bombing of Madrid's Athocha Station, killing 191 people.
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. The "New Deal" became a description of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's anti-Depression economic plans, and "states' rights/state sovereignty" became near-code words for anti-civil rights legislation.
Celebrities tend to be fans of the dictum "any publicity is good publicity." 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." This tactic is used just as much with favorable situations as much as with unfavorable ones.
Entertainer Jessica Simpson gained nationwide prominence when she wondered aloud on a reality television show if "Chicken of the Sea" was actually chicken or tuna, garnering her a reputation for being slow-witted. However, within months she was being paid to endorse a brand of breath mints called "Liquid Ice." In the product's television commercial, Simpson replicated her earlier confusion by debating whether the mint is really liquid or ice, turning her nationwide embarrassment into a lucrative endorsement deal.
As Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not to be talked about. 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.
A number of American celebrities have transformed themselves into children's book authors, 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. Thus, basketball player Michael Jordan opened a restaurant in Chicago.
Younger female celebrities are often drawn into the fashion world. Hotel heiress Paris Hilton recently announced that she was starting her own line of jewelry. Fading star Elizabeth Taylor launched a perfume called "White Diamonds," bringing renewed interest from the media.
Other celebrities have gravitated toward politics, including film stars Charlton Heston and notably Arnold Schwarzenegger, who succeeded in being elected governor of California.
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 public relations practitioners sometimes term the "third party technique"—the art of "putting your words in someone else's mouth."
The Center for Media & Democracy, a non-profit organization that monitors public relations activities it considers to be deceptive, has published numerous examples of this technique in practice, contending that public relations involves a "multi-billion dollar propaganda-for-hire industry" that works to "concoct and spin the news, organize phony 'grassroots' front groups, spy on citizens, and conspire with lobbyists and politicians to thwart democracy."
Instances of the use of front groups as a public relations technique have been documented in many industries. Coal mining corporations created environmental groups that contended that increased carbon dioxide emissions and global warming will contribute to plant growth and thus be beneficial, trade groups for bars have created and funded citizens' groups to attack anti-alcohol groups, and tobacco companies have created and funded citizens' groups to advocate for tort reform and to attack personal injury lawyers.
Nevertheless, many of the techniques used by public relations 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 such issues in civil society.
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