The term "public relations" is practically self-explanatory, yet over the years it has meant different things to different people. To some the term conjures up negative images of publicity "hacks," press agents, and propagandists. To others public relations means making corporations and other types of organizations more responsive to the demands of public opinion. In its simplest form, public relations means relating to the public. As practiced in the first years of the 20th century before the term "public relations" was coined, it meant one-way communications from an organization to its audience, or simple publicity. As public relations evolved during the 20th century, it recognized the importance of public opinion and its impact on the organization, and thus the necessity for two-way communication between an organization and its publics.
Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995), an important founding father of modern public relations, began practicing public relations in 1920. He coined the term "public relations counsel" and taught the first university course on public relations in 1923 at New York University. That same year his book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, was published and became the first book on public relations. In an interview that was published in the winter 1956 issue of Public Relations Quarterly, Bernays described public relations as "a field of activity which has to do with the interaction between an individual, a group, an idea, or other unit with the public on which it depends. A counsel on public relations is an expert who advises on relations with these publics. He attempts to define the socially sound objectives of his client or project. He attempts to find out by research what the adjustments or maladjustments are between his client and the publics on which he depends."
Philip Lesly (1918-), a leading authority on public relations and editor of Lesly's Handbook of Public Relations and Communications, succinctly defined public relations as "helping an organization and its public adapt mutually to each other." Other definitions of public relations point to its role in protecting and developing goodwill or characterize it as how one organization or group tells other organizations or groups about itself. Yet public relations involves more than words; it also requires an organization to act. The effect of good public relations is to lessen the gap between how an organization sees itself and how others outside the organization perceive it.
Bernays, Lesly, and other experts agree that public relations involves two-way communication between an organization and its public. It requires listening to the publics on which an organization is dependent as well as analyzing and understanding the attitudes and behaviors of those audiences. Only then can an organization undertake an effective public relations campaign consisting of actions as well as words.
Public relations involves many different types of audiences and organizations. Public relations is practiced not only by companies and business firms, but also by trade associations on behalf of specific industries, professional associations on behalf of their members, and other nonprofit organizations as well as cities, states, countries, and a variety of government agencies.
The publics with which these organizations are concerned are also quite varied. Depending on the type of organization, they include its stockholders and investors, employees or members, customers and consumers, government regulators, the media, and the community in which it is located.
If we examine some of the goals and objectives of public relations, it becomes clear that it is a multifaceted activity involving many different functions. Topping the list of objectives, public relations seeks to create, maintain, and protect the organization's reputation, enhance its prestige, and present a favorable image. Studies have shown that consumers often base their purchase decision on a company's reputation, so public relations can have a definite impact on a company's sales and revenue. Public relations can be an effective part of a company's overall marketing strategy. In the case of a for-profit company, public relations and marketing may be coordinated to be sure they are working to achieve the same objectives.
Another major public relations goal is to create goodwill for the organization. This involves such functions as employee relations, stockholder and investor relations, media relations, community relations, and relations with the many other publics with whom the organization interacts, affects, or is affected by.
Public relations also has an educational component that can help it achieve such goals as outlined above. Public relations may function to educate certain publics about many things relevant to the organization, including educating them about business in general, new legislation, and how to use a particular product as well as to overcome misconceptions and prejudices. A nonprofit organization may attempt to educate the public regarding a certain point of view. Trade associations may undertake educational programs regarding particular industries and their products and practices.
Effective public relations requires a knowledge, based on analysis and understanding, of all the factors that influence perception of and attitudes toward the organization. The development of a specific public relations campaign follows these basic steps, which can be visualized as a loop that begins within the organization, extends to the target audience(s), and returns back to the organization.
While a specific public relations project or campaign may be undertaken proactively or reactively, the first basic step in either case involves analysis and research to identify all the relevant factors of the situation. In this first step the organization gains an understanding of the key factors that are influencing the perceptions of the organization and the nature of the publics involved.
The second step, policy formation, builds on the first. Here the organization establishes an overall policy with respect to the campaign, including defining goals and the desired outcome as well as the constraints under which the campaign will operate. It is necessary to establish such policy guidelines in order to evaluate proposed strategies and tactics as well as the overall success of the campaign.
In step three strategies and tactics are outlined. Here the organization brings into play its knowledge of its target audiences and develops specific programs consistent with established policies to achieve the desired objectives. Then the organization is ready for step four, actual communication with the targeted publics. Specific public relations techniques, such as press conferences or special events, are employed to reach the intended audience.
Up to this point the public relations loop has gone in one direction from the organization to its target audiences. In step five the loop turns back toward the organization as it receives feedback from its publics. How have they reacted to the public relations campaign? Are there some unexpected developments? Here the organization listens to its publics and, in the final step, assesses the program and makes any necessary adjustments.
Public relations is a multifaceted activity involving different publics and audiences as well as different types of organizations, all with different goals and objectives. Specific areas of public relations will be reviewed next, with examples of practices and techniques and their use in effective campaigns covering a variety of situations. Many of the examples cited first appeared as case studies in the weekly PR News and were later collected in the PR News Casebook.
Public relations and marketing work together closely when it comes to promoting a new or existing product or service. Public relations plays an important role in new product introductions by creating awareness, differentiating the product from other similar products, and even changing consumer behavior. For example, when the Prince Matchabelli division of Chesebrough-Pond's USA introduced a new men's cologne, there were 21 other men's fragrances being introduced that year. To differentiate its new offering, called Hero, Prince Matchabelli created a National Hero Awards Program honoring authentic male heroes and enlisted the participation of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America to lend credibility to the program. When Coleco introduced its Cabbage Patch Kids, public relations helped increase awareness through licensed tie-in products, trade show exhibits, press parties, and even window displays in Cartier jewelry stores. When one bank began using automated teller machines (ATMs), it created a friendly new image of the new customer-operated machines by introducing them first to children. Public relations can also help introduce new products through staging a variety of special events and in the handling of sensitive situations.
Public relations is often called on to give existing products and services a boost by creating and renewing visibility. The California Raisins Advisory Board organized a national tour featuring live performances by the California Dancing Raisins to maintain interest in raisins during a summer-long advertising hiatus. The tour generated national and local publicity through media events, advance publicity, trade promotions, and media interviews with performer Ray Charles. Before denim became fashionable, the Denim Council helped gain public acceptance of the fabric with a multifaceted campaign that included a range of special events, book tie-ins, promotional giveaways, and specially designated "Denim Weeks," resulting in high-profile magazine and newspaper feature stories.
Other public relations programs for existing products involve stimulating secondary demand, as when Campbell Soup Co. increased overall demand for soup by publishing a recipe booklet. Identifying new uses for the product, as when Rit Household Dyes took advantage of the tie-dyeing craze of the 1960s and 1970s to increase demand for its products, is another way to stimulate interest in an existing product. Public relations can interest the media in familiar products and services in a number of ways, including holding seminars for journalists, staging a special media day, and supplying the media with printed materials ranging from "backgrounders" (in-depth news releases) to booklets and brochures. Changes in existing products offer additional public relations opportunities to focus consumers' attention. An effective public relations campaign can help to properly position a product and overcome negative perceptions on the part of the general public.
Employees are one of the most important publics a company has, and an ongoing public relations program is necessary to maintain employee goodwill as well as to uphold the company's image and reputation among its employees. The essence of a good employee relations program is keeping employees informed and providing them with channels of communication to upper levels of management. Bechtel Group, a privately held complex of operating companies, published an annual report for its employees to keep them informed about the company's operations. The company used employee surveys to determine what information employees considered useful. A range of other communication devices were used, including a monthly tabloid and magazine, a quarterly video magazine, local newsletters, bulletin boards, a call-in telephone service, and "brown bag" lunches where live presentations were made about the company. Suggestion systems, which originated in World War II, are another effective way to improve employee-management communications.
Other public relations programs for employees include training them as company public relations representatives; explaining benefits programs to them; offering them educational, volunteer, and citizenship opportunities; and staging special events such as picnics or open houses for them. Other programs can improve performance and increase employee motivation and pride. Public relations also plays a role in recruiting new employees; handling reorganizations, relocations, and mergers; and resolving labor disputes.
Financial relations involves communicating not only with a company's stockholders, but also with the wider community of financial analysts and potential investors. An effective investor relations plan can increase the value of a company's stock and make it easier for it to raise additional capital. One successful plan involved financial presentations in ten major cities, mailings to the financial community, and financially oriented advertisements, resulting in the stock price increasing 50 percent and the price-earnings ratio doubling. In some cases special meetings with financial analysts are necessary to overcome adverse publicity, negative perceptions about a company, or investor indifference. Such meetings may take the form of full-day briefings, formal presentations, or luncheon meetings. A tour of a company's facilities may help generate interest among the financial community. Mailings and ongoing communications can help a company achieve visibility among potential investors and financial analysts.
Annual reports and stockholder meetings are the two most important public relations tools for maintaining good stockholder relations. Some companies hold regional or quarterly meetings in addition to the usual annual meeting. Other companies reach more stockholders by moving the location of their annual meeting from city to city. Annual reports can be complemented by quarterly reports and dividend check inserts. Companies that wish to provide additional communications with stockholders may send them a newsletter or company magazine. Personal letters to new stockholders and a quick response to inquiries ensure an additional measure of goodwill.
Comprehensive, ongoing community relations programs can help virtually any organization achieve visibility as a good community citizen and put the organization on the receiving end of the goodwill of the community in which it is located. Banks, utilities, radio and television stations, and major retailers and corporations are some of the types of organizations most likely to have ongoing programs that might include supporting urban renewal, performing arts programs, social and educational programs, children's programs, community organizations, and construction projects. Support may be financial or take the form of employee participation.
Organizations have the opportunity to improve goodwill and demonstrate a commitment to their communities when they open new offices, expand facilities, and open new factories. One company increased community awareness of its presence by converting a vacant building into a permanent meeting place. Another company built its new headquarters in an abandoned high school that it renovated. Mutual of Omaha scheduled an anniversary celebration and awards dinner to coincide with the dedication of its new underground office building to generate additional media coverage.
One of the more sensitive areas of community relations involves plant closings. A well-planned public relations campaign, combined with appropriate actions, can alleviate the tensions that such closings cause. Some elements of such a campaign might include offering special programs to laid-off workers, informing employees directly about proposed closings, and controlling rumors through candid and direct communications to the community and employees.
Organizations conduct a variety of special programs to improve community relations, including providing employee volunteers to work on community projects, sponsoring educational and literacy programs, staging open houses and conducting plant tours, celebrating anniversaries, and mounting special exhibits. Organizations are recognized as good community citizens when they support programs that improve the quality of life in their community, including crime prevention, employment, environmental programs, clean-up and beautification, recycling, and restoration.
Sometimes it is necessary for an organization to gain community support for a particular action, such as a new development or factory. One real estate developer elicited favorable media coverage and brought praise from local government by preserving a historic estate that was on a site that had been proposed for development. A utility company mobilized its employees to win community support for a proposed nuclear power plant. They participated in a telephone campaign, attended council meetings in area communities, and volunteered as guides for plant open houses.
Public relations practitioners become heavily involved in crisis communications whenever there is a major accident or natural disaster affecting an organization and its community. Other types of crises involve bankruptcy, product failures, and management wrongdoing. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, the Bank of America utilized its public relations department to quickly establish communications with customers, the financial community, the media, and offices in 45 countries to assure them the bank was still operating. When faced with bankruptcy, Chrysler Corp. embarked on an extensive public relations campaign under the direction of its public affairs department to persuade Congress to approve a $1.2 billion government loan guarantee. In some cases, crises call for an organization to become involved in helping potential victims; in other cases, the crisis may require rebuilding an organization's image.
Public relations in the political arena covers a wide range, including staging presidential debates, as the League of Women Voters has done, holding seminars for government leaders, influencing proposed legislation, and testifying before a congressional committee. Political candidates engage in public relations, as do government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.
Trade associations and other types of organizations attempt to block unfavorable legislation and support favorable legislation in a number of ways. The liquor industry in California helped defeat a proposed tax increase by taking charge of the debate early, winning endorsements, recruiting spokespersons, and cultivating grassroots support. A speakers bureau trained some 240 industry volunteers, and key messages were communicated to the public through printed materials and radio and television commercials.
In another example, many cities considered adopting legislation that banned the sale of spray paint to retail customers because of a rash of graffiti. The National Paint and Coatings Association launched a campaign that focused on the crime of vandalism. The collective research that went into the campaign resulted in an ongoing legislative monitoring operation through which the industry is alerted to new developments.
Organizations attempt to generate goodwill and position themselves as responsible citizens through a variety of programs conducted in the public interest. Some examples are environmental programs that include water and energy conservation, antipollution programs, and generally publicizing an organization's environmental efforts. Health and medical programs are sponsored by a wide range of nonprofit organizations, health care providers, and other businesses and industries. These range from encouraging other companies to develop AIDS in the workplace policies to the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout.
A variety of programs for young people may be conducted in the public interest. These range from providing educational materials to schools to sponsoring a radio program for students and teachers. International Paper developed a program to help older students and recent graduates improve their reading and writing skills by having celebrities write "how-to" articles that were printed as advertisements in popular magazines and major newspapers. Other programs offer political education, leadership and self-improvement, recreational activities, contests, and safety instruction.
Organizations have undertaken a variety of programs to educate consumers, building goodwill and helping avoid misunderstandings in the process. Some examples of trade association activity in this area include the Soap and Detergent Association preparing a guide on housecleaning to be used in educational programs for new public housing residents. The National Association of Manufacturers held local open houses to educate the public about local businesses. The general public was allowed to make toll-free telephone calls to a pesticide symposium conducted by two agricultural associations. The automotive industry established the Automobile Information Council as a source of industry news and information. An association of accountants undertook to educate the public concerning new tax laws.
Other opportunities for educating consumers include sponsoring television and radio programs, producing manuals and other printed materials, producing materials for classroom use, and releasing the results of surveys. In addition to focusing on specific issues or industries, educational programs may seek to inform consumers about economic matters and business in general.
Other types of programs that fall under the umbrella of public relations include corporate identity programs ranging from name changes and new trademarks to changing a company's image and identity. Milestones and anniversaries are observed in a variety of ways to improve an organization's public relations.
Special events may be held to call attention to an organization and focus the public's goodwill. These include anniversary celebrations, events related to trade shows, special exhibits, fairs and festivals, and other types of events.
Speakers bureaus and celebrity spokespersons are effective public relations tools for communicating an organization's point of view. Speakers bureaus may be organized by a trade association or an individual company as well as by virtually any other type of organization. The face to-face communication that speakers can deliver is often more effective than messages carried by printed materials, especially when the target audience is small and clearly defined.
The examples of public relations practices given here indicate the range of activities and functions that fall within public relations. It is clear that while communication is the essence of public relations, an effective public relations campaign is based on action as well as words. Whether it is practiced formally or informally, public relations is an essential function for the survival of any organization.
The Internet and the World Wide Web and the use of electronic mail has given public relations practitioners a new tool for communicating with journalists and editors in the media. According to Paul Krupin, compiler of The U.S. All Media E-Mail Directory, "Media executives are increasingly adapting to the use of e-mail as a preferred method for receiving news releases." Electronic public relations is most effective for those companies whose products and services are web- or computer-oriented, and even though media contacts may prefer to receive news releases via e-mail, they still evaluate each release on the basis of its content. Krupin also noted in a 1998 article for Directory World, "The lion's share of media still rely on faxes, telephones, and street mail, pretty much in that order."
Also affected by the World Wide Web are press kits, which used to consist of a large folder filled with glossy photos, corporate bios, and narrative press releases. More effective for the World Wide Web are online press kits, which consist of video news releases, still images, and a wealth of background information—all available online at a company's Web site or e-mailed to media contacts. Benefits to using an online press kit include lower costs and making more information available to journalists. Photographs and news releases can be easily downloaded, saving valuable time for the user.
In addition to including current information, corporate Web sites often contain an archive of news releases going back in time. They may also contain other public relations items, such as a corporate history or timeline, annual reports, and profiles of corporate officers. Companies with an interest in public relations will be using the World Wide Web to find new opportunities to communicate their messages to their publics.
[ David P. Bianco ]
Bemays. Edward L. The Later Years: Public Relations Insights, 1956-1986. Rhinebeck, NY: H&M Publishers, 1986.
Bianco, David, ed. PR News Casebook: 1,000 Public Relations Case Studies. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Krupin, Paul "Fine-Tune Your New Media Publicity Tools." Directory World, March/April 1998, 5-6.
Lesly, Philip, ed. Lesly's Handbook of Public Relations and Communications. New York: AMACOM, 1991.
Sutlip, Scott M. Effective Public Relations. 7th ed. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. New York: Crown, 1998.
Wilcox, Dennis L., and others. Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics. 4th ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995.