Are we in danger of slipping back into less-progressive
pre-20th century public relations thinking?
While recently thinning out my bookshelves, I came across the third edition of Philip Lesly's Public Relations Handbook published in 1983. At that time, Lesly's Handbook was one of a handful of definitive desktop references that were likely to be found in most public relations offices throughout the English-speaking world. It offered a good picture of what was then the state of the art in public relations theory and practice.
One article in particular struck a nerve. It talked about how public relations had evolved since the turn of the century and become more progressive. It reminded me of things I learned when I was studying public relations and which I had gone on to practice and later write about and teach. But, when I reached the end of the article, I had to ask myself if we've maintained this progress or are now back-sliding into 19th century views of public relations.
The article outlines what Lesly called "three major conceptions" of the role of public relations. The first was "To master the publics." The second, "To block and parry." And, the third, "To achieve mutual adaptation." His phrasing, especially the labels he put on the three approaches, differs a bit from other writers, but his underlying concepts parallel the widely accepted view that there have been three phases or eras in the evolution of public relations that transformed it from a one-way communication process that tried to drive the public to desired beliefs and behaviors into a more give-and-take process of two-way communication that mutually benefits both the public and the organization performing public relations.
Lesly and the vast majority of writers about public relations were in total agreement that, by the 1980s, the practice of public relations had become better, more effective, more efficient, and more ethical than it had ever been before. That's because its primary focus had become, in Lesly's words, "to develop relationships of mutual benefit to all parties involved." This meant, for example, that public relations efforts on behalf of a manufacturing business should not be designed solely to benefit the company; they also had to benefit its customers and the employees who work for it. He even went so far as to say that public relations on behalf of an organization that exudes waste should also benefit environmentalists.
Overall, he described it as "an era in which the management principle of participation by individuals is ascendant over any authoritarian approach."
Perhaps, back in the 1980s and the 1990s, I was gullible or naive, but I believed that and tried to teach it to my students.
Today, when I see how public relations is being used by political candidates, government officials, celebrity executives, multi-national corporations, giant medical and pharmaceutical conglomerates, and even some so-called charitable organizations and mega-churches, I shake my head in disbelief and disgust. It is so far from seeking "relationships of mutual benefit to all parties involved" that it makes me want to cry.
I fear that some public relations practioners (albeit not all) have returned to the bad old days of Lesly's first two long-discarded conceptions of the profession.
- "To master the publics: to direct what they should think and do, according to the desires of the organization involved ... that perceives the publics as targets of the organization's self-interest."
- "To block and parry: to react to developments and problems; to respond to events or the initiatives of others by blunting them... (because) all organizations are considered private entities responsible only to their own managements and stockholders."