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.

  1. "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."
  2. "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."

Read more about public relations' three eras of evolution.     

This site was initially created to support public relations courses I taught at Northern Kentucky University.
Now it's used as a supplemental text for scores of university courses worldwide.
It's also frequently used as a reference/refresher by PR professionals, especially those preparing for accreditation or certification exams.

Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC, Professor Emeritus
Northern Kentucky University

Do you know who Arthur Page was?

Depending on which textbooks you used and the biases of your professors, you may never have heard about Arthur Page in college, particularly if you were in a Communication Department or School of Journalism that emphasized communication and psychological approaches to public relations.

On the other hand, if you went to a School of Business & Management or your instructor once worked in public relations for a major corporation, you may know a lot about him.

Page wasn't as much of a pioneer as Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee, who vie for the title "Father of Public Relations," but he is definitely among "the greats" of the profession.

He came to the game a bit later (1927) and was able to take advantage of what the early trail-blazers had already shared in books and articles. That let him develop a rich new facet of the public relations world.

Lee and Bernays were public relations consultants hired by clients on a project by project basis. They were never part of the organizations for whom they did public relations. Page, in contrast, was an insider, "a company man" who was part of the corporation whose public relations he managed. That put him in a very different work environment with a whole different set of perspectives, processes, and relationships.

He was not only the first-ever Vice President of Public Relations for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), he was the first person to ever have such a title in any corporation. He was also the first public relations practitioner to serve as an officer and member of the board of directors of a major public corporation.

Over the course of 20 years, he developed a blueprint for corporate public relations that is still used today. He also brought diverse and once-separate communication and relationship-building functions such as employee information, media relations, community relations, financial and investor services, institutional advertising, communications policy, and even corporate philanthropy together under the umbrella of corporate public relations.

And, he was among the first business leaders and spokespersons to advocate what is today called "social activism by large corporations." He clearly deserves more attention than he usually gets in mainstream public relations classes.

Read more about Arthur Page.     

Paul Garrett is also overlooked as a
pioneer of corporate public relations.

Writing the adjacent article about Arthur Page more than a month ago brought to mind Paul Garrett, the director of public relations, and later vice president of General Motors, who is perhaps even less well-known today than Arthur Page is.

Garrett had been a business and finance reporter and editor for the New York Post for more than a decade before General Motors (GM) hired him to start its public relations program.

That was in 1931, a rather late date compared to other major corporations. Westinghouse, for instance, the first American corporation to have a public relations department had started it in 1889. And, Ford was routinely generating extensive press releases and motion picture films by 1903.

However, once GM's program got started, it took off very quickly, at least in part, because it didn't have to start from scratch. It didn't have to slowly evolve from publicity through an explanatory phase and then into a mutual satisfaction approach. It could start as a state-of-the-art public relations program, taking advantage of decades of other organizations' experimentation.

And, just like Arthur Page was did at AT&T, Garrett relied heavily on research and analysis. He considered it the best way "to ascertain public attitudes and execute a program to bring the company fully into public approval."

Interviewed for the March 1939 issue of Fortune magazine, he described his job as: "Finding out what people like and doing more of it. Then, finding out what people don't like and doing less of it."

You can call it simplistic, if you like, or accuse him of trying to be cute and coy, but when you get right down to what he said, it's pretty consistent with two of the three key tenets of public relations. Number one: research and monitor your key publics to determine their likes and dislikes. Number two: act in ways that are consistent with the feelings, attitudes, and desires of your most-valued publics.

The only one he missed was Number three: clearly and consistently communicate with your publics about what your organization is doing and why it's doing it.

Garrett served as GM's director of public relations and vice president until 1956.

Read more about the three phases of public relations' evolution.     

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Last revised: 6/6/2022