PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Three phases of public relations development
© 2003 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Today, public relations is usually seen as being in the third phase or era of its professional development. And, while many practitioners still act with the mindset and values of the two earlier eras, the most successful practitioners now seem to use the less-self-serving approaches that are characteristic of the third phase.

Even the writers who bluntly assert that public relations is as old as civilization and implicit in all human interactions will admit there's a tremendous difference between the concept of public relations and the profession of public relations or, phrased another way, there's a big difference between practicing common sense "public relations" and developing a professional public relations practice. And, no one disputes that public relations has changed dramatically since it emerged as a distinct discipline and viable career path in the second half of the 19th century. It's grown tremendously in size, scope, and significance.

This growth has been particularly dramatic in the last few decades, and it's been accompanied by a growing recognition of public relations' expanding role and influence in organizational life of all sorts. In many corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations the public relations function has been elevated from its traditional role as a support service and made it an integral part of upper management decision-making.

James Dowling, then-president of Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest world-wide PR firms, described the changes that have occurred in public relations in the following way during an interview by a The New York Times reporter in the mid-1980s.

In the 1950s organizations asked their public relations consulting firms, "How should we say this?"

In the socially turbulent 1960s and 1970s, faced with various confrontations, these same organizations asked their public relations people, "What should we say?"

Today they ask, "What should we do?"

Public relations has had a three-stage evolution.

The field's earliest manifestations have been called the publicity phase of public relations. During this stage of development practitioners were primarily concerned with creating awareness and building recognition for the individual or organization employing public relations. It was/is closely tied to advertising and promotion, and getting "the message" out to the widest possible audiences was/is paramount.

As practitioners evolved into the explanatory phase of public relations greater emphasis was placed on providing more complete information and having the organization clearly articulate the reasons for its actions and policies so its publics would understand, sympathize with, and patronize the organization. Simply getting the organization's message out wasn't enough. Receivers had to understand and accept the point of view of the sending organization.

Now, in the mutual satisfaction phase of public relations practitioners encourage organizations and their publics to adapt to one another by making complementary adjustments or compromises so that both benefit from their relationship. Practitioners are now as concerned with in-coming messages and information they can use to counsel management on current public opinion as they are with developing and delivering outgoing messages.

All three stages are practiced today.

Although each of these phases is characterized by distinctly different strategies and techniques, the succeeding phases did not totally obliterate or replace the preceding ones.

Even though most of today's public relations textbooks teach that public relations focuses on the mutual adaptation of organizations and their publics and promote the goal of mutual satisfaction of all parties to a relationship, there are practitioners who operate as if the field were still in an earlier stage of development. There are some public relations people who operate like flamboyant press agents and tout their clients. Others come across like Machiavellian persuaders who try to bamboozle the public with less than reliable information. And, some of these practitioners are very successful at what they do and make a lot of money doing it.

But, don't think public relations is the only field in which this happens. There are many fields in which there are individual practitioners who don't follow the currently accepted standard practices of their professions in ways that discredit the field and embarrass other practitioners. Some simply use outdated practices, while others violate contemporary ethical guidelines.

For instance, most American businesses today describe themselves as "environmentally conscious" and concerned about pollution. Despite this, there are some businesses that pollute the environment on a daily basis because they haven't adopted state of the art technology or simply because they don't care. While these throw-backs may be distasteful to those who encounter them and an embarrassment to the majority of "clean" companies within their industries, we realize their behavior isn't the norm and we don't condemn an entire industry for their shortcomings. Similarly, most businesses describe themselves, and are accepted by the public, as honest and fiscally responsible. Nonetheless, there are occasional well-publicized scandals such as Enron. And, while Enron and its accounting company, Arthur Anderson, have certainly fallen from public favor, we haven't condemned the entire energy distribution industry or all accountants.

The same should be true of the way we view public relations. The mere fact that some public relations practitioners still stress publicity and stretch truth the way P. T. Barnum did isn't a valid reason for condemning the entire profession as manipulative and exploitative. No profession should be judged by the shortcomings of a few practitioners.


Table of contents Further reading on
Publicity phase of public relations
Further reading on
Explanatory phase of public relations
Further reading on
Mutual satisfaction phase
Practicing Public Relations
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30 Nov 2010