PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Explanatory phase of public relations
© 1998; 2020 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

The explanatory phase of public relations emphasized getting information from an organization to its publics so these publics would understand, sympathize with, and patronize the organization. Getting the message out was no longer enough; receivers now had to understand and accept the point of view of the sending organization.

Practitioners who believe in and practice explanatory phase public relations characterize their work as ...

Practitioners in this phase of public relations' development learned that public attention didn't automatically ensure public acceptance.

Although it seems patently obvious now, this simple realization helped move public relations from its publicity phase to its explanatory phase, the second step in its development as a profession.

In this stage, reasons, motivations, and explanations took precedence over mere awareness. The specific content and tone of the media coverage, whether it was favorable to the organization or critical of it, and the audience's reaction to the coverage became more important than the sheer volume of coverage.

Public relations remained primarily a one-way process. Its emphasis was still on information and messages that flowed outward from organizations to their publics, but the organizations and their public relations practitioners alike realized that simply getting their messages out didn't guarantee a favorable reaction from the public. Simply being well-known wasn't enough. They had to be well-known for the right reasons. And, if they somehow became involved in unpopular or inappropriate activities, they had to quickly explain to their publics in reasonable and acceptable ways how and why it had happened.

The explanatory phase began shortly after the turn of the century.

Although they may have thought about explanatory approaches to public relations, very few practitioners adopted them until after World War I. One of the few exceptions was Ivy Lee, a former newspaper reporter who became one of the defining figures of the fledgling profession of public relations by advising John D. Rockefeller, the American Red Cross, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and dozens of other major clients.

Ivy Lee believed in open communication. He fully answered questions that were put to him and tried to provide clear, complete explanations, especially when dealing with the news media and other publics on behalf of his clients. He did this because he saw it as the right thing to do and also because he believed it was the best way to get the public to understand and therefore accept his clients.

One of the best examples of Lee's commitment to open communication and of how effective it could be occurred in 1906 when, within a matter of weeks, there were major accidents on the Pennsylvania Railroad and on the New York Central Railroad. As was the standard and long-standing practice with all American railroads, the New York Central tried to cover up all evidence of what had happened, kept reporters off railroad property, and refused to make any comment about its accident. Executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who had recently hired Ivy Lee, started to follow suit regarding their accident, but Lee convinced them to try things his way.

Instead of stonewalling them, Lee invited the reporters and photographers to the scene of the accident and provided a special train to get them there. He held on-site briefings for reporters, distributed fact sheets, and made railroad experts and executives available for interviews. In the weeks that followed, newspapers and elected officials effusively praised the Pennsylvania Railroad for its openness and apparent concern for the safety of its passengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad received what some historians said was the first positive media coverage any railroad had received in decades, and the New York Central was repeatedly criticized for its arrogant indifference. Within a few years, every major railroad in the United States had adopted a policy of cooperating with the news media and responding to reporters' questions.

Unfortunately, neither all railroads nor all public relations people were as skilled as Ivy Lee or as committed to his high-minded principles. Instead of providing clear and complete explanations, some practitioners who claimed they were offering explanations, resorted to justifications, rationales, and convoluted logic. They also allowed emotional appeals to creep into press releases and public statements, sometimes displacing facts. And, instead of explaining their organization's actions, they sometimes tried to explain them away.

Other practitioners resorted to organizational sleight of hand -- announcing promotions, releasing sales figures, unveiling new products, or hosting open houses -- to refocus public attention away from a problem they didn't want to, or couldn't, tackle head-on.

After World War I, explanatory public relations boomed.

Conditions were ripe for rapid business and social expansion in the years after the war. In both the United States and Europe countless people who had learned the most modern and most effective propaganda techniques while working for their governments during the war began applying these techniques to business when they returned to civilian life. The initial reaction was positive. These new public relations practitioners were using the newest and most scientific techniques of communication and persuasion, and everyone expected them to be as successful in building relationships for profit-motivated businesses as they had been in boosting national morale and community spirits during the war.

Regrettably, the post-war business and social environment were marked by more turmoil and diversity than had been expected. Strategies that had helped fuel patriotic fervor didn't necessarily have the same effect on a company's employees or its customers, and other strategies which had been deemed appropriate for use on enemy nationals were considered offensive when used against business competitors.

And, in the United States although not in Europe, there was a fairly strong and widespread backlash against "propaganda." Although it had been considered an appropriate war-time tactic to use against an enemy, it was essentially regarded as an unethical form of intellectual manipulation and an intentional distortion of truth. Thus, insofar as public relations was linked to propaganda, it too was seen as tainted. What one person saw as a logical explanation was seen by others as manipulation. And, one person's truth might be seen by another as a distortion.

In their enthusiasm for using their new techniques, public relations practitioners sometimes inadvertently added to the noise and confusion of the marketplace instead of enhancing effective communication. At least, that's the view of Richard S. Tedlow, a long-time Harvard professor who specializes in the history of business. In his book Keeping the Corporate Image: Public Relations and Business he wrote:

"The woods were full of professional propagandists -- press agents, publicity men, and public relations counselors -- anxious to persuade the public to their clients' point of view by airing certain facts. Factoids might be a better word, for these paid advocates dealt only in usable truths.

"Persuasion for ulterior motives rather than disinterested enlightenment was the goal.

"They believed in giving the consumer, the voter, or whomever the truth, but the seller's truth, so to speak, rather than the buyer's."

Explanation leaves lots of room for interpretation.

Consider the following table of divergent views. Each of them purports to capture the essence of public relations, and all of them can be considered exemplars of the explanatory phase of public relations. Each, in its own way, reflects the notion that primary purpose of public relations is to explain a person or an organization to their key publics.

Public relations is the gentle art of letting the other fellow have your way.
William Nielander & Raymond Miller
Public Relations (1951)
Public relations is skilled communication of ideas to various publics with the object of producing desired results.
Gene Harlan & Alan Scott
Contemporary Public Relations (1955)
Public relations is planned, persuasive communications designed to influence significant publics.
John Marston
The Nature of Public Relations (1963)
Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.
Alan Harrington
Forbes (Aug. 1992)
PR is gift-wrapping. Whether delivered in fancy or plain paper, ... the trick is packaging the truth on your own terms.
Michael Levine
Guerrilla P.R. (1993)

While these clearly divergent views take very different approaches in dealing with facts, truth, interpretation, and explanation, they all reflect the same explanatory notions of public relations. They assume public relations people should always present their organizations in ways that enhance the organization's image and hide its warts. Their implicit assumptions are:

Regrettably, "spin" has come to epitomize explanatory public relations for many people today.

In the early 20th century, the word "spin" was occasionally applied to public relations in a rather negative way implying that whomever was performing the public relations was playing fast and loose with the truth. They weren't necessarily lying, but the were certainly distorting the truth. Such situations often arose when an editor became irate about receiving a press release about an event that made the event or the organization that sponsored it seem much grander than his own reporters who had actually attended the event had described it. Or, it might happen if a business owner saw or heard one of his competitors or the competitor's public relations person tried to cast their own company or event in the most favorable light while denigrating others. The offending public relations practitioner would be accused of spinning the story or, more negatively, of twisting the truth.

But, at that time, the term wasn't known or widely used. It was pretty much limited to journalists and lawyers. "Spin" didn't gain widespread popularity until Ronald Reagan's presidency. During the Reagan years "spin" was used to describe the actions of the President's staff and other political commentators who appeared immediately after a Presidential speech or press conference to explain "what the President really meant" by what he had just said. Their goal was to ensure that the news coverage of the President's statement came across with the right spin. Strangely, the media often gave more news coverage to the spin than they did to the President's actual words. And, not surprisingly, the people who did this spinning for the President were soon being referred to by media pundits as spin doctors or spinmeisters.

The most surprising thing about the exploding popularity of "spin" was that what started out as a negative label which implied that the public was being manipulated soon became almost a badge of honor. White House staff members, including many non-public relations people, became eager to be recognized as spinmeisters because it gave them the added cachet of being viewed by the public as White House insiders. Consequently, they became even more blatant in their spinning and took great delight in appearing on television talk shows where they could point out how effectively they could spin stories. Amazingly, instead of censuring them for twisting the truth, even their political opposition, albeit sometimes with tongue in cheek, praised them for their creativity and admired the effectiveness and range of their spinning.

By the time George Bush had become President, spin was an accepted part of political life. It continued that way through the Clinton, junior Bush, and Obama presidencies, and not just at the presidential level. Over time, governors, members of congress, big city mayors, and even local politicians added spinmeisters to their staffs to make sure their public statements would get the right spin when they were reported by the media.

Then came Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer at the beginning of the Trump presidency. They took things to a whole new level where the term "spin" no longer applies. They don't twist the truth; they completely ignore, and sometimes demolish, it. I've written elsewhere, that what they've done is take the Ministry of Truth as described by George Orwell in 1984 and bring it to life. -- It's appalling and doesn't deserve any further attention here.

A more relevant aspect of the evolution of spin was its rapid spread beyond the political arena. It was soon evident in all aspects of public relations. By the mid-1990s press releases generally, not just those issued by high government officials, were being judged for their ability to spin news coverage. Increasing numbers of public relations professionals were openly boasting about their ability to spin whatever kind of story their clients needed. And, professional organizations like PRSA and IABC hosted conferences on spinning. It was like a mania. Now, in the 2020s, the craze and every day discussion of spin has died down a bit. That's probably because it's no longer new. And, it doesn't seem as edgy as it once did, but it is nonetheless fully embedded in the profession.

Think twice before using "spin" to describe your own work in public relations.

Keep in mind the origin of term before you start applying to your own work. You might be shooting yourself in the foot. For most of the last century the idea of spinning the truth or spinning the news was viewed very negatively. Spinning was something that only scoundrels, deceivers, and manipulators did. Nice people certainly didn't. And, that view didn't really change until the mid-1990s, and I, for one, am not sure that it ever completely changed.

The first public relations folks to use it did so quite abashedly, almost as if they had been caught fudging the truth and were only reluctantly admitting to it. Today, many practitioners who admit to being spinners seem arrogant and challenging about it, as if they were saying, "Yeah, I do it, and I dare you to object." Neither of these behaviors inspires confidence or makes me want to trust the speakers, and I doubt that I'm the only one who feels that way.

Do you think today's public really approves of public relations spinning and those who do it?

I admit, however, that I'm disappointed more public relations professionals haven't spoken out about this use of spin. One of the few big-name and highly regarded practitioners who has objected to linking spin and public relations is Robert Dilenschneider, a real heavy-weight in the profession. Since 1991 he's developed the firm he started and continues to lead, The Dilenschneider Group with offices in New York and Chicago, into one of the world's largest, most powerful, and highest earning public relations organizations. It provides strategic public relations advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and to prominent families and individuals around the world. Prior to that he worked at Hill and Knowlton, another world-class public relations firm, for 25 years, including five as CEO. Sometimes called the “Dean of American Public Relations Executives” he has written 14 books, including On Power, Power and Influence: The Rules Have Changed, A Time for Heroes, Moses: C.E.O, The Critical 2nd Phase of your Professional Life, and The AMA Handbook of Public Relations. He has written several articles and spoken at major public relations conventions to warn practitioners about the potential harm that continuing to accept and promote the term spin as a near-synonym for public relations may do to the profession's image, reputation, and credibility.

The bottom line is: Not all the developments the explanatory phase of public relations have been positive.

An explanatory approach to public relations which tries to reason with people and explain things instead of just shouting and performing publicity stunts to attract their attention is definitely a step in the right direction. But, explanations aren't always enlightening.

An explanation can obfuscate as well as clarify. And, public relations isn't always used by good people to achieve positive ends. It can just as easily be used by sleazy, contemptible people to manipulate the public for nefarious purposes or their own gain. The personality, morality, and ethics of a practitioner is far more important than the abstract definition or description of public relations to which they claim to subscribe.

Regrettably, too many public relations practitioners resort to improper tactics. A number of years ago, a disheartening survey of public relations ethics conducted by PR Week reported that "One out of four pros admits lying on the job." Another 39 percent admitted they had, at times, "exaggerated the truth." In all, 64 percent of the respondents admitted that they had lied or exaggerated while doing their job. In addition, 44 percent of the respondents said there were times they "felt uncertain about the ethics of tasks they had been asked to perform."

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Mutual satisfaction phase of public relations
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