PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Employees only gradually became a matter of concern for public relations.
© 2014 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations main page About the author

Today, public relations practitioners invariably categorize their organization's publics (target audiences) as internal or external, but this is a relatively recent development.

For decades, public relations was solely focused outside and beyond the organizations it assisted. It never addressed internal audiences. This was, at least in part, because it was called "public relations." As a result, when forward-thinking practitioners finally did begin looking at employees, stockholders, and other organizational insiders as being within their professional purview, they triggered a major transformation of the profession.

Most of the time, most organizations nowadays will pay at least lip-service to the importance of their employees even if their actions and seeming indifference to the employees' personal and family needs and their welfare sometimes tell a very different story. But, it's not that long ago that things were very different, especially in large, impersonal corporations.

Traditionally, "the boss" or business owner or what today we call a line manager would have been solely and directly responsible for hiring, supervising, and terminating everyone who worked for them. This was true of all employers and their employees, whether they were engaged in agriculture, manufacturing, or sales.

As work forces grew larger, personnel departments eventually emerged.

It wasn't until the nineteenth century when mass production came on the scene and the number of employees that could work for an organization grew exponentially that large companies began to develop internal sub-systems (departments or divisions) to deal with their employees: to hire, train, reward, discipline, and fire them. Most of these employee-oriented units were called "Personnel."

For roughly a hundred years, from the time of the American Civil War until the 1960s and `70s, personnel departments were responsible for all employee concerns and policies. They were staffed with so-called "personnel experts" who would define, dictate, and oversee all aspects of an employee's relationship with his/her employer from hiring to firing (or, for the most successful ones, from hiring to retiring). This included salary, promotions, work hours, vacations, sick leave, and all sorts of other matters.

In theory, this was supposed to be good for employees and employers alike.

In practice, this development created a feeling of separation, sometimes even a sense of alienation, between employees and their managers. It was especially evident among high-level managers who became increasingly removed from the day-to-day concerns of their low-level workers. Other than filling out occasional standardized evaluation forms, most managers came to have little or no influence over how much their employees were paid. -- Some didn't even know how much their employees were making. -- Nor could they give them time off or otherwise reward them for an exceptionally well-done job.

From the late-nineteenth century well into the twentieth century, as big businesses continued to expand, individual employees and their needs became more and more "invisible." They were simply lost in the crowd, especially from the perspective of the highest levels of management who often had no idea of who their employees were or what they were actually experiencing. The employees knew this, too, and many of them deeply resented it, feeling that they were as depersonalized as cogs in a machine.

The emerging field of public relations initially paid little attention to employees.

During the same hundred-year period when personnel departments were coming into existence, public relations was emerging as a distinct discipline with a growing role in organizational life. (See, e.g. Three phases of public relations development and other linked readings.) However, unlike today when public relations is heavily involved in employee relations, these emerging public relations units dealt only with external publics and had little to do with employees.

What little information a company's public relations department might share with employees was provided only at the request/direction of the personnel department and was usually closely supervised. For instance, companies that had an "employee newsletter," would invariably require that each issue be reviewed and approved by a "censor" in the personnel department before being printed and distributed to employees. Nor would public relations make any effort to inform employees of news affecting them or the organization unless personnel specifically requested it. Then, they might, for instance, produce a brochure to explain a new employee benefits program or some other policy change.

Staff members working in both personnel and public relations were quite content with this division of responsibilities for many, many years. It wasn't until the 1970s that changes bubbling up from beneath the surface in both disciplines began to manifest themselves.

The 1970s and `80s transformed organizational life in the U.S. and around the world.

Details of the philosophical and practical changes that swept through personnel are beyond the scope of this article, but the key point is that personnel began reinventing itself as "human resources." In some organizations this was nothing more than a cosmetic name change. In others it meant major shifts in policies and greater emphasis on making the workplace more personally satisfying for employees.

At the same time, public relations was moving into its third phase of development and placing much greater emphasis on building relationships. This included more broadly interpreting its concept of "publics" and treating employees and volunteers as valuable publics who should be an integral part of an organization's public relations efforts.

For some practitioners in both fields, these changes led to more interdisciplinary cooperation than there had been in the past. For others who felt challenged by the changes, they led to increased rivalry and tensions between the two departments.

Nevertheless, in less than a decade, with the cooperation or acquiescence of personnel/human resources professionals -- or, in spite of their objections -- public relations professionals, acting proactively and without waiting for approval, began actively focusing on and relating to employees. Today, public relations practitioners almost universally regard employees as one of the three most important publics an organization has.

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2 May 2020