Public Relation

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The origins of public relations date back to early Greece, when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle developed rules of rhetoric that made arguments more effective. Their methods were used in jury trials, ethics instruction, and other situations in which reason guided the discussion.

In the late 19th century, newspapers decided to encourage advertisers by promising positive articles concerning businesses that chose to advertise in the paper. However, the free publicity in the form of news articles undermined the objectivity of the newspapers, and eventually the practice was halted in the United States. In 1909, a newspaper committee was established to watch for abuses of free publicity to advertisers.

Despite the attempt to disengage public relations from newspapers, public relations continued to develop through journalists. The link between public relations and newspapers endured through reporters who were well skilled in the effects of language on public image and who were willing to use this to present a company or organization in a positive light.

The first public relations counsel was a reporter named Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who in 1906 was named press representative for coal mine operators. Labor disputes were becoming a large concern of the operators, and they had run into problems because of their continual refusal to talk to the press and the hired miners. The operators decided to bring in outside help to improve their standing in the public eye. Lee persuaded the mine operators to start responding to press questions and supply the press with information on the mine activities.

Words to Know

Account, or client: An individual or company for whom a public relations firm is providing services.

Calendar listing: The basic information about an upcoming event (name of client, name of event, when, where, cost, phone number), sent to calendar editors for the listings section of newspapers and magazines.

Clippings: Articles, listings, and mentions in print media of the client; public relations practitioners often maintain files of clippings for clients as well as their own portfolios.

Column item: Particularly noteworthy news offered to newspaper columnists, sometimes prior to a larger press release or sometimes in place of one; many columnists only accept exclusive items.

Crisis communications: A plan of action, including appropriate contact people and predetermined messages, in the event of an unexpected crisis - for example, a hotel’s plan of action in the event of an unanticipated disaster, such as a fire.

Employee or internal communications: The communication between a company’s top executives and the employee population at large; tools often include a monthly or bimonthly newsletter, management memos, periodic lunchtime meetings, new employee orientation materials, and quarterly or annual employee meetings.

Investor relations: Communications between a publicly held company and its stockholders, as well as financial information about the company to the media and investment professionals; includes quarterly financial reports as well as an annual report.

Media, or press: The most frequently used vehicle for communicating information to the public; includes newspapers, magazines, radio, television, wire services.

Media alert: A last-minute brief announcement usually presented in a who-what-when-where format, often faxed to key media the day before or the day of an event.

Media plan: A schedule of activities for publicizing a client’s activities and products, including names of media outlets and story ideas for each.

Photo caption: A document attached to a photo that is sent to the media, identifying all of the individuals in the photo and describing the event depicted in the photo; should include contact name and phone number for more information.

Press conference: An event to which the media are invited to hear an important news announcement from an individual or company; usually includes one or more speakers and provides for question-and-answer, interview, and photo opportunities.

Press release or news release: The public relations person’s primary tool; a concise document (preferably no more than two pages in length) announcing news from a company or individual - an event, a new product, a new executive, a noteworthy financial development, etc. - that is sent to the media to generate interest in developing a printed or broadcast story; should include contact name and phone number for more information.

Public affairs: Sometimes another term for public relations; also can refer more specifically to philanthropic activities of a corporation.

Public service announcement: A brief (10–60 seconds) announcement, usually of an upcoming event, sent to radio and TV public service directors; all licensed radio and TV stations are required to devote a certain percentage of air time to airing free announcements from nonprofit organizations.

Retainer: Usually a monthly fee paid by a client to a public relations firm providing ongoing services, as opposed to a one-time fee for a specific project for a finite amount of time.

After his successful turnaround of the coal mine operators’ situation, Lee went on to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The company had been withholding information on railroad accidents and had developed a poor reputation with the press and the public. He revised the company’s policy so that all information available on any accident would be given to the press. Eventually, Lee developed a large group of clients. The term public relations had not yet been used, but it was certainly the service that Lee provided to his clients. He implemented new policies for business: honesty and openness about the company’s or organization’s business and affairs and the practice of sending out notices (press releases) to the newspapers about noteworthy company or organization developments.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, governments began regularly using public relations experts. For example, England’s Empire Marketing Board used publicity to promote trade.

During World War II, government agencies in the United States made a point of hiring publicists, since public exposure aided funding and congressional awareness of the group’s activities. Groups looking for donations for rubber, scrap metal, and war bonds used press releases read over the radio and posted in shops to promote their activities. Publicity was also used to recruit soldiers. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) under Chester Bowles used public relations tactics to promote rationing procedures, to persuade businessmen to keep prices low, and to get legislation for the OPA passed through Congress.

By the end of World War II, almost every government agency had a public relations office. Public relations had become an accepted part of business and government operations. The airlines, for example, hired public relations specialists to help deliver information on airplane crashes, providing background and technical information to the press in a manner that would be readily understood.

Politicians followed business’s example. After Richard Nixon’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1960, Nixon hired public relations and press experts to help him gain popularity in his bids for elected office. The experts redirected his method of approaching interviews and press conferences and any other elements of public presentation that affected how he was seen by the voting public. As a result, Nixon established a positive image among voters and was elected president in 1968. This relationship between politics and public relations was an inevitable occurrence given the preponderance of media around candidates and the importance of image in determining success in an election.

Public relations specialists are now employed by all sorts of publicity-conscious people and companies. Politicians, celebrities, artists, and even journalists now use specialists to help them receive positive coverage in the press. Public relations today is a major service industry, expanding beyond the original clients - business and government - to a whole range of clients who wish to put their best foot forward in their presentation to the public.


The first goal of a public relations officer is to present the best possible public image for the client. This means promoting good news and portraying bad news in a manner that will do the least damage to the client. A secondary goal of the public relations officer is to direct the individual or organization toward developing positive business practices.

For example, in the case of an airline crash, legal necessity forces the airline company to be as straightforward as possible about the causes of the crash. Should it be found that the accident resulted from defects in the plane’s design, the public relations department must find out how the company plans to correct the problem, how long that will take, and what will be done in the interim to ensure passenger safety. The public relations staff assembles all the relevant information, assesses the situation, anticipates questions from the press, and then presents the information to the news media. In a major disaster, the desire is to provide as much information as possible without guessing at any information that later may be found to be untrue.

In some situations, the client may wish to block the passage of information to the press. It then becomes the public relations officer’s job to redirect the focus of media attention.

Interpretation of information for the media is the second major function of a public relations officer. This task is particularly important for a public relations staff of a scientific or technical firm. Public relations workers must be able to take technical information and explain it in such a way that non-specialists will be able to understand it. This interpretation of technical material must be done on press releases and any other information that comes from the technical side of the business and goes to the public.

For example, in an organization such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the need for a public relations specialist who has a good understanding of aeronautics is important. If a scientist is explaining a project to the public relations officer, the public relations officer must understand the explanation well enough to describe it to the media at a later time.

Research is the first step of public relations. It is important to get all significant information and to analyze the attitudes revealed. Research also is important both for obtaining inside information on a topic that is to be presented to the public and for anticipating potential public response to the company. Research personnel may be on the staff of a public relations department, or they may be employed by a separate research organization retained to do the job.

A major goal of public relations is press publicity. Material provided for the media is called a press release. This may cover some aspect of the company that staff deem newsworthy. The press release will provide all relevant information to the local or national press. It is one method of generating coverage of the company without buying advertising space, and the media may use the release in various forms: newspaper spot news, magazine articles, or radio and television coverage.

Those who prepare press releases often have been trained as reporters and editors. They have learned to identify valuable news stories and to write and illustrate a story so that it will be published. Such writers are part of every large public relations staff.

The use of advertising space for the presentation of an institutional message can be just as useful as a brochure or press release. Such advertisements are written either by a public relations writer or by a copywriter employed by a company’s in-house advertising agency. These advertisements can serve whatever need the company sees, but frequently they are used in response to a particular incident or crisis. After the 1989 major oil spill in Alaska, Exxon (owners of the tanker responsible for the spill) placed advertisements in media across the nation to explain the situation and the cleanup steps the company had selected.

Another use of the public relations advertisement is to announce mergers, enhance or fight takeovers by other companies, and inform the public about company policies and practices. The ad serves as the voice of the company, providing the information the company wants to send out in a forum that is widely read or seen.

An additional tool for informing people is the public relations periodical, which is a magazine distributed to the various groups the company or institution serves. Thousands of such periodicals are published in the United States. Some are of similar quality to magazines sold on newsstands. They often require a separate staff of editors and writers, and they maintain regular publication dates and often have large circulations. A familiar example is airline magazines provided on airplanes for passengers to read.

Public relations practitioners often plan special events, including displays, exhibits, meetings and conferences, awards ceremonies, open houses, tours, contests, parades, or pageants. These events create a positive image by generating publicity, bringing in a crowd that may not have been exposed to the company before, or producing a feeling of goodwill for the company. These methods are used frequently by nonprofit groups or cultural institutions. For example, a zoo might sponsor family activities centered around the animals to bring in families who may not frequent the zoo regularly.

Public relations practitioners also use oral communication to get their message across. Speakers with expertise on a subject serve two purposes in public speaking. First, they inform the public about the work of the company sponsoring the lecturer. Second, they generate familiarity with the company name and projects the company has undertaken. For example, utilities and other large corporations often provide speakers to community groups as a means of generating awareness about their activities.

Public relations workers may be employed by public relations firms or serve on the in-house public relations staffs of organizations. Public relations agencies are organized according to the following hierarchy.

Usually an entry-level position, an account assistant supports account executives or account supervisors by writing press releases and conducting research. Account assistants rarely have contact with clients.

Account executives handle the day-to-day activities of one or more accounts. Their responsibilities include traditional public relations functions: writing, contacting media, serving as client liaison, and supervising account services. They usually report to the account supervisor or a higher executive.

Account supervisors direct client programs and supervise account assistants and account executives. Typical responsibilities include preparing client reports and work plans, monitoring out-of-pocket expenses and account budgets, maintaining client contacts, and expanding existing accounts. They sometimes are involved in sales activities. Account supervisors are middle managers who have a proven track record. They usually report to a vice president or senior vice president.

Vice presidents have demonstrated the ability to conduct account and other management responsibilities successfully with minimal supervision. They carry out administrative responsibilities for accounts, including budgeting, expense monitoring, profitability, and staff supervision. They also are involved in sales activities, including program proposals, sales presentations, and expanding accounts.

Senior vice presidents have strong track records in account supervision, professional and business management, sales, and employee supervision and are ultimately responsible for multiple accounts. Senior vice presidents manage members of the group, review their performance, and make recommendations to management. They are heavily involved in new business activities, including program proposals and client presentations.

To receive some free publicity, a zoo released this photograph of Peter, an Aldabra tortoise, who is taking his seasonal stroll. (Brookfield Zoo.)

The following positions can be found within corporations, hospitals, colleges or universities, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and associations. Public relations managers set the agenda for public appearances, advertising campaigns, and other scheduled events that influence the public’s image and awareness of the client. Public relations managers regularly work alone in a small business and for individuals such as politicians. In a large corporation, a public relations manager may have a large staff with several researchers, administrators, designers, and other individuals who have specific skills in public relations and marketing.

Working with an account executive or a public relations manager, the researcher collects information that reflects the public’s attitudes toward a company. This involves polling, interviewing, or reviewing data on a variety of subjects.

Media relations specialists have a broad working knowledge of television and print journalism and skills in establishing a controlled, positive image for the company or person appearing before the press. Media relations specialists also work in designing and presenting commercials, public statements, and interviews. They organize such details as dress, makeup, background scenery, and audience, which are important in establishing the image desired by the client.

Specialists who write well are sought by politicians, company executives, and other people who need to speak before groups or the press. Regular or frequent public speakers may hire a full-time speechwriter who understands the speaker’s style. Consequently, the speeches reflect not only the speaker’s beliefs but also the speaker’s manner. For someone who speaks infrequently before large groups, a freelance speechwriter may be hired to create one speech for a presentation. In both cases, the topic and information to be presented is selected by the speaker and given to the writer to research and write.

Organizations that do not have enough staff or qualified individuals to give public presentations may hire a speaker who has the background knowledge in the subject being covered and, perhaps, name recognition by the public. Depending on the organization and the goal of the public presentation, the qualifications of the speaker may range from having supported the organization financially to having a doctorate on the subject being covered.

Some organizations hire full-time speakers. Their job is to give public presentations, interviews, and press conferences on the organization’s business and to stay current on the company and its concerns. Public speakers are one of the most important facets of the business for organizations that rely on public support and funding. For example, a conservation group may hire wildlife experts to tour the country to speak about conservation issues in the hope of increasing awareness of and membership in the organization.

Booking agents arrange for public speaking engagements for the representatives of a company or for an individual seeking public exposure. The agents arrange for engagements on talk shows, news shows, radio programs, lectures, panel discussions, or any other forum that provides the speaker with a receptive audience. The booking agent is responsible for balancing the audience size and makeup with the speaker’s subject the company he or she represents. For example, the audience of a television show may be quite large, but the interviewer’s questions may be difficult and unsympathetic to the speaker. Booking agents weigh the potential pros and cons of all speaking engagements.

Programmers are responsible for scheduling coverage over a period of time. They determine the timing of advertisements, public engagements, and other presentations. Programmers evaluate the type of coverage a client wants, determine whether to run a long-term program or a short-term blitz, and plan when and where the public exposure will come. Programmers may design public events and other sponsored events to generate coverage and media time for the client.

Information officers are hired by companies and individuals to answer questions from the public and the press and to handle customer problems, complaints, and concerns. They handle questions on public events and any relevant information, such as directions, times, and schedules for sponsored events. The information officer’s range of responsibility is determined by the goals of the office and the company employing the officer. A government information officer, for example, handles much different information than a tourist bureau information officer.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were approximately 188,000 public relations specialists in 2004. Almost two-thirds of salaried public relations specialists worked in services industries, such as management and public relations firms, educational institutions, membership organizations, health care organizations, social service agencies, and advertising agencies. Others worked for manufacturing firms, financial institutions, and government agencies.

Employment in public relations is expected to grow faster than the average through 2014. Competition for jobs will be tough, though, as the number of qualified applicants is expected to be much larger than the number of available positions. College graduates interested in public relations should narrow their interests to specific areas where public relations practitioners are needed. This will allow them to use specific skills and experience to distinguish themselves from the competition. Those with internship experience also will have the advantage when seeking permanent positions.

Competition among both foreign and domestic companies is fierce, forcing businesses to invest more money on promotion and public relations. A recent trend in public relations is damage control; for example the tobacco industry is fighting negative publicity with a focus on philanthropic efforts, the airline industry is spending significant budget dollars on encouraging people to fly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the auto and tire industries are trying to reassure customers that their products are safe after a number of fatal accidents were attributed to faulty tires.

For More Information

The following organization provides products, services, and activities for professionals in the public relations, employee communications, marketing communications, and public affairs industries. It publishes Communications World magazine, holds an annual conference, and provides other resource materials.

International Association of Business Communicators

One Halladie Plaza, Suite 600

San Francisco, CA 94102-2842

Tel: 800-776-4222

Email: service [email protected]

The following is the world’s largest organization for PR professionals. It provides a forum for addressing relevant issues, plus opportunities for professional development, including seminars, publications, and a national conference.

Public Relations Society of America

33 Maiden Lane, 11th Floor

New York, NY 10038-5150

Email: [email protected]

This nonprofit association serves corporate customer service executives through education, publications, and networking.

Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business

675 North Washington Street, Suite 200

Alexandria, VA 22314-1939

Tel: 703-519-3700

Email: [email protected]

See Also:

Advertising and Marketing; Newspaper and Magazine; Advertising Account Executive; Art Director; Demographer; Fund-Raiser; Grant Coordinator and Writer; Marketing Research Analyst; Media Planner and Buyer; Public Opinion Researcher; Public Relations Specialist; Reporter; Sports Publicist