What’s Old is New Again: PR News Bureaus

I was glancing through the Grand Rapids Business Journal‘s 2017 “Book of Lists,” jumping to the advertising and public relations section of course, and read a short article in that section in which a particular sentence jumped out at me:

“In recent years, many PR firms have created in-house news bureaus to aid in getting their stories told.” The GRBJ subsequently explained that these news bureaus allow firms to pitch fully packaged news stories versus just a pitch to an editor who has to decide whether to invest time and resources to cover the story.

This is why this jumped out at me: I am currently re-reading Stewart Ewan’s “PR! The Social History of Spin”. Ewan recounts how AT&T, in the early 1900s, was being innovative by employing a mix of paid advertising and “packaged news items”. This activity was formalized in AT&Ts Information Department, later renamed, wait for it, the Public Relations Bureau.

In other words, what the GRBJ states is a phenomenon of “recent years” among PR firms was actually done a century ago by major corporations.

What’s interesting to me is why this aspect of PR history is considered “new” again. It has to do in my opinion with the media landscape. In the early 1900s there was an surge in “new” media that coincided with increasing leisure and reading time of an expanding literate public. Publishers needed information to feed their growing audiences, not unlike the call for “content” today. TIME Magazine was founded in 1923 and by two twenty-something Yale grads who proclaimed that people needed a “news weekly” to make sense of all the overwhelming volume of information. Radio came onto the scene in 1919 with a first commercial radio station, and by the end of the decade there were radios in many homes.

These days, with the proliferation of digital content and the shrinking resources of journalism, some packaged content also looks welcome.

But we also have to be careful in the current era of sponsored content and fake news that we PR professionals are honest in our presentation of news whether via earned or owned media. This reminds me of a little bit of “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

In 1927 a man named Arthur Page became AT&Ts Vice President of Public Relations. He’s a PR hero of mine because he used the term public relations, not “press agent” or “publicity man,” and because he was at the vice president level of the largest corporation at the time.

But he should also be heroic to all of us for how he practiced PR. For one, he noted by the late 1920s that he didn’t do press releases and publicity much anymore, but counseled management on their relationship with their publics. Yes–that is the essence of PR, not getting publicity.

Page is also heroic for his principles of practice codified subsequently and encouraged currently by the Arthur Page Society. The first two are my favorites: tell the truth, and prove it with action. They serve as good reminders in any era of PR, and especially now when digital media offers opportunity but also temptation to be less than ethical in our communication.

So even as PR practices like news bureaus are both as old as silent films and as new as Snapchat, there are principles that remain timeless. I continue to embrace and encourage innovation in our field of public relations, but also a mindfulness of our history and our responsibility to be ethical in our practice.

‘Father of PR’ Was British, Not Bernays, Book Says

Public relations history is one of my interest areas, just as a curiosity and one area of my research as an academic. So I was fascinated to stumble across an article in the British newspaper the Guardian about Sir Basil Clarke, whom the article calls the “Father of Public Relations.”

Now this is interesting for several reasons. For one, I had always heard that name given to Edward Bernays in various books and articles about public relations history. I’ve always taken that with a grain of salt, because historians try to avoid the “great men” fallacy, which is to tell the history of a profession through the life and experience of just a few famous examples. Indeed there are many others who should be taken to account, including Ivy Lee and my personal favorite, Arthur Page, not to mention countless others who were pioneers even though lesser known.

But I also know, from reading the proceedings and from this past summer attending the annual International PR History Conference, that there can be too much of a U.S. bias in PR history. The Guardian article doesn’t say that Clarke is the Father of British PR; it proclaims him as the father of PR, period.

I’m not going to debate whether PR was “invented” by Clarke or Bernays, or anyone else. It’s just interesting to see another example of an early pioneer of the profession, and one in a different cultural context. Clarke and Bernays were contemporaries in the sense that both were working in what we would now call “public relations” in the early 1900s. Both also dabbled in government propaganda, before the name acquired its nasty connotation. Like Page and Lee, Clarke also came from a background in journalism. He also was similarly fascinated with the prospects for public relations as an emerging profession.

It’s good to know history, especially about one’s profession. It’s especially good to know it broadly, always encountering other individuals and national contexts. For that reason, I think I may buy the new book about Clarke referenced in the article for an insightful read.

Re-Defining Public Relations

An effort is starting today to re-define “public relations” in response to changes in the communication landscape owing largely to social media. The New York Times yesterday had a nice overview of the effort.

A web site to solicit suggested definitions has been opened by the Public Relations Society (and numerous PR association partners) with a word cloud used to show common terms emerging. PRSA hopes to announce an updated definition of “public relations” by the end of the year.

Well, good luck with that! As most introductory textbooks in public relations will point out, there are more than 500 definitions of public relations. There’s even a Wiki page of PR definitions to try to make some sense of it all. In fact, talk to anyone practicing PR and they’ll seem to have their own definition. I am not entirely unhappy with the “old”definition from Cutlip, Center and Broom in their 1984 textbook: “public relations is the management function that seeks to identify, establish, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depends.” I like this definition because it has all the right emphases–management function (not a tactic), organizations (not just business or agency work), all publics (not just consumers),  mutually beneficial relationships (not just one-way communication). This works even in a social media era.

Nevertheless, I applaud the effort and have already submitted my suggestion. But I’m less interested in a new definition than the attention the effort will get to provide a more accurate view of PR in the minds of several of PR’s own “publics.” First there are current practitioners, many of whom do not have a degree in PR nor are members of an association. As such they have little knowledge of the breadth of PR, see it as a tactic (i.e. media relations) as opposed to a diverse discipline, and have little comprehension of an ethics code.

In addition to this “internal public,” a re-definition effort would hopefully seize the attention and respect of other functions in organizations who, as the academic literature calls it, have “encroached” on public relations functions. Such is the case when lawyers act as spokespersons, or human resources tries to own all employee communications, or marketing tries to steer branding efforts entirely from a consumer  perspective. On the latter point, maybe a new definition could force even some of the industry’s own trade  publications to stop referring to public relations as a “marketing discipline” (are you listening PRWeek?).

Of course, the public at large needs to have an accurate picture of public relations, which they currently get from stereotype, criticism of the “spin” of politicians, and popular culture’s unflattering insinuations. See my earlier post about PR in pop culture and the public opinion of the profession for more on that point.

As the project progresses, I would hope all contributors also consider the following:

  • History of Defining PR. The term “public relations” first came into popular use in the 1920s. But then, early practitioners like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and Arthur Page worked to move away from being called “press agents” or “publicity men.” For example, Lee wrote in a 1917 article in the Electric Railway Journal “The advisor in public relations should be far more than a mere publicity agent.” Eleven years later, in a letter to his largest client, John D. Rockefeller, he pointed out that publicity was not his business: “My job is assisting in dealing with the public.” In 1927 Edward Bernays took out a full-page ad in the January 29th Editor & Publisher to stress that a practitioner of the budding profession be called “Counselor on Public Relations” whose job could be described as “he interprets the client to the public and the public to his client.” So, in an era when radio was “new media,” practitioners were broad minded in defining PR. (See more about the history of PR and its description in my paper “First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s” in the Journal of Communication Management.) So, I hope the new definition will have a long view, both backwards and forwards, and not just respond to the social media moment.
  • Philosophy vs. Tactic.  I’ve had arguments with PR bloggers like the appropriately named Strumpette who say “PR is media  relations because that’s what the client pays for.” Maybe for some, but far from true for all. Note that Strumpette’s last post was in 2008. It lasted a long time with that publicity definition given what Lee said in 1928. I hope the new definition will emphasize the philosophy of mutual relationships with multiple stakeholders and not get bogged down in tactical duties. 
  • Aspirational, not Empirical. A definition of a field like public relations should not be merely empirical, i.e. based on observations of what its practitioners actually do. Instead, it should be aspirational in the sense of  setting the bar high and encouraging anyone who dares to call themselves a public relations practitioner to hew to that definition, and not drag the definition down. Lots of so-called “PR professionals” are doing it wrong, either by lack of ethics or limited scope. We need a definition to enable a separation of professionals from pretenders.
  • Breadth of the Field. Defining public relations will be a challenge because of the diversity of the field. For that reason it will necessarily have to be in general terms. The breadth could be considered in three ways: 1) roles.  Different PR professionals perform different roles at different times for different clients and in different organizations. These roles include boundary spanning, relationship management, public information disseminator, and vary from tactical technician to managerial counsel.  2) models. Roles could also be considered as models of PR. The classic four models of PR from James Grunig are publicity, public information, two-way asymmetrical, and two-way symmetrical. 3) sectors. While some indicate PR is all about business, or only practiced by agencies, the reality is that PR practitioners are plentiful in all three labor sectors: private (business), non-profit, and government. So I hope a new definition is inclusive of all the ways and contexts PR professionals can and will practice the profession.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on defining PR as well.