What is PR, and how has it changed? – 1st

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations” (Orwell). Analyse the history and development of PR, what is it and what makes it different from marketing, advertising and journalism.

Public Relations can be defined as “Engineering social and political outcomes, persuading both the masses and specific stakeholder groups, mediating between opposing groups, and providing a service to the public” (Lloyd and Toogood, page 10, 2015). Despite there being key differences between the role of journalists and that of a public relations practitioner, the view that journalism itself is fully separate from public relations is debatable. The two have been argued to have had a symbiotic relationship since the inception of public in the UK. The same can be said of the marketing and advertising industry also, while they all share similarities in their aims with public relations, they have fundamental differences in their methods. These would go against the view presented by Orwell that would put “everything else” in the media outside of journalism as public relations, there being many other aspects to the media sphere. However, as stated by Lloyd, “the boundaries between various types of media are being lowered” (p.85, 2015), leading to this confusion over the intricate differences. To establish the distinct nature of these professions, this essay will outline the differences between their aims, methodology, audiences and their definitions of success, seeing how public relations has developed, existing aside from these other forms of media.

The concept of public relations has always existed. While the profession in earnest has changed and developed, the need to communicate has persisted throughout history, someone always wanting to be seen in the “best possible light” (Atkin, 2017). This can be seen in ancient history, religious movements and leaders making sure their beliefs were widespread through mass communication and the ancient equivalent of promotional ‘stunts’. One example is the Great Pyramid of Giza, being an enormous landmark to remind all subjects of the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, buried within, reminding all his subjects of his divine status, being “intended to last forever” (Kingtutone.com staff, 2010). This ties in with the later adoption of ‘pseudo-events’, where groups will stage events to garner media focus. For example, Hollywood’s report that actress Florence Lawrence had died, increasing attention for her upcoming movie, only to announce her survival (Heidenry, 2018). Meanwhile, the modern iterations of the practice can be seen to have emerged in the 1900s. This can be seen in America with the formation of the Publicity Bureau in 1906, and for England with the rise of the Institute of Public Relations in 1948. The formation of these groups marked an attempt to begin regulation and safeguarding toward the concept of Public Relations, their early objectives including the “pooling of knowledge, disseminating information and generally developing techniques of public relations work” (Watson, T. 2014). However, the similarities between the ancient religious style of communication and modern public relations can be seen to be interconnected, being a clear evolution of the practice that has continued over the years. Christianity can be seen to have had an influence over the early development of public relations in America, historian Rob Brown going as far as to draw the conclusion that not only has “religion employed public relations” but also that others have “employed religion as a public relations strategy” (Lamme, p.15-16, 2014) throughout the development of the practice. This was highlighted by Lamme, who noted that public relations figure Ivy Lee, who himself was the son of a minister, in 1986 asked his peers to “forego the obfuscation that lawyers inject into communications” (p.6, 2014) instead citing known Evangelist Billy Sunday as a successful model for a practitioner. Him holding this opinion of these skills being similar mark a major impact on the profession, Lee being the one to issue the public relations “Declaration of Principles” in 1906, an early outlining of best practice principles of any public relations practitioner. His methods developed the practice exponentially, introducing the press releases that remain a vital tool of the industry to this day, his management of the Pennsylvania Railroad accident being one of the first recorded examples of ‘Crisis Public Relations’, alongside his establishing a standard of openness and honesty in their operations with his declaration text (PR Academy, 2014). Despite the formation of generally accepted practices emerging at this point, the practice continues to draw from other influential communicators even predating this, such as P.T Barnum of the 1800s. Barnum’s huge public displays, while later were judged to be a “marker for unethical and unprofessional practice” (Lamme, p.20, 2014) were seen to be an innovative media form. He would dub this technique as ‘Humbug’ describing the communication technique to be “sizzle and sparkle that demanded immediate attention” (Lamme, p.21, 2014) a clear outlining of the general targets of modern-day public relations stunts. This is now seen to be the model of press agentry, fitting a one-way communication model. Bernays was another defining aspect of the modern interpretation of public relations, his incorporation of psychological profiling and techniques in the 1920s developing the two-Way asymmetrical model of communication outlined by Grunig and Hunt (1984). This allowed him to gauge public opinion and needs in order to maximise the impact of the campaign, without compromising his client’s product or message. The success of these prolific historical figures such as Lee alongside Edward Bernays & Barnum and the early industry establishers can be seen to have outlined the methodology for successful public relations practitioners, developing into several campaign models that have various strengths and weaknesses.

Public relations is the business of managing an individual or group’s reputation, and they do this through careful communication with their client’s various respective audiences. This can be seen in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ view of the practice; “Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you” (2011). This managing of reputation can take many forms in action; whether it be putting out positive press releases, organising public relations stunts, responding to negative feedback or dealing with an unforeseen crisis, the nature of the communication varies per client and in context. A third-party endorsement is a vital aspect of this process, being one of the most unique aims for public relations practitioners, as stated by Gregory “the independent expert is king” (p.178, 2004). The endorsement of external parties and individuals simultaneously draws their pre-existing audiences and provides the public with an opinion free of corporate biases. This can be used to reinforce a client’s reputation with their existing publics, or even be used in an attempt to reach an entirely new audience, making the selection of influencers an important part of many public relations campaigns. For example, the charity Campaign Against Living Miserably in 2017 partnered with one of the stars from incredibly popular television show Love Island, Chris Hughes. This stunt allowed them to revamp their pre-existing image with humour and sex appeal and introduce their message of male suicide awareness to a new demographic and Hughes’ pre-existing following. This was a measured success, seeing an increase of 1800% in CALM website visits from 18 to 24-year olds as a result of the campaign, the exact audience they wished to reach with the stunt (2018). This supports the view of careful public relations being a valuable asset for any client, this creation and sustaining of a good reputation being seen by some as one of the “biggest drivers to help jumpstart a business’s sales” (Parker, 2017). This endorsement and reputation cannot be bought, while there are associated costs of events and third-party involvement, the media and sharing of positive opinions have to be earned by the public relations team. This is seen through both the two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical communication models of public relations, stemming from the work of Bernays and Miller, putting research and feedback from their publics into their campaigns to maximise impact, described to be the “engineering of consent” (Black, p.21, 2014). For example, Dove’s 2004 campaign making use of a diverse range of women, and featured slogans such as “Wrinkled? Or wonderful?”, was based upon polling that said only 2% of women considered themselves beautiful, demonstrating an audience of stakeholders that they can target (Lloyd and Toogood, p.39, 2015). This method involves a change in behaviour from both sides, allowing for flexible and responsive public relations, the symmetrical method embracing ethical guidelines such as telling the truth and engaging fully with audiences to maximise control (Black, p.21, 2014). This desire for control is perhaps the most distinct difference between PR and any of the aforementioned mediums of communication, as by the nature of their coverage being earned and unpaid for, they are open to journalistic interpretation. This is in stark contrast with advertising and demonstrates the interconnected nature between that of journalism and the public relations industry, having to use their communication skills to persuade a journalist or their influencer platform of choice, to take up their campaign or message. Bob Hope, president public relations firm Hope-Beckham Incorporated, viewing the ability to “tell a story well” as the basis of public relations, a fact he feels will “never change” (Coppock, 2011).

While public relations can be used in this commercial sense, the view of Orwell does not take into account the huge variety of forms the practice can take. There are many different models of communication and public relations that different campaigns make use of, changing with current trends and industry-accepted standards, public relations campaigns being seen to be “constantly balancing between one-way and two-way communication” (Theaker, p.46, 2013). The one-way communication methods, seen to be used by P.T Barnum, are built on the concept of a ‘Send-Message-Channel-Receiver’ model, where they craft a message and deliver it to their audiences to make them see their perspective. This was developed further by the 1949 Shannon and Weaver model, which took into account the need for feedback to assure improvement, and the concept of ‘noise’, being the miscommunications and mistakes that blur the message or desired impact (Al-Fedaghi, 2012). This acknowledgement of feedback’s importance and the constant nature of communication eventually led to more two-way focussed communication models, such as the 1954 Osgood-Schramm. This added the concept of message decoders to prevent noise, alongside listening to the messages sent back by the public to allow for change and further development. These many models are constantly evolving as new technology and communications methods become available. As stated by Theaker, they are “not necessarily in conflict and complement each other as PR matures as a practice and academic discipline” (p.46, 2013).

Public relations practitioners deal with three distinct audiences, as opposed to marketing and advertising, that being stakeholders, target audiences and publics. While the target audience may be the main concern for the client, being the specific group they wish to reach with their campaigning or communications, public relations takes into account stakeholders and publics. Stakeholders are any one person, groups or organisations that have an interest or concern in the client or their organisation, while publics are all the unorganised groups and communities that have a direct or indirect association. All three must be taken into account when planning and conducting public relations, they “require prioritization, different communication strategies and will almost certainly be communicated with via different channels” (Black, p.103, 2014). All these distinct elements that make up the practice would go against the view that “everything else” outside journalism would be considered public relations, there are key differences in the approach taken to marketing.

While marketing, public relations and advertising all aim to increase the success of their respective businesses or clients, they define and approach their goal in different methods. While all three wish to raise awareness of their product, client or services, marketing measures this success through the clear return on investment generated. Druker (2009) states that marketing aims to “know and understand the customer so well the product sells itself”, ideally putting them in a situation where they have no dependency on promotion, rather sensible distribution. They reach these goals by focusing upon a ‘marketing mix’, made up of the ‘Four Ps; product, pricing, promotion and place (McCarthy, 1960). These four stages cover the life cycle, from its inception, isolating potential customer bases, finding the appropriate price to allow maximum access while still covering costs and generating a profit. Given this “broader” approach, encompassing the entire business, the specific practices of public relations and advertising would come under their wider marketing plans for the campaign (Strydom, p.2, 2005). Public relations departments would be focussed on the generation of goodwill for both the product itself and the company or client distributing it, for example highlighting their adherence to corporate social responsibility. This can be seen in the launch of The Body Shop in Brighton in 1976, where the company’s aim to provide “natural ingredients that were ethically sourced and cruelty-free” (Chesters, 2011) was highlighted and used to differentiate them from their competitors. This created a long-lasting public perception of goodwill, notable when the company received backlash in 2006 when they were bought by the larger brand of L’Oréal, part-owned by Nestlé, who do partake in animal testing, conflicting with the pre-existing reputation their public relations had generated (Chesters, 2011). This collaboration is highly beneficial, allowing the marketing department to use their research and techniques to focus on the product and their desired goal of increased long-lasting sales. As stated by Jenkins, “PR can be marketing’s third arm” (p.69, 2006), creating goodwill among their target audiences to maximise the success of a product’s launch and reception. Both marketing and public relations take into consideration the customer’s point of view to develop their campaigns, this is the primary target of marketers. while public relations must take into consideration the various publics and stakeholders involved across the spectrum. While this must be taken into consideration for marketing strategy, it is more traditional public relations that are seen to be operating under the two-way model of communication, allowing improvement and audience engagement. However, some would critique the modern state of marketing is edging closer to that of public relations, Black wondering if it’s becoming a “danger” for the public relations profession (p.94, 2014). This can be seen in the numerous new additions to the Marketing Matrix, such as the transition from a ‘push’ to a ‘pull’ processes, akin to the two-way communication models seen in public relations. This would support the view of the media’s somewhat merging, and the quotes stance that “everything else” other than journalism is the same public relations. However, with these different methods, despite similarities beginning to emerge more and more, there is a marked difference between the two practices of marketing and public relations. This further extends to the advertising style of public communication, approaching their goals and views of success from almost opposites.

Advertising is just one of the many aspects of a client’s marketing plan, a separate entity working alongside public relations with different methods and measurements of success. While advertising aims to bring “the product to the customer” PR brings “the customer to the product” (Jefkins, p.70, 2006). Advertising allows the opinions and messages of their clients to be heard clearly and directly, without room for journalistic interpretation. Because of this, control is one of the most significant divides between these two mediums, reaffirmed with the Advertising Standards Authority’s own definition of the advertising profession being “any message, the content of which is controlled directly or indirectly by the advertiser” (2016). Predominantly advertising makes use of one-way communication, as opposed to the more common symmetrical and asymmetrical models found in modern public relations, more akin to the methods employed by early practitioners such as Barnum and his “unethical” stunts and promises, or that of government propaganda, seen heavily in World War One and Two. This is because when working in advertising, practitioners are able to become paid sponsors and purchase dedicated slots on traditional and social media. Because of this, they have full control of their paid space, allowing adverts to make claims and promises that public relations “cannot reach” (Campaign Middle East, 2013). Although this is not without their limitations, much like public relations, they are beholding to an ethical code, and are scrutinised by the Advertising Standards Authority (2010). To do so in public relations would be counter intuitive, as they are seeking credible third-party endorsement without paying for coverage or buying controlled media slots. Due to this, public relations practitioners need to persuade journalists, influencers and platforms to take their message and convey it to their pre-existing audiences on their behalf. This demonstrates their differing methods, public relations offices seeding their stories with press releases and press junket distribution. However, much like marketing, there have been increasingly similar trends in both public relations and advertising campaigns in more recent times. For example, the 1999 Budweiser advert featuring the ‘Wassup’ catchphrase launched an exponential amount of user generated content online, along with seeing parody in movies such as Scary Movie. This can be seen to be similar to the viral status that social media public relations campaigns strive to achieve, Robert Wong, chief creative officer of Google Creative Lab, stating it to be “by far the most iconic, pop-culture spiking and memed ad of the 21st century” (Schultz, 2019). Public relations practitioners themselves have been under criticism in regards to use of influencers. The expensive events and gifts that are used to attract media and influencer attention must be carefully differentiated between a payment for advertisement. Recent examples of this being issues concerning social media influencers, who after many cases now must explicitly state content where they have received payments for their endorsement, in light of these new restrictions the Competitions and Marketing Authority reinforced this view, stating that public relations agencies must now be just as “responsible” as the influencers themselves for such miscommunication (Delahunty, 2019).

The role of a journalist is to actively create content that both informs the public and holds those in power to account, originating from their role as the ‘fourth estate’. McNair would go as far as to say that the job of a journalist was to “regulate and negotiate morality” (p.27, 2009), creating the impression that journalism and public relations are conflicting professions. It could be said that public relations’ goal of creating a positive reputation for a specific client goes against the unbiased nature of fourth estate journalism, however since the initial development of the practice the two industries can be seen to be interconnected. Historically, many of the first public relations practitioners were either ex-journalists, such as Ivy Lee (PR Academy, 2014) or part of their government press units, therefore many of the skills used were shared, along with an understanding that traditional news media was the necessary platform to share their message. As stated by Lloyd & Toogood, “Public relations, from its inception, needed journalism and thus journalists: it had to win their assent” (p.20, 2015), meanwhile journalists are traditionally cited to view public relations as a “necessary evil” (Whatmough, p.35, 2019). This dependency ties back to the aim of public relations to receive as much respected third-party endorsement as possible, the widely established ethics codes journalists must abide by adding credibility to their story choices. While this is valuable, a journalist’s right and responsibility to “editorialise” (IPSO, 2019) in their news telling for the benefit of public interest adds an element of risk to any campaign. When sending press releases a journalist has the right to ignore it, should it fail to meet their news values, or approach the topic from a critical light. In order to mitigate the risk, marketing, public relations and advertising would work together, advertising providing controlled spaces where a campaign’s message remains untarnished, while the attempt through independent journalists is seen as an investment worth the risks. There are four types of media, paid, earned, shared and owned, and this third-party endorsement provides the valuable earned media that advertising cannot provide (Axia Public Relations, 2018). Reports from 2019 show the significance of this content existing, for example, 90% of consumers reading online reviews before visiting any business, in contrast, to almost 80% of users ignoring sponsored search results, highlighting the trend of third-party opinions taking precedence over advertorial posts (Milenkovic, 2019). There are recent criticisms that journalists are in fact becoming too depending on the public relations industry providing them with stories, leading to the rise of the term “Churnalism”. Given the financial changes and staffing structures in the journalism industry, seen with the rise of the twenty-four-seven news cycle and online news platforms, journalists are increasingly pressed for time and numbers. This can be seen to lead to many preferring to jump to a “selection of stories that are “a) quick to cover, and b) safe to publish” (McNair, p.114, 2009). With the increased access to technology, public relations practitioners can, and are indeed expected, to take the lead on content creation. With this shift to digital journalists require more content and quicker publication, a problem shared by the public relations industry. This knowledge allows careful practitioners to make use of the demand, generating pre-existing content that is much more likely to be used by journalists with less editorialisation than in years prior. This understanding of the symbiotic nature of these industries would directly contradict the view that journalism is only “what someone else does not want printed”, as with collaboration news values can be found in press releases, and content demand pushes more journalists to work together with public relations practitioners.

The advent of online and digital communications radically updated the methodology of the public relations industry, having a huge impact on all media-based services. While the traditional methods persist, such as press releases, they have been adapted for the modern climate. Now a digital press release aims to include “all elements of a story” that a journalist would ever need, feeding into the aforementioned trends in demand (Whatmough, p.42, 2019). This is an evolutionary step in regards to the content creation involved in a traditional campaign, now taking on board all digital and social media platforms alongside traditional television and print. As stated by Whatmough, it is now as impossible to “divorce digital” from the practice as it is to divorce digital technology from our everyday lives (p.2, 2019). While this is seen by some as a challenge, it has exponentially increased the speed of once lengthy processes, such as the physical delivery of photographs and content to press offices. Public relations officers must be careful in their content creation also, as “when you get into the territory of conveying strong product performance promises, what you are doing can only be defined as advertising” (Campaign Middle East, 2013).

It has also provided new avenues of endorsement, such as social media influencers, bloggers and even the public themselves. A major example of a campaign that only was possible with social media can be seen in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. A simple low-budget challenge, offering a choice between a $100 donation to people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or pour a bucket of ice water on their heads, went viral when golfer Chris Kennedy took part. Kennedy’s pre-existing audience allowed the #icebucketchallenge videos to spread to millions when he, in turn, challenged a fellow sports star Pete Frates to the same, reaching 17 million user-generated videos within four weeks (Swainn, p.123, 2020). The success of this campaign was clear, record-breaking engagement with the ALS cause, hundreds of influential figures such as Bill Gates taking part with no financial cost to the campaign, $220 million being raised globally in 2014 (Swainn, p.123-127, 2020).

While journalism is indeed often focussed on holding groups and individuals to account, the same can be said of both public relations and advertising campaigns. Activists make extensive use of public relations techniques and even agencies to spread awareness of their message. As stated by Swainn (p.260, 2020), this implementation is “vital” in amassing the “power to take on, and request change from an organisation”. A major example in terms of public relations stunts and use can be seen with the Greenpeace environmental activist groups. One Greenpeace stunt, creating a video of an oil spill over a recreated Lego Landscape, was met by 5.5 million views, helping them raise awareness about a partnership between Shell and Lego (Barre, 2014). These are directly using methods that can be seen in public relations practitioners, their impact being seen in changes in company policy. This would conflict with the view that only journalism can produce confrontational content, as stated by Barre (2014) for many activists their campaigns have to “remain adversarial” in order to challenge the views of their target’s audiences.

In conclusion, while they are all major aspects of the public sphere of media, they are all fundamentally different. Public Relations has a distinct identity of its own, demonstrated by the many institutions and codes of conduct they are held accountable to worldwide. Their campaigns span numerous models and methods throughout the history of the practice’s development. Depending on their client they may be corporate, a crisis-based reaction or even an activist campaign, conflicting with Orwell’s view that they are purely promotional, if it comes down to their core role of managing reputation. While marketing and advertising also want the best for their clients, their definitions of success are more closely related to profits and sales, while strong sustained good-will and reputation is the main measure of success for a public relations practitioner. Journalism is a vital aspect of the public relations process, being one of the most prominent mouthpieces for their messages. The fact they cannot be bought and maintain control of the story they tell this provides an element of risk, however, it is for these reasons that they provide valuable earned media, as opposed to the advertorial content from advertising. While the groups are working more and more closely, some viewing the walls to having been lowered (Lloyd & Toogood, p.85, 2015), they currently remain their own bodies and thus go against the generalisation suggested in Orwell’s view.

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Published by James Sumner

Writer, reviewer & journalist. BA: Multimedia Journalism. MA: PR & Digital Comms.

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