According to the Public Relations Society of America[?] (PRSA), one of the profession's leading trade associations, public relations "has been defined in many widely differing ways. Not unsurprisingly [sic!], the earliest definitions emphasized the roles of press agentry and publicity since these were major elements from which modern public relations grew." More recently, the PR industry has pushed to redefine itself as a management function.
From a more critical perspective, public relations is sometimes also referred to as the manufacturing of consent[?], following a phrase popularized by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (see Manufacturing Consent). The practice of public relations is often disparaged using terms such as "spin," and public relations practitioners are sometimes characterized as "spin doctors" or "flacks."
History The precursors to public relations can be found in the publicists who specialized in promoting circuses, theatrical performances, and other public spectacles. Many PR practitioners have also been recruited from the ranks of journalism and have used their understanding of the news media to ensure that their clients receive favorable media coverage.
The First World War also helped stimulate the development of public relations as a profession. Many of the first PR professionals, including Ivy Lee[?], Edward Bernays, and Carl Byoir[?], got their start with the Committee for Public Information[?] (also known as the Creel Committee), which organized publicity on behalf of U.S. objectives during World War I. Some historians regard Ivy Lee as the first real practitioner of public relations, but Edward Bernays is generally regarded today as the profession's founder.
Ivy Lee, who has been credited with "inventing" PR news releases, espoused a philosophy consistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, in which PR consists of helping clients listen as well as communicate messages to their publics. In the words of the PRSA, "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." In practice, however, Lee often engaged in one-way propagandizing on behalf of clients despised by the public, including robber baron John D. Rockefeller. His career ended in scandal, when the U.S. Congress held hearings to investigate his work on behalf of Nazi Germany in the years immediately preceding World War II.
Bernays was the profession's first theorist. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays drew many of his ideas from Freud's theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that shape human behavior. Bernays authored several books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), and The Engineering of Consent (1947). Bernays saw public relations as an "applied social science" that uses insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and "herdlike" public. "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society," he wrote in Propaganda. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."
One of Bernays' early clients was the tobacco industry. In 1929, he orchestrated a legendary publicity stunt aimed at persuading women to take up cigarette smoking, which was then considered unfeminine and inappropriate for women with any social standing. To counter this image, Bernays arranged for New York City debutantes to march in that year's Easter Day Parade, defiantly smoking cigarettes as a statement of rebellion against the norms of a male-dominated society. Photographs of what Bernays dubbed the "Torches of Liberty Brigade" were sent to newspapers, and many women were fooled into taking up the cause, demanding to be admitted into previously all-male smoking clubs in the belief that this was an important step in the struggle for gender equality. Tobacco companies have been grateful ever since for Bernays' success in overcoming the "taboo" against female smoking.
The Industry Today According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, public relations specialists held approximately 122,000 jobs in 1998, while there were approximately 485,000 advertising, marketing, and public relations managers working in all industries. Modern public relations uses a variety of techniques including opinion polling and focus groups to evaluate public opinion, combined with a variety of high-tech techniques for distributing information on behalf of their clients, including satellite feeds, the Internet, broadcast faxes, and database-driven phone banks to recruit supporters for a client's cause.
The skills and techniques used to manage the public have also expanded over the years. According to the PRSA, "Examples of the knowledge that may be required in the professional practice of public relations include communication arts, psychology, social psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and the principles of management and ethics. Technical knowledge and skills are required for opinion research, public issues analysis, media relations, direct mail, institutional advertising, publications, film/video productions, special events, speeches, and presentations."
In addition to corporations, public relations practitioners serve a variety of institutions in society including trade unions, government agencies, schools, and nonprofit organizations. Practitioners aspire to managerial rather than functional status within the institutions they serve. A number of PR-related disciplines exist, many with names that reflect the industry's desire to be seen as managers rather than mere publicists. Those disciplines include:
Ethical and Social Issues Many of the techniques used by PR firms are drawn from the institutions and practices of democracy itself. Persuasion, advocacy, and education are instruments through which individuals and organizations are entitled to express themselves in a free society, and many public relations practitioners are engaged in practices that are innocuous or even beneficial to the public, such as helping publicize university research findings, planning charity fundraisers, or designing course catalogs for community colleges. However, a number of strong criticisms of public relations have been made over the years.
One of the most pernicious public relations strategies is the creation of front groups[?] -- organizations that purport to serve a public cause while actually serving the interests of a client whose sponsorship may be concealed. The creation of front groups is an example of what PR practitioners sometimes term the third party technique[?] -- the art of "putting your words in someone else's mouth." PR Watch, a nonprofit organization that monitors deceptive PR activities, has published numerous examples of this technique in practice.
Beyond the ethical problems with these practices, public relations poses another, deeper challenge to society: Does the organized practice of propaganda by corporations, governments, and other powerful institutions really serve the interests of democracy and human freedom? Critics of the profession see public relations as a fundamentally reactionary response to the perceived danger of ordinary people thinking for themselves or implementing alternative economic and social models.
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