It is argued by PR firms that Public Relations builds "mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations describes PR as: "the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics".
However, critics outside of the Public Relations industry are keen to emphasise a definition of PR that equates it to little more than a polite way of saying Propaganda. They suggest that there is no significant difference between Public Relations and Propaganda, with both involving a conscious manipulation of their audiences on behalf of their sponsors.
Origins of Public Relations
In 1914, Ivy Lee began working on one of the first PR initiatives; he was hired by John D. Rockefeller, one of the most powerful industrialists of the age, to reshape his controversial image. Rockefeller had been responsible for the Ludlow massacre in which 19 miners and their families were killed. Lee’s publicity sheet claimed that the massacre was carried out by ‘well-paid agitators sent out by the union’ and that legendary union organiser Mother Jones was ‘a prostitute and the keeper of a house of prostitution’. Both stories were fabrications.
Lee describes how: "It is not facts alone that strike the popular mind, but the way in which they take place and in which they are published that kindle the imagination... Besides, what is a fact? The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to...give you my interpretation of the facts".
The PR pioneer Edward Bernays, whose role in the making and breaking of reputations was almost as significant as his own self-publicity, advised the rich, famous and powerful, acting as manipulator extraordinaire. In so doing, he championed the development of Public Relations as a formal industry. Bernays worked for the tobacco industry for much of his career. He is infamously credited with breaking the taboo against women smoking in public through a carefully choreographed and remarkably successful PR stunt.
Bernays described Public Relations as a means of re-labeling activities that were previously known as Propaganda. In Propaganda, his most influential book, Bernays argued that the scientific manipulation of public opinion through Public Relations was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society. Bernays' conception of PR involved the use of psychology and other social sciences to design public persuasion campaigns, an act he called engineering consent.
Around the same time as Bernays and Lee in the United States, key practitioners were also pioneering the use of Public Relations and Spin in the United Kingdom. These early practitioners include Basil Clarke, Sydney Walton and Hugh Pollard.
Upon its creation in 1920, Clarke was appointed to the Ministry of Health and tasked with 'stimulating public opinion', which by some accounts included 'the insertion of articles in the press'. In 1922, Walton established himself as one of the first PR consultants in Britain, hired by the Conservative Party in 1926 to run their propaganda campaign against the miner's strike. Pollard was active in intelligence work during the First World War in the War Office, and later worked in Ireland as a press officer of the Police Authority's information section as well as being heavily involved in business activism.
Public Relations as Propaganda
It has been argued that corporations invented Public Relations as an way to impose business interests on public policy and limit the responsiveness of the political system to the preferences and opinions of the masses. Corporate PR has played a very significant role in the course of modern popular democracy, evidenced in the 'common sense' assumption that what is good for business must be good for the rest of society. This kind of thinking is perpetuated in order to protect big business from the possibility of true democratic government.
Whilst "PR Apologists" like to suggest that PR is a force for good that promotes mutual understanding, positive relationships between publics and wider benefits for society, "PR Critics" argue that PR is little more than an attempt to subvert and subdue democracy. The term itself suggests a kind of consensual relationship between PR executive and audience, with some level of mutuality. PR Critics suggest that this relationship is far from a two-way street, with the PR executive wielding much greater influence than the audience. From the perspective of PR critics, the whole PR industry is an exercise in legitimating the interests of the few at the expense of the many.
- Wikipedia, Public Relations: Overview of the concept of PR
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power: Critical look at Corporate PR, Spin and Propaganda
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), PR: The dark history of spin and its threat to genuine news: Article summarising the effects of PR on journalism
- IPR, Introduction to Public Relations, Introduction to Public Relations website, accessed 09 April 2015
- PRSA, What is Public Relations?, Public Relations Society of America website, accessed 09 April 2015
- CIPR, What is PR?, Chartered Institute of Public Relations website, accessed 09 April 2015
- John Brown (2008), Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website, September 2008, accessed 27 March 2015
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power, accessed 07 April 2015, London: Pluto Press
- Ivy Lee (1916), Publicity address before American Electric Railway Association, 10 October 1916, Atlantic City, cited in David Miller and William Dinan (2008), p.14