Public Relations

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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

Public Relations or PR is the way that organisations, companies and individuals communicate with the public and media to promote their interests. The chief aim of Public Relations is to advance the interests and promote the image of the sponsor. PR tools include news releases and statements for media, newsletters, social media activism, online blogs, organisation and participation at public events conferences, conventions, awards, etc. [1].

It is argued by PR firms that Public Relations builds "mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics[2]. 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"[3].

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[4].

Origins of Public Relations

United States

In the United States PR pioneers Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee are often cited as the fathers of modern Public Relations[5].

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"[6].

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. The key element in this was the attempt to enhance PR’s credibility by linking it with social science and suggesting that there was a scientific, objective, and therefore factual basis for it[5].

United Kingdom

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[5].

Public Relations as Propaganda

Corporate PR

Most major companies have a PR department or utilise the services of an outside firm. Public Relations are often described as a crucial part of a company's success - or failure. In addition to handling media requests, information queries and shareholder concerns, PR personnel are frequently responsible for crafting and maintaining a desirable image for the corporation[7].

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[5].

The Public Relations Industry

Top 250 PR Agencies in the World

The Public Relations industry website 'World PR Report' has listed its Top 250 most successful PR agencies worldwide. In The Holmes Report it ranks agencies by their Fee Income for 2013, and lists other details such as the location of their registered Headquarters, the % Growth of their Fee Income compared with 2012 and their numbers of personnel. It is worth noting that because some PR firms choose not to disclose their fee incomes publicly, many well-known firms will not be listed. The Top 50 are as follows:[8].

1) Edelman - $746,672,274

2) Weber Shandwick - $697,468,500

3) FleishmanHillard - $554,190,000

4) MSLGroup - $547,040,000

5) Ketchum - $490,000,000

6) Burson-Marsteller - $454,500,000

7) Hill+Knowlton Strategies - $386,100,000

8) Ogilvy PR - $297,000,000

9) Brunswick - $210,000,000

10) Havas PR - $209,000,000

11) GolinHarris - $196,000,000

12) FTI Consulting - $186,200,000

13) Media Consulta International - $166,861,800

14) Cohn & Wolfe - $162,180,000

15) Grayling - $130,144,000

16) BlueFocus - $123,361,000

17) APCO Worldwide - $120,345,400

18) Porter Novelli - $120,000,000

19) Waggener Edstrom Worldwide - $117,608,000

20) RLM Finsbury - $100,000,000

21) Chandler Chicco Companies - $83,600,000

22) FSB Comunicações - $77,000,000

23) W2O Group - $75,000,000

24) Public Système Hopscotch - $73,526,153

25) Kreab Gavin Anderson - $66,000,000

26) Res Publica - $64,000,000

27) Ruder Finn - $63,249,000

28) Vector - $62,000,000

29) Instinctif Partners - $54,249,233

30) fischerAppelt - $52,003,000

31) Text100 Corporation - $51,975,031

32) Freud Communications - $49,954,314

33) MWW - $48,020,000

34) Bell Pottinger Private - $47,500,000

35) Lewis PR - $45,848,320

36) Brodeur Partners - $45,000,000

37) Hering Schuppener - $44,688,000

38) Finn Partners - $44,400,000

39) DeVries Global - $42,000,000

40) Dentsu Public Relations - $40,000,000

41) Zeno Group - $39,200,000

42) Citigate Dewe Rogerson - $38,678,000

43) We Are Social - $38,677,478

44) Marina Maher Communications - $38,000,000

45) PRAP Japan - $37,000,000

46) Racepoint Global - $34,000,000

47) MHP Communications - $33,209,960

48) Good Relations Group - $33,200,000

49) DKC Public Relations - $32,896,560

50) PadillaCRT - $32,333,400

Top 150 PR Firms in London

An article in the industry-circulated PR Week listed the Top 150 most successful PR firms based in London, detailing information like their Turnover, Number of Clients, Number of Staff and Fee Incomes for 2013. The Top 25 are as follows:[9]

1) Brunswick

2) Edelman

3) Weber Shandwick

4) FTI Consulting

5) Bell Pottinger Private

6) Freud Communications

7) Hill+Knowlton Strategies

8) Ogilvy PR

9) RLM Finsbury

10) MSL Group

11) Ketchum

12) Instinctif Partners

13) GolinHarris

14) Good Relations Group

15) FleishmanHillard

16) Cohn & Wolfe

17) Fishburn

18) Chandler Chicco Companies

19) The Red Consultancy

20) Tonic Life Communications

21) Portland

22) Burson-Marsteller

23) Four Communications Group

24) Exposure

25) We Are Social



  1. IPR, Introduction to Public Relations, Introduction to Public Relations website, accessed 09 April 2015
  2. PRSA, What is Public Relations?, Public Relations Society of America website, accessed 09 April 2015
  3. CIPR, What is PR?, Chartered Institute of Public Relations website, accessed 09 April 2015
  4. John Brown (2008), Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website, September 2008, accessed 27 March 2015
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 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
  6. 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
  7. Investopedia, Public Relations - PR, Investopedia website, accessed 09 April 2015
  8. World PR Report, Top 250, World PR Report website, accessed 09 April 2015
  9. PR Week (2014), Top 150, PR Week website, accessed 09 April 2015