Progression
Emerging Possibilities
Return Home

What is public relations?

When I am asked what my major is, I can't give a simple answer. See, there is a simple answer, but no one thinks it is so simple. Confused? Well, my major is public relations. If you are not in the college of journalism, you probably are smiling and nodding. You aren't really sure what it is, are you? Many think it is like advertising and marketing. I am not sure if my parents even know exactly why I have spent all their money and almost two years at the University of Florida. I'm here to clear this up this matter.
Most people are not sure exactly what public relations is because the practice has been evolving rapidly for the past hundred years or so. Public relations has included elements of publicity, advertising and marketing. To clear up this matter, I am going to take you through a brief history of public relations and its shift from textual to visual communications. During this history, I will list tools practitioners use and define jargon.
There is evidence of public relations dating back to ancient Greek theorists, ancient Romans, and England centries ago. I am going to focus on the first evidence of contemporary public relations in America. The need for public relations rose because business owners did not want to be imposed with more regulation from the government.
The rise of publicity
In the early 1900's powerful business interests employed public relations writers to defend their special interests against muckraking journalism. Businesses needed publicists or press agents to influence public opinion. First let's define the word public.
"A public is any group of people tied together by some common factor."1
Muckraking journalists, or muckrakers as they were called, were trying to serve the laborers and farmers interests by setting the agenda. Farmers and laborers wanted the government to regulate big business more strictly. These journalists took advantage of newly created magazines and national wire services to exploit big business.
Businesses did not want to have more regulation from the government. So, executives hired press agents or publicists to fight words with words. They also ran advertisements in newspapers to counteract features ran in newspapers and magazines. By strategically placing advertisement many were able to save face.
Executives told their press agent or publicist to get a message to the public. This message was about preserving freedoms for themselves. Big business did not want to hear what the laborors and farmers wanted to say. The emphasis was on one-way communication.
Publicity and Fundraising
Although Rex Harlow and Ivy Lee are considered by most to be the "founding fathers" of public relations, early presidents used elements of public relations to influence the public. Politicians and public relations have been working hand in hand since Theodore Roosevelt. People view public relations practitioners as deceptive people because politicians have been notoriously deceptive and used publicity to cover their tracks.
The history of public relations has had its positive moments too. The Committee on Public Information was formed under President Woodrow Wilson to unite public opinion on the war effort during World War I. He hired George Creel to organize promotion to sell war bonds, enlist soldiers, and to raise millions of dollars for welfare through the Red Cross. Now, fundraising had become a successful element of public relations. After the war, an optimistic belief in the power of mass communication emerged.
"...the biggest and most practical human lesson learned from the war is that nothing
requiring organized effort can succeed without publicity and plenty of it"2

Public relations is not just about publicity and fundraising. The caterpillar stage has inched along, but the pupa has some eye-opening information. Visit it now.

1 Newsom, Doug, Bob Carrell. Public Relations Writing. 6th ed; California 2001; Wadsworth.
2 Cutlip, Erna, Nancy Center, and Betty Broom. Effective Public Relations. 7th ed; New Jersey 1994; Prentice-Hall.


Progression Emerging Possibilities Return Home