PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Three phases of public relations development
© 2003; 2020 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Today, public relations is usually seen as being in the third phase or era of its professional development. And, while many practitioners still act with the mindset and values of the two earlier eras, the most successful practitioners now seem to use the less-self-serving approaches that are characteristic of the third phase.

Even writers who bluntly assert that public relations is as old as civilization and is implicit in all human interactions usually admit there is a tremendous difference between the concept of public relations and the profession of public relations. Phrased another way, there's a big difference between practicing common sense "public relations" and developing a professional public relations practice. Beyond that, no one disputes the fact that public relations has changed dramatically since it first emerged as a distinct discipline and a viable career path in the second half of the 19th century. It's grown tremendously in size, scope, and significance since then.

This growth has been particularly dramatic since the 1970s and has been accompanied by a growing recognition of public relations' expanding role and influence in organizational life. As more and more public relations practitioners, most of whom now have specialized college degrees have been hired by large corporations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and even "mom and pop" operations, public relations departments have been elevated from their traditional place as a low-level support service on organizational charts and made an integral part of upper management decision-making.

In the mid-1980s, James Dowling, who was then the president of Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest world-wide public relations firms, made this observation about the changes that had occurred in public relations during recent decades to a The New York Times reporter. He said:

In the 1950s organizations asked their public relations consulting firms, "How should we say this?"

In the socially turbulent 1960s and 1970s, faced with various confrontations, these same organizations asked their public relations people, "What should we say?"

Today they ask, "What should we do?"

Public relations has gone through a three-stage evolution.


All three stages are practiced today.

Although each phase is characterized by distinctly different strategies and techniques, each succeeding phase did not totally obliterate or replace the preceding one.

While most newer public relations textbooks proclaim that public relations should focus on the mutual adaptation of organizations and their publics to one another and promote mutual satisfaction of all parties in a relationship, but there are still plenty of old textbooks and practitioners who operate as if the field were still in an earlier stage of development. Some public relations people operate like flamboyant press agents and tout their clients. Others come across like Machiavellian persuaders who try to bamboozle the public with biased or unreliable information. And, many of them are successful.

Public relations isn't the only field in which this happens. There are many professions in which some practitioners don't use the most current or accepted standard practices of their professions. Some older practitioners use outdated practices because that's what they were taught to do. Others do it because it's easier or cheaper than current practices. And, in some circumstances, the old way of going things might work better. Often it makes no difference and no harm is done. Sometimes it does and does it in ways that discredit the field and embarrass other practitioners. This is especially true when the old way violates current ethical guidelines.

For instance, most American businesses today describe themselves as "environmentally conscious" and say they're concerned about pollution. Nevertheless, some businesses pollute the environment on a daily basis because they haven't adopted state of the art technology or because they simply don't care. While these throw-backs may be distasteful to those who encounter them and an embarrassment to the majority of "clean" companies within their industries, most people realize their behavior isn't the norm and don't condemn the entire industry for their shortcomings.

The same should be true of public relations. The mere fact that some public relations practitioners still stress publicity or stretch truth the way P. T. Barnum did isn't a valid reason for condemning the entire profession. No profession should be judged by the shortcomings of a few practitioners.

Further reading on
Publicity phase of public relations
Further reading on
Explanatory phase of public relations
Further reading on
Mutual satisfaction phase
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