PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
The changing name of public relations
© 2003; 2009; 2018 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Despite the fact that "public relations" is included in the title of this website and countless textbooks, there has never been total agreement about what to call this field of endeavor or the people who practice it. You and I may think of it as "public relations," but not everyone does. The preferred and most popular name has often changed over the course of time. It has also varied widely from place to place and industry to industry.

In the late nineteenth century, when it was first emerging as a profession, the most commonly used terms for this activity were publicity and promotion. Consequently, when companies began creating internal units to handle these activities, they were most often given names like publicity department, promotion bureau, press office or even literary bureau. Westinghouse became the first big company to actually have a department called a public relations department in 1889.

"Public relations" didn't become the preferred name until the 1920s.

Preferences began changing fairly quickly and steadily after the First World War. In part, it was due to the public's increasing awareness of the field that was fueled by the aggressive and high-profile promotional tactics of Edward Bernays and other practitioners who called themselves public relations counselors.

More and more American organizations began hiring public relations people and, with the exception of government agencies which had special reasons for not using it, most of them adopted the term public relations to describe their attempts to enhance their relationships with their customers and other constituents. By the mid-twentieth century, the vast majority of large American corporations had internal units that were responsible for public relations activities, and almost all of them used the term public relations in their units' names, whether they were departments, divisions, or offices.

A few companies still used terms like publicity department, promotions department, or press office, but not very many. From the 1940s through the first-half of the `70s, public relations had very little competition as the preferred name for this growing field of activity.

As the scope of public relations shifted, so did its name.

As practitioners and organizations re-examined what public relations could and actually did do, alternative names for the discipline began to appear in some corporate tables of organization. What started as a trickle of name changes during the late 1970s became a flood during the `80s. New names were concocted for various types of public relations as well as for the departments and the people who were responsible for performing them, and they were often combined with other types of communication activities.

Some large businesses replaced their public relations departments with corporate communication departments or public affairs offices. Many health care organizations, including most of the hospitals in Greater Cincinnati, consolidated their public relations and marketing functions and began practicing integrated marketing communication. And, in politics press secretaries often came to be called "spinmeisters" for their increasingly blatant efforts to "spin" their client's stories and the public's perceptions of those clients.

By the end of the 1980s scholars and trade journals alike reported that there was more confusion about what to call public relations than there had been at any time in the past. The only thing that was universally agreed upon was that the popularity of the term public relations was fading.

Alternative names vied for popularity.

According to O'Dwyer's Directory of Corporate Communication which periodically surveys the Fortune 500 companies, public relations remains the single most widely-used designation among the largest American businesses. But, that survey also reported, "The number of companies that identify their internal unit for communicating with their constituents as public relations has dropped off dramatically in the last decade." While almost three-fourths of them once used the term public relations, now only about one-fourth of the Fortune 500 companies have a department, division, or unit called public relations.

Some have combined their former public relations departments with other communication specialties and have given them multifunctional names such as marketing public relations or advertising and public relations. But, even when such dual-name units are included in the count, less than one-third of the Fortune 500 companies now have a unit with the term public relations anywhere in its title.

Corporate communication and just plain communication are the most popular new names for these functions. Each is found as a department or division name in about 20 percent of the Fortune 500 companies and, their popularity seems to increase annually. Given that, O'Dwyer speculated that either could soon surpass public relations in popularity.

The next most-widely used term, one found in about 10 percent of the Fortune 500 corporations, is public affairs. Although public affairs continues to grow in popularity, the satisfaction with this name has not been universal. The Feb. 8, 1999 issue of pr reporter reported that Sears, one of the largest retailers in the world, "has gone back to public relations from public affairs." Ron Culp, Sears' vice president for public relations, was quoted as saying the name change was Sears way of "recognizing their role of building relationships."

Next in the Fortune 500 list of preferred names, and essentially tied in popularity, are corporate relations and marketing communication. The list concludes with a scattering of units with names such as customer relations, consumer affairs, public information, community relations, community affairs, and promotions.

By 1999 "public relations" appeared to have been supplanted.

Early 1999 editions of both IABC's Communication World and pr reporter reported the findings of the Best Practices in Corporate Communication study conducted by the Washington-based Public Affairs Group. It was a survey of 539 of the largest U.S. companies spread across 26 different industry sectors, a somewhat broader cross-section of companies than the Fortune 500 on which O'Dwyer reports.

According to this study, communication is now the single, most-widely used name for public relations units, and public relations has slipped to second place. More than half of the companies surveyed call their public relations unit either communication or corporate communication, and almost 68 percent include the word communication in some form or another in their unit's name.

Name changes aren't limited to large corporations.

Similar name changes have also occurred -- perhaps with even more frequency -- in smaller companies and other types of organizations not included in the Fortune 500 or the major corporations studied by the Public Affairs Group. Such name changes simply haven't been as carefully tracked and documented. There are only anecdotal impressions to support the following observations.

Marketing communication is much more popular among small and mid-sized businesses than among the giants of the Fortune 500. And, although its popularity varies somewhat from region to region in the United States, it remains very popular in hospitals and throughout the health care industry.

Promotions has long been, and continues to be, the most common unit name in broadcasting. It also seems to be gaining popularity in the publishing industry and among other mass media and media-related businesses. Another widely used term in these fields is special events.

And, not surprisingly given the nature of its business, having a publicity department still seems to be the norm throughout much of the entertainment industry.

Public information, once solely used by government agencies, seems to be gaining popularity among universities. A few, but not very many, businesses have also adopted it.

Community relations seems to be gaining as the preferred term among an increasing number of non-profit organizations, especially those with human services missions. Other non-profits, including some political action committees prefer the term constituent relations.

Will public relations ultimately be called something else?

That remains to be seen. Today's popular terms could disappear just as other naming fads have done, or one of them could take root and become the new identifier of the field. Or, some totally unexpected name could yet emerge.

And, what shall future generations call the people who perform these functions? Some organizations already call their public relations staff members constituent advocates. Apple Computer, a company once widely known for its quirky job titles, called the head of its public relations unit the Chief Story Teller, and Chris Holten-Hempel, the co-founder of SparkPR, a Silicon Valley public relations firm that specializes in working with high-tech start-up companies, has the title Chief Detonator on her office door and her business card.

It will be interesting to watch and see what names finally emerge. But, will it really make much difference?

Some people, including Daniel Edelman, the founder of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide which is now one of the largest public relations counseling firms in the world, think the name of the field is very important.

Others are less concerned about the name that's applied to the field. They believe that what public relations practitioners do is far more important than what they're called. They would probably agree with Shakespeare's observation: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."

Assorted Public Relations Definitions
(pdf - two-page handout)
Calls to scrap public relations aren't new Still seeking a definition
Online readings table of contents What do you call yourself, PR practitioner? Practicing Public Relations
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4 August 2018