Despite being an established and expanding industry, there is dissent in the field of public relations (PR) ‘about what the practice is, who it serves, and what its roles and responsibilities are’, according to industry analyst Bruce Berger, while Rex Harlow has found 472 different definitions of PR. Jim Grunig defines PR as ‘the management of communication between an organisation and its publics’ and the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) defines it as a ‘deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation (or individual) and its (or their) publics’.
The confusion surrounding the practice of PR stems from the fact that it is not a single function or activity, but rather a ‘field of practice’ comprising multiple types of communication activity. The most widely recognised PR activity is media publicity, which is generated by liaising with and providing information to journalists (also called media relations). ‘Information subsidies’ provided to the media by PR practitioners are inevitably positive for their employer, resulting in the pejorative term ‘spin’. However, public relations can also involve other communication channels, including organisational publications such as newsletters and reports, events such as launches and openings, videos, speeches and presentations, websites and, increasingly, social media sites. There are also specialised areas of PR beyond media relations, such as shareholder or investor relations, community relations and government relations.
Further confusion about PR arises from other terms used to describe similar activities, including ‘public information’, ‘public affairs’, ‘corporate communication’ and ‘corporate relations’. While these terms sometimes refer to public communication practices with a specialised focus (for example, public affairs is mainly focused on relations with government—also referred to as ‘lobbying’) some organisations and practitioners eschew the title ‘public relations’ to avoid the negative connotations that PR has acquired. Nevertheless, ‘public relations’ remains the most widely used term for such public communication practices.
A simple way of understanding PR and differentiating it from advertising is the categorisation of three types of media: paid media (advertising), earned media (editorial publicity) and owned media (an organisation’s own publications, such as brochures and newsletters, events, videos, websites, blogs, social media sites and so on). PR is the management function that focuses on earned and owned media.
Using the PRIA’s definition of PR as an attempt to cultivate ‘mutual understanding’, it could be argued that the public proclamation of the colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788 marked the inaugural PR event in modern Australian history. Subsequent celebrations of this anniversary have incorporated the use of organised PR activities to influence and galvanise public opinion.
From the outset, the use of PR activities was characterised by the field’s diverse practices and aims. Public holidays commemorating the King’s birthday reinforced both the rule of law and the colony’s place within the British empire. Public relations would also become a means by which commercial and political interests could strengthen their cause. Edward Wakefield drummed up support for the South Australian colony through letters to newspapers, presentations to parliament and the creation of societies pledging financial support for the initiative. During the 1840s and 1850s, the Anti-Transportation League similarly utilised public meetings, pamphlets and petitions to achieve its goal.
The growth of the press provided new opportunities for PR initiatives to reach a mass audience, particularly in the second half of the 19th century. Politicians recognised the ‘power of the press’, and increasingly engaged with media in order to communicate with the general public. Commercial advertisers similarly recognised this power. While most used advertising columns, some blurred the line between advertisement and editorial content through ‘puff’ pieces and ‘advertorial’. Community groups also looked to the media to promote their interests. The Salvation Army’s Limelight Department produced, arguably, Australia’s first feature film, Soldiers of the Cross, in 1900. It was shown as part of an illustrated lecture to spread the Christian faith and recruit new officers.
Initially functioning as collectors of news, by the early 20th century, press agents became disseminators of press releases and publicity seekers, acting on behalf of organisations and individuals. Assuming the title of publicity agents or officers, their role would receive more attention during World War I. Without conscription, Australia’s war effort became increasingly dependent on PR initiatives led by state recruiting committees. Their campaigns included posters, speeches and various public events including parades and concerts.
After the war, publicity officers found work in government departments. Overseas, publicity officers in the Australian High Commission in London continued to promote immigration and investment in Australia, while the Australian Fruit Board promoted its produce to British consumers. As the inter-war head of the Victorian Railways, Harold Clapp initiated PR practices that went beyond publicity, including films and weekly radio talks. The growth of Hollywood and radio entertainment in the inter-war years provided additional outlets for publicity agents. ‘Publicity clubs’ were formed in Sydney and Adelaide in the 1920s, but their members were largely drawn from the advertising fraternity.
During World War II, the term ‘public relations’ gained traction. The RAAF established its Public Relations Directorate in 1940. The Army and various government departments followed suit. The arrival of the American General Douglas MacArthur and his own PR unit in 1942 brought Australian PR practitioners into direct contact with the latest American strategies and techniques. Managing the flow of information to the media would prove to be a key lesson.
Dedicated PR consultancies emerged in the immediate post-war years. (Sir) Asher Joel’s decision to establish his own consultancy drew on wartime experience with MacArthur’s team, as well as his pre-war experience in promoting major NSW events. Wartime service as well as political connections led Eric White to found Eric White Associates (EWA). The formation of the Public Relations Institute of Australia in 1949 reflects PR’s expansion, although its primary object of making ‘public relations more widely known and accepted’ indicates that it still lacked recognition. The PRIA sought to improve practices by developing a Code of Ethics.
The importance of PR was gaining traction in political circles. White had briefly served as the Liberal Party’s inaugural director of PR before establishing EWA. Until their victory at the 1949 election, the Liberals waged a relentless campaign. In addition to building (Sir) Robert Menzies’ image, they also produced radio programs such as John Henry Austral and Country Quiz that sought to convey a political message. The Liberal Party also collaborated with the banking sector’s PR campaign against bank nationalisation. Upon victory, government PR sought to consolidate power through media relations. During the 1950s and 1960s, the government’s relationship with journalists was driven by Prime Minister Menzies’ personal idiosyncrasies.
In the 1950s, the number of PR consultancies grew from three in Sydney to some 60 Australia-wide. Such expansion reflected the growing awareness of PR and the changing media scene. By the end of the decade, EWA had emerged as Australia’s largest consultancy, with offices in each capital city and in London and Asia. By the late 1960s, an estimated $12 million was being spent on PR annually. Notable campaigns included the Commonwealth’s decimalisation of currency and Made in Australia promotions, and the staging of Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to Australia in 1966. However, Sir Frank Packer’s banning of PR people entering the Daily Telegraph indicated that PR still had a dubious reputation. Predicting that it would be ‘harder for newspapers to be written competently’ and that ‘editors will be charmed or gulled into printing as news an increasing amount of informal advertising’, Ken Inglis’s observations of the growing number of journalists entering PR in the early 1960s underscored the level of unease about the growth of PR.
The PR industry in the 1960s increasingly expanded beyond publicity and developed a more holistic and sophisticated understanding of PR practice. The first university lecture on PR was reportedly delivered at the University of Sydney in the early 1950s, and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology introduced the first PR certificate course in Australia in 1964. PR courses were also introduced at the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT) in 1967 and short courses in PR were offered at the NSW Institute of Technology from 1965, before the most widely cited university PR course was launched at the Mitchell College of Advanced Education, Bathurst by pioneering PR academic David Potts in the early 1970s. Potts published one of Australia’s first PR textbooks, Public Relations Practice in Australia (1976).
PRIA publications examined practical PR issues from reconceptualising and segmenting ‘publics’ to embracing research. As well as gaining new competitors, the sale of EWA to American giant Hill & Knowlton in 1974 brought Australian PR practitioners into direct contact with international practice. This American presence would accelerate in the 1980s, as the overall size and scope of the PR industry underwent a rapid expansion. In 1986, Australia was home to 270 consultancies. Large multinational agencies, such as Burson Marsteller and Edelman, opened offices in Australia, offering integrated global campaigns, while publicists such as Harry M. Miller and Max Markson promised to capitalise on fame—however fleeting. In 1988, the top eight PR companies were earning an estimated $32 million.
Government investment in PR continued to grow. Determined to avoid the media relations disasters that had undermined his predecessor, Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government adopted a more aggressive attitude towards its relationship with the news media. Fraser’s press secretary kept the media in check by playing ‘favourites’ with journalists. However, it was the Hawke Labor government that took this relationship to new levels, investing heavily in media advisers. The number of media advisers employed by subsequent governments at both the Commonwealth and state levels has continued to grow. The growth of the PR industry in the 1980s also coincided with a changing demographic within the industry’s ranks. Following the American pattern, Australian PR agencies were less likely to take on ex-journalists, and more likely to employ women with professional qualifications. By the 1990s, the industry had effectively been ‘feminised’, with female PR agents vastly outnumbering their male counterparts.
Today, PR is a substantial and growing industry in Australia. Commonwealth statistics revealed that there were 21,600 PR professionals employed in the private and public sector in 2010—up from 18,700 in 2009 and 14,000 in 2008. The government’s Job Outlook data shows that employment of public relations professionals increased ‘strongly’ over the previous 10 years, and is predicted to continue to grow strongly to 2015–16. Globally, PR spending was estimated at more than $10 billion a year industry in 2008–09, growing at around 10 per cent a year. Australia’s PR industry was described by Bob Burton in 2007 as a $1 billion a year industry.
With Australia having some of the highest usage rates of social media in the world, it is not surprising that the PR industry today has expanded is range of media channels to reach stakeholders and incorporated corporate blogging, microblogging (for example, Twitter), social media sites such as Facebook pages, online video sites such as YouTube, and photo distribution via sites such as Flickr. This bypassing of media ‘gatekeepers’ is seen as both positive in creating more direct organisation– public communication and problematic in that it allows inaccurate and biased information and misinformation to be distributed.
The PR industry in Australia consists of PR professionals employed ‘in house’ by companies, government bodies and organisations, as well as an estimated 1150 PR consultancy firms available for hire on a retainer or project basis. Most of the leading international PR agencies have offices in Australia, including Edelman, Hill & Knowlton and Burson Marsteller (owned by the WPP Group), Porter Novelli and Gavin Anderson (owned by the Omnicom Group) and Weber Shandwick (owned by the Interpublic Group). Additionally, there are many hundreds of locally owned PR firms, ranging from sole operators to leading Australian agencies such as Professional Public Relations.
Despite frequent denials by journalists, public relations has a significant influence on the media and on politics, as shown in a number of studies in Australia and internationally. A 2010 study by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism found that almost 55 per cent of the stories in the 10 leading Australian newspapers were the result of some form of PR activity. The influence of PR on content ranged from 42 per cent in the Sydney Morning Herald over a five-day working week to 70 per cent in the Daily Telegraph. This confirmed earlier studies that found between 30 and 70 per cent of media content contributed by PR sources, and was consistent with findings from British studies on newspaper content.
Media studies scholars and journalists complain that PR has cluttered the channels of public communication with pseudo-events and publicity stunts. Eric Louw has also critically reported on the ‘PR-isation of politics’, in which political debate is reduced to ‘sound bites’ and policy-making is managed by ‘spin doctors’. This concern was examined further by Ian Ward in his analysis of the ‘Australian PR state’, which drew on widely cited research by David Deacon and Peter Golding in the United States that first identified the rise of the ‘public relations state’ through government use of ‘media minders’, media units and public affairs staff. However, PR practitioners and scholars argue that PR, when conducted ethically, is an important and beneficial form of public communication in which organisations ranging from corporations to government agencies, NGOs (non-government organisations) and not-for-profit organisations such as charities keep the public informed, engage with citizens in dialogue, and build and maintain relationships.
According to theories and models of PR taught in university courses, public relations is a ‘two-way street’. First outlined by Princeton historian and adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Eric Goldman, in 1948, this concept is embodied in the ‘two-way symmetrical’ model of PR and excellence theory of public relations developed by Jim Grunig and his colleagues in the United States. This argues that PR includes representing the views of publics to management to orientate organisations to their environment, as well as representing organisations to their publics and seeking to orientate publics’ attitudes to the organisation. This process of co-orientation is best served through dialogue and building and maintaining relationships, which are central concepts of modern public relations, according to scholars.
The Public Relations Institute of Australia requires its 3000 plus members to comply with a PRIA Code of Ethics, and Australian PR consultancies registered through the PRIA have adopted a Registered Consultancy Code of Practice. Furthermore, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, which represents 80 PR practitioner bodies internationally, has adopted a Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations. These codes and protocols are only voluntary; moreover, many PR practitioners are not members of the PRIA. Critics remain sceptical about PR, pointing to concerns about ‘spin’, ethics, propaganda and power inequities.
Despite its use by a wide range of groups, including environmentalists, community and consumer groups, charities and NGOs, PR is most commonly used by the organisations and government agencies with the deepest pockets, and the dominant paradigm of PR practice is theorised as ‘strategic communication’ within strategic management theory, which critics say privileges organisational objectives and discourses. On the other hand, proponents say that public relations is part of free speech—and even necessary in pluralist democracies to ensure the representation of all views.
REFs: R. Crawford and J. Macnamara, ‘An Agent of Change: Public Relations in Early-20th Century Australia’, in B. St John et al. (eds), Pathways to Public Relations (2014); K. Demetrious, Speaking Up (2013);
J. Johnston and M. Sheehan (eds), Public Relations Theory and Practice (2014); J. Macnamara, Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques (2012).
JIM MACNAMARA and ROBERT CRAWFORD