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Is public relations now too important to be left to public relations professionals?

In what more appropriate surroundings to start a speech by invoking the opening words of Charles Dickens' novel "A Tale of Two Cities."

To say "it was the best of times" for public relations is, from my perspective, hardly too much of an exaggeration - even after three years in which the largest public relations firms have had little or no organic growth and client budgets were, at best, static.

But it would be an oversight not to complete the Dickens observation that, in some respects, "it has been the worst of times" for public relations. But before telling you why I think as I do, I want you to know how I define the term "public relations." I consider this necessary because "public relations" nowadays has come to have many different meanings - even among those whose titles bear the descriptor "public relations" or some comparable iteration thereof.

The simplest definition of public relations I know came from my departed friend, Denny Griswold, a wonderful quirky lady, the founder and long-time publisher of Public Relations News. Her business cards bore the words, "Public relations is doing good and getting credit for it."

"Doing good and getting credit for it."

My definition is more detailed, but it parallels Denny's. Mine, more or less, tracks how Edward L. Bernays defined public relations in his 1923 landmark book "Crystallizing Public Opinion."

Public relations is that discipline that helps reconcile institutional or individual behavior in a manner that accords with the public interest and, when effectively communicated, creates opinions or attitudes that motivate target audiences to specific courses of action.

Note that there are two components that comprise public relations: one is behavior, the other is communications. Our job as public relations professionals is two-fold. It is to help our clients or employers fashion and implement policies and actions that accord with the public interest. And it is to use communications to leverage public opinion and attitudes to motivate target audiences to specific courses of action. We do that in one of three ways:
  • We can create opinion where none exists.
  • We can change opinion, no matter how strongly held.
  • We can reinforce a presently-held opinion.
But we should never forget that our communications tactics and messages must reflect a pattern of behavior consistent with the messages we deliver to our intended audiences. Enron and WorldCom are not in trouble because of faulty communications; the fact is, they behaved badly.

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Harold Burson
Institute for Public Relations Research and Education
One Whitehall Place
Westminster, London
October 20, 2004

Full Report (pdf)