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3.1 The Historical Development of Modern Public Relations

Modern public relations in the United States can also be traced back to less illustrious beginnings than the creation of a new democratic republic.Cutlip (1995). P. T. Barnum, of circus fame, made his mark by originating and employing many publicity or press agentry tactics to generate attention for his shows and attractions. Barnum was famous for coining the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”Grunig and Hunt (1984), p. 28. He was even known to pen letters to the editor under an assumed name outing some of his attractions as hoaxes just to generate publicity and keep a story alive. Unfortunately, Barnum’s ethics left much to be desired.

One-Way Communication Models: Publicity and Dissemination of Information

Barnum thought that honesty was not the domain of a press agent, and infamously stated, “The public be fooled.”Grunig and Hunt (1984), p. 29. Droves of press agents followed in Barnum’s tracks, in efforts to get free space in the news for their clients, ranging from Hollywood figures to private interests, such as railroads, and also politicians. This approach to public relations was termed press agentryA type of public relations in which press agents attempt to generate publicity for their clients with little regard to the truth; it is based on a simple one-way dissemination of information. Historically, it is the first type of public relations. Contrast with public information. by Grunig and Hunt because of its reliance on generating publicity with little regard for truth. For modern-day examples, we have to look only to the entertainment publicity surrounding a new film release, or the product publicity around a new energy drink or a new technological gadget. Publicity and press agentry are synonymous terms meaning simply to generate attention through the use of media.

The next historical phase resulted in a new model of public relations that Grunig and Hunt termed public informationAn approach to public relations in which public relations specialists use objective and factual information to educate the public about their clients. It is used especially in government reporting, quarterly earnings statements, and reports. Based on a one-way dissemination of information, it is simply intended to inform. Contrast with press agentry.. In this approach to public relations, a former journalist works as a writer representing clients, issuing news releases to media outlets in the same style as journalistic writing. The idea of the public relations specialist acting as a counselor to management, as opposed to a simple practitioner of press agentry tactics, was born. The pioneering public information counselor was a man named Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who revolutionized public relations practice at the time with the idea of telling the truth. Lee studied at Harvard Law School, but went on to find a job as a journalist. After working as a successful journalist for a number of years, Ivy Lee realized that he had a real ability for explaining complicated topics to people, and had the idea of being a new kind of press agent. Rather than tricking the public, Lee saw his role as one of educating the public about truthful facts and supplying all possible information to the media. Ivy Lee opened the third public relations agency in the United States in 1904, representing clients such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Rockefeller family, and the Anthracite Coal Roads and Mine Company.Grunig and Hunt (1984), p. 32. Lee became the first public relations practitioner to issue a code of ethics in 1906, based on his declaration that “the public be informed”—to replace railroad tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s infamous statement, “The public be damned.”Hiebert (1966), p. 54. Ivy Lee ushered in a more respectable form of public relations that is objective and factual. His public information approach is still in use today, especially in government reporting, quarterly earnings statements, and similar reports intended simply to inform.

Both the press agentry and public information models of public relations are based on writing and technical skill with images, words, Web sites, and media relations. These concepts are based on a one-way dissemination of information. They are not management-based models because strategic management is based on research. Research is what makes management a strategic pursuit based on knowledge and data that comprise two-way communication, as opposed to a simple one-way dissemination of information based on assumptions.

Two-Way Communication Models: Strategic Management of Public Relations

The next two models of public relations are based on research. Using research to gather public opinion data led scholars to label these models two-way rather than one-way because they more resemble a conversation than a simple dissemination of information. Grunig and Hunt termed the two management models asymmetrical and symmetrical.

The asymmetrical modelA research-based, two-way model of communication in which the imbalance of information favors the communicator. The public's beliefs about an organization or issue of importance is incorporated into the public relations messages distributed by the organization. The information presented seeks to persuade the public to adopt the attitudes and beliefs that are favorable to the organization. was pioneered between 1920 and 1950 by Edward Bernays, nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and is based on the principles of behavioral psychology. Public relations research seeks to determine what publics know and understand or believe about the client organization, issues of importance, and so on. Then, in the asymmetrical model, once these beliefs are learned through polling and other means, they are incorporated into the public relations messages distributed by the organization. It is called asymmetrical because it is imbalanced in favor of the communicator; the communicator undergoes no real change, but simply uses the ideas she knows will resonate in communicating with publics with the purpose of persuading them on some issue or topic. For example, if I am a politician running for reelection and my research identifies tax cuts as an important topic with publics, then I include the importance of tax cuts in my next campaign speech. Research is a key component of this model, as it seeks to persuade publics to adopt the attitudes and beliefs that are favorable to the organization based on the collection of data about their existent beliefs.

The symmetrical modelA research-based, two-way model of public relations in which research is used not with the intent to persuade but to build mutual understanding between publics and organizations. It is a collaborative approach to building understanding in which organizations are open to changing internal policy based on what they learn from the public. was also pioneered by Edward Bernays and several prominent public relations practitioners and educators between about 1960 to 1980. It seeks also to use research on public opinion just as the asymmetrical model does. However, it does not use research with the intent to persuade, but to build mutual understanding between both publics and organizations. Organizations are open to changing their internal policies and practices in this model based on what they learn from their publics. It is a collaborative approach to building understanding, and, although not perfectly balanced, it is a moving equilibrium in which both sides in the communication process have an opportunity to have input and change an issue. To revise this example, after research identifying tax cuts as an issue, a symmetrical politician would actually incorporate tax cuts into her belief system and offer ideas supporting those beliefs on the campaign trail.

In modern public relations, we often see a mixing of the public relations models among multiple tactics or communication tools within one public relations campaign. It is best to think of the models as theoretical constructs that, in implementation, become combined through the mixed motives of public relations. In most cases, public relations professionals not only want to aid their employer or client but also to assist the publics outside the organization to access and understand the inner workings of the firm. This mixed-motive approachAn approach to public relations that facilitates communication on both sides of an issue, both for organizations and for publics. In this approach, public relations professionals not only want to aid their employer or client, but also to assist the publics outside the organization to access and understand the inner workings of the firm. is based on the real-world contingencies that impact public relations decisions, and the desire to facilitate communication on both sides of an issue, both for organizations and for publics.

Summary of the Models of Public Relations

In summary, the historical development of the field showed four distinct models of public relations, as identified by Grunig and Hunt. With this brief background in the history of public relations, you likely know enough about the models now to begin employing each in your public relations management. All are still in use in public relations practice today, and these terms are used in the academic literature and in public relations management. The one-way models are not based on social scientific research but on a simple dissemination of information. The two-way models are based on research, which is what makes them the two-way management model. In order of their development, the models are as follows:

  • Press agentry. One-way (information) dissemination focusing on publicity for persuasion/attention.
  • Public information. One-way (information) dissemination providing information.
  • Two-way asymmetrical. Two-way (research), which is imbalanced in favor of persuading publics to support the organizations’ interests.
  • Two-way symmetrical. Two-way (research), which is more balanced in terms of creating mutual understanding; moving equilibrium.

Due to the mixed-motives inherent in the public relations process, public relations professionals will most likely use a combination of these models in public relations management. These models suggest an overall philosophy of public relations, while situations require different approaches. Therefore, it is also useful to have public relations strategies that reflect a contingency of varying approaches, as discussed later in this volume.