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Defining Public Relations Through History and Growth

Updated on July 23, 2015

The video explains the vision and mission of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and its role as the world’s largest and foremost organization for pu

The definition of public relations has been debated for years. Talk about the definition that is widely accepted today and how practitioners arrived at that definition. Refer to the module resources, particularly the article explaining PRSA’s widely accepted definition. Compare this definition with your perception of the field. Public relations means different things to different people, and it is a confusing term, especially for those who are unfamiliar with its functions. Explain the ways in which the public often misunderstands the field. Examine the functions of public relations and analyze the ways in which these functions have changed since the advent of the profession.

Examine a period of public relations history and describe its influence on the field. Refer to chapter two in your textbook, which focuses on the history and growth of public relations—from the Sophists in Greece to the early American experience to modern-day leaders. Discuss Ivy Lee’s notable contributions to the field. Talk about influential individuals whom we credit for the growth of the profession.

The term public relations often means different things to different people based on their level of knowledge and experience with public relations. According to the Public Relations Society of America (n.d.) also known as the PRSA, the formal definition of public relations in 1982 was: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” This definition remained the formal definition until the PRSA’s public vote in 2012; the vote led to the definition being changed to: “public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (PRSA, n.d.). The PRSA (n.d.) chose this definition because it centers on the basic concepts of public relations as a communication process, it is simple and straightforward, and it emphasizes mutually beneficial relationships.

The definition of public relations was modernized in order to prevent misunderstandings in relation to the field of public relations. According to Fullerton McKinnon (2015) the public often believes public relations to be a synonym for lying, deceiving, spinning or propaganda generating. In fact a Gallup poll in 2011 was conducted to measure the most ethical professionals; the poll found that the public ranked public relations practitioners as one of the least ethical careers (Newton, 2011). Prior to taking this class I also would have ranked a public relations job low on an ethical scale: I perceived public relations professionals only as the people famous individuals hire to fix their mistakes. The public perception of the public relations industry has been influenced by the media that portrays public relations professionals in a negative light. The perception of public relations was different during ancient times where there were no televisions and social media to corrupt the public’s perception.

In ancient Iraq there were bulletins that gave farmers information about the newest techniques for harvesting, sowing, and irrigating their fields (Seitel, 2013, p.27). These ancient bulletins were a method of planned persuasion, an early form of public relations, designed to reach farmers in order to increase the amount of food Iraq had access to in order to feed the people better and improve Iraq’s wealth; a modern day form of this technique would be social networking (Seitel, 2013, p.27). In ancient Greece aspiring politicians would enlist sophists, people known for their reasoning skills, to fight verbally for them and to commend their virtues in the amphitheaters; the sophists were a less modern form of today’s lobbyists and public relations professionals (Seitel, 2013, p.27). In ancient Rome the romans would use public relations to rally the romans before an upcoming battle. Julius Caesar was a roman known for using his persuasive techniques to rally the public to support him using published works and staged events, much like public relations professionals do today (Seitel, 2013, p.27). Many of the techniques that modern day public relations professionals employ have stemmed from those used in ancient cultures from around the world.

Traces of the techniques employed by the sophists in ancient Greece and Julius Caesar in Rome could be observed in Ivy Lee’s handling of the fallout from the Ludlow massacre. Ivy Lee, was a former Wall Street reporter hired by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1914 to manage the fallout from the Ludlow massacre that was affecting Rockefeller’s business (Seitel, 2013, p.32). Lee’s advice to Rockefeller was to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find it out anyway and if the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what the people want” (Seitel, 2013, p.32). Lee helped Rockefeller to change his image starting with creating a joint labor–management board to mediate all workers’ grievances and ending with humanizing the Rockefellers to the public with small anecdotes of their daily lives (Seitel, 2013, p.32). While many herald Ivy Lee as the real father of public relations others remember him for his role as an advisor to a company later revealed to be an agent for Hitler’s policies (Seitel, 2013, p.33).

While Ivy Lee was known for being the father of public relations, Edward L. Bernays was the man who really opened public relations as a field to the public. Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and the author of Crystallizing Public Opinion (Seitel, 2013, p.34). Bernays began his career in public relation as a publicist in 1913 where he proved to be influential in the war bonds effort (Seitel, 2013, p.34). Bernays’s biggest contribution to the field of public relations was his teaching and recruiting; he taught the first ever public relations class in 1923 and later recruited the mother of public relations, his wife, Doris E. Fleischman. Fleischman was the first notable female consultant in the field of public relations; she was at one point the editor for the New York Tribune (Seitel, 2013, p.34). Together Bernays and Fleischman built “Edward L. Bernays, Counsel on Public Relations into a top agency” (Seitel, 2013, p.34). The success of Bernays and Fleischman’s counseling firm inspired other public relations firms to take root in America such as Hill & Knowlton, Carl Byoir & Associates, Newsom & Company, and Burson-Marsteller (Seitel, 2013, p.35). These firms eventually led to modern day public relations firms that range from national agencies to medium-sized regional firms and even to individually run operations; some firms specialize in specific areas while others handle general matters (Seitel, 2013, p.35).

Modern day public relations has been built on different techniques and ideas throughout history. These techniques have been learned and merged from many ancient cultures. Ancient Iraq’s bulletins led to modern day bulletin boards and social media advertising, ancient Greece’s sophists eventually led to lobbyists, and ancient Rome’s public rally’s gave way to modern day public relations events. Ivy Lee, Edward L. Bernays, and Doris E. Fleischman shaped public into a “strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (PRSA, n.d.).


Fullerton, J., & McKinnon, L. (2015). U.S. Public Relations Students’ Perceptions of PR: What College Students Think About PR Education and the PR Profession. Public Relations Journal, 9(2), 1-17. Retrieved July 17, 2015, from

Newton, F. (2011, August 29). Americans Rate Computer Industry Best, Federal Gov't Worst. Retrieved July 17, 2015, from

PRSA. (n.d.). What is Public Relations? Retrieved July 17, 2015, from

PRSA. (n.d.). PRSA's Old Definition of Public Relations. Retrieved July 17, 2015, from Definition

Seitel, F. (2013). The History and Growth of Public Relations. In The Practice of Public Relations (12th ed.). Harlow: Prentice Hall.


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