The mystery of the words: Public Relations

I have spent two decades proudly touting titles that featured the words public relations. And while the field is more than a century old, these words remain a mystery to most. 

When I’m teaching in the college classroom, the textbook definition I share is “doing good and getting credit for it.” The Public Relations Society of America updated its definition recently to “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” 

Nowhere in those definitions do I see the words propaganda or lies. But the mystery and misconceptions march on …

PR needs more R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In one glaring instance, the title “public relations” has not gotten the respect it deserves for more than 100 years. In 1913 leaders of government agencies did something that still stands today: stripped their PR people of the using the words “public relations” in their titles and, in essence, practicing public relations.

Ah, and that is why government agencies use such titles for their communications professionals as “Public Information Officer,” “Press Secretary,” and “Public Affairs Director.”

It all began with the Gillett Amendment, which was part of the 1913 Appropriations Act for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amendment in the act stated, “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.”  

Government practices PR but disguises the name

While this provision doesn't prohibit the act of government public relations, it is often described as being a ban on government workers being employed in the practice of public relations. The initial goal of the gag law was to halt Congress from being persuaded by PR efforts and also so the President wouldn’t have too much persuasive power. While the government needs to inform its citizens the law prohibits the government to use taxpayer money to “persuade” the American public or to hire “publicity experts.” Thus the titles of never include the words “public relations.”

What? For real?

Public relations is clearly evident in campaigns, forums, debates, media interviews, and public communication. And the kicker: government is the largest single employer of public relations professionals, with an estimated 40,000 government communicators in the United States.