The final season of Mad Men advances the advertising and PR industries into the 70s along with fictional agency Sterling Cooper & Partners. The period is considered by many the decade of the “great shift.” America inches away from the public-spirited universalism of the 60s that birthed the Civil Rights movement toward the free-market economy that changed the face of business forever.
Don and company would have likely had financial clients like the nascent KKR or Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, or even some tech startups like IBM or Atari. The 70s also ushered in Richard Nixon and Watergate, which spawned an expansive, eager generation of young new journalists, and forever changed the way we “shorthand” any scandal.
And, in 1976, public relations pioneer Rex Harlow sought to define the field, using a grant to investigate 472 definitions of PR and breaking them into concepts. After analyzing his research, he came up with this comprehensive definition:
“Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsible to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.”
From our vantage point in 2015, we offer evidence that the definition still holds today.
“Establish and maintain mutual lines of communication … between an organization and its publics.” With the advent of content development, self publishing, and open conversations via social media, this couldn’t be more true. The Public Relations Society of America, after an extensive process seeking to update its definition of public relations, came up with something very similar.
An outgrowth of the 24/7 news cycle is the ability to keep management on top of or even ahead of news. PR pros can act swiftly and responsibly to help clients become part of a story (as Crenshaw recently managed with client Retale and the Apple watch launch), or offer helpful opinion and commentary to further a position.
“Define and emphasize the responsibility of management to serve the public interest.” “No longer a nice-to-do, corporate social responsibility is now a reputational imperative…” according to an annual survey, and no company can afford to ignore a cause that has meaning to its constituency. For example, much of our work for a leading mattress company focused on providing new beds for returning veterans and disaster survivors.
“Help management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends.” Competition for media coverage has never been as fierce, so the savvy newsmakers are on trend or better yet, ahead of the trends. Crenshaw is helping Five Elements Robotics tell its story of creating Budgee, a personal robot for our aging population. Part of a burgeoning niche category, Budgee is now gaining traction in key senior assistance and retail development trades.
“Use research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.” Research has always been the backbone of successful PR campaigns, and methods have only improved through the years. We would bring Harlow up to date here, adding research analytics tools to determine how PR campaigns impact a company’s bottom line. As for “ethical communications techniques?” There are innumerable instances of “bad behavior” in PR, resulting in public shamings our PR forebearers could have never imagined. Here’s hoping major lessons have been learned there.