Public Relations

In this unit you will learn about the complex and changing world of mass media. We will cover the latest events and cutting-edge developments. At the same time, we will cover the critical, cultural, and historical framework you need to understand media while encouraging you to become a competent media critic. 

It is common to hear complaints about the mean-spirited partisanship that thrives in our politics and media.  A key reason for the partisanship nature in today's news media is economics. Today's media is fragmented, there are more media outlets like the Internet, social media, smartphones, etc. This means that media must target smaller groups with shared interests. Conservatives, liberals, sports fanatics history buffs, or shopaholics, media tries to find an audience and advertisers come with them. This is the economic incentive to keep the partisan divide. In the end, the role the news media play in presenting the world to us is enormously important.

Our job is to describe, analyze and interpret the stories that we hear, watch, and read daily to arrive at our own judgment.

Public Relations: A Brief History

Early U.S. Developments in Public Relations

Public relations, or PR, covers a wide array of practices, such as shaping the public image of a politician or celebrity, establishing or repairing communication between consumers and companies, and promoting government actions and agencies.  Broadly defined, public relations refers to the total communication strategy conducted by a person, government, or an organization attempting to reach out and persuade an audience to adopt a point of view. 

The social and cultural impact of public relations has been immense.  In its infancy, PR helped convince many American businesses of the value of nurturing the public, who became purchasers rather than producers of their own goods after the Industrial Revolution.  PR set the tone for corporate image-building that characterized the economic environment of the twentieth century and for the battles of organizations taking sides in today's environmental, energy, and labor issues where individuals and organizations, on the political "left" and "right," hire spin doctors to shape their media images.


The most notorious PR agent of the 1800's was P.T. Barnum, who used gross exaggeration, fraudulent stories, and staged events to secure newspaper coverage for his clients, his American Museum, and his circus, dubbed "The Greatest Show On Earth," a phrase that endured until modern times. Barnum understood that his audiences like to be tricked.  In newspapers and handbills, he later revealed the strategies behind his most elaborate hoaxes.

From 1883 to 1916, William Cody, who once killed buffalo for the railroads, promoted himself and his traveling show, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World." Cody's show re-created dramatic gun fights, the Civil War, and battles of the Old West.  The show employed sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Lakota medicine man, Sitting Bull, whose legends were partially shaped by Cody and his PR agents.  Buffalo Bill shaped many of the lasting myths about rugged American individualism and frontier expansion that were later adopted by books, radio, television, and Hollywood films about the American west. Along with P.T. Barnum, they were among the first to use publicity and use various media messages to spread information and elevate entertainment culture to an international level.

Activity 1: Video

Activity 1: Watch

There are many more prominent figures who revolutionized public relations, shaping messages, and changed history through marketing.  This video will show you some of those figures.

Public Relations and the Press

Tensions Between PR and the Press

In 1932, Stanley Walker, an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, identified public relations as "mass-mind molders, fronts, mouthpieces, chiselers, moochers, and special assistants to the president.  Walker added that PR firms and newspapers would always remain enemies, even if PR professionals adopted a code of ethics.  Walker's tone captures the spirit of one of the most mutually dependent, and antagonistic, relationships of all media.

Much of the antagonism directed at public relations is historical.  Journalists have long considered themselves as part of a public service and some regard PR as a pseudo-profession designed to distort facts that journalists have worked hard to gather.  However, times have changed.

Today many journalists and editors admit that more than half of their stories each day originate from PR firms. Public relations, by making reporters' jobs easier, has often enabled reporters to become lazy.  PR firms no supply what reporters used to gather for themselves.  

Instead of trying to get a scoop, many journalists have become content waiting for a PR handout or good tip before following up on a story.  Some members of the news media, who are grateful for work provided by PR firms, may be hesitant to criticize PR professionals or PR firms' clients.  

However, there are still journalists who are quick to criticize PR firms. The most prevalent criticism is regarding the fact that PR firms work to undo the truths that journalists bring to the public.  Modern public relations has redefined and complicated the notion of what "facts" are.  PR professionals demonstrate that facts can be spun in a variety of different ways.  

Journalists also object that PR professionals block access to key business leaders, political figures, and other newsworthy people.  PR agents insert themselves between the press and the newsworthy, disrupting the journalistic tradition where journalists would secure interviews with top business and government leaders.  Furthermore, journalists complain that PR agents manipulate journalism for the benefit of a select few, taking away the public service oaths of journalists.  

How PR Currently Deals With the Press

Activity 2: Watch

This video demonstrates how PR professionals currently deal with the press.  Watch and be prepared to discuss in class.

Formative Assessment

What did people like P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody contribute to the development of modern public relations in the 20th century?

Explain the antagonism between PR firms and journalists.

How did PR change traditional relationships between journalists and their sources?

What do you think of when you hear the term "public relations?"

What steps can reporters and editors take to monitor PR agents who manipulate news media?