Why does public relations have such bad public relations? Perhaps became the definition that springs to mind varies widely. Those in the profession picture hard-working people of integrity devoted to making their workplaces and their communities a better place to live. Outsiders envision someone who more resembles Chris Farley when he did his oily Innovative Speaker shtick.
This study looks at the way "public relations" is used in the popular press. It involves the analysis of 100 articles that appeared from 1995 to 1996. It asks these questions:
What is the connotative meaning of the term "public relations" as it appears in these articles?
Is the meaning accurate?
Who is using (and misusing) the term?
By 1995, Rex Harlow, a public relations educator, had compiled more than 500 definitions of public relations.(1) As the Public Relations Society of America's Special Committee on Terminology wrote in its 1987 report "The babel of terms applied to what is generally referred to as 'public relations' is a threat to "the advancement of the field and to the stature of the people in it - whatever title they may use...the diversity of rifles and terminology splinters the image of the field...Practitioners in this field are looked upon as masters in the effective use of language. As a minimum, they should be able to use the terms in their own profession accurately".(2) Given the confusion within the practice, it is understandable how those viewing it from the outside may misuse the term "public relations." However, this confusion is especially problematic when it applies to journalists. Noting that "the public relations discipline is repetitively trashed in the mass media," Brody added, "mass media representatives' perceptions of our discipline have been distorted over time by a parade of hacks, flacks, and assorted charlatans who have adopted 'public relations' as a prestigious synonym for press agentry or publicity. Only rarely are reporters, editors and program directors aware of the breadth and depth of the services rendered under the public relations label."(3)
The basis for the current research was to address this problem by systematically examining the use of the term "public relations" as it occurs in the popular press. The goal was to develop a taxonomy of the connotative meaning of the term. Knowing how the term is misused is a first step towards promoting its correct use, such as via education of journalists, editors, and columnists.
REVIEW OF EARLIER STUDIES
Three previous studies were found that addressed the general subject of this project, that is, the use of the term "public relations" in the mass media.
In a study of all the June 1987 issues of three newspapers, Bishop found only three references to "PR" in the more than 16,000 stories that he screened. He found no mention of public relations, press relations, public information, government information, or press officer. He did find 121 references to "publicity", and concluded "As far as this sample goes, public relations is equated solely with publicity...the lack of recognition for other areas of expertise may account for the distorted view which many have of the field."(4)
Spicer(5) developed seven categories or themes for the use of "PR" or "public relations" when he analyzed 84 articles …