The History of Public Relations: Defining an Industry

What do public relations, marketing and advertising have to do with each other?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, who coined the term "Public relations", while in London in 1786. (Mather Brown, Google Cultural Institute)

Each industry engages the public but for different purposes. While some of the functions of each industry might overlap, the three industries work together to achieve a goal of making sales or persuading publics to believe in a particular platform.

However…. Public relations encompasses so much more. Setting aside the other two industries for a moment, let’s take a look at the myriad of meanings that have come to define public relations in the last two hundred years since the word was coined.

Thomas Jefferson initially coined the word “public relations” during his “Seventh Address to the Congress” in 1807. He used it to describe the American consciousness as a “state of thought.”

This era during the country’s inception, though, was marked by press agency, a time when information was disseminated for public consumptionPress agents simply informed the public of any news that was of import to the population at the time. While the purpose some of the time was to influence thought and action, for the most part, this did not involve organizations actively building long-term relationships with publics (populations).

Edward L. Bernays and his wife, Doris E. Fleischman, getting ready to onboard the SS Mauretania in 1923. (Iris Mostegel, History Today)

…But More than a hundred years would pass before Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, would actually define the industry. For Bernays, someone who had established his career working in the public information arena, the definition evolved from one-way relationships (press agency and public information) to one that actively engaged the public in two-way conversations.

Remember, unlike the previous century, advances in media during the 19th and 20th centuries made it possible for organizations to harness support in more ways than previously. Also, as the public became more media savvy, organizations could not just rely on one-way messages to inform the public of an event or campaign. They had to really work hard to garner the support they needed, especially after the 1930s.

…So, Bernays really understood the importance of public interest in a business campaign. After having worked on a number of campaigns, including the Lucky Strikes and Torches of Freedom campaigns and establishing beer as drink of moderation,

Bernays described public relations as:

  • Information disseminated to the public.
  • Persuasion directed to the public to modify attitudes and actions.
  • Efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with the public/s and that of the public/s with the institution.

Interestingly enough, this definition describes exactly what was going on during the birth of public relations.

Public relations as a science….

As media technology advanced, and society along with it, this definition evolved to reflect the evolution in thought that it was not only enough to integrate attitudes but also a concerted effort at building relationships needed to occur.

More importantly, organizations began, as early as the fifties, to actually research the populations with whom they would engage.

That was almost a century ago….what about public relations today?

By the early 1980s, the industry had at least a working definition and a course of action to follow in participating in “good” public relations. Then, the industry redefined itself again.

As defined by Grunig and Hunt….

One of the most cited definitions comes from Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt, who defined public relations as the management of communication between and organization and its publics.

Again, this definition placed emphasis on the relationships that developed as a result of industry practices dictating that open dialogue between organizations and their publics take place.


But the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in 1982, stated the purpose of public relations was to help organizations and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

In both cases, the function of public relations was its focus on maintaining good relationships.


Because the internet (more specifically social media and online advertising) has made connecting with people around the world effortless, public relations in its current incarnation focuses its efforts on multiple populations globally.

At the same time, modern media technology has created a situation where public relations professionals must compete for the attention of an easily distracted online public.

To really understand what it means to engage in public relations today, we really need to look at the types of tasks that are involved, tasks including:

  • Not only analysis of public opinion, but also getting the jump on public opinion in the effort of shaping attitudes.
  • Doing research on the populations being targeted and coming up with a plan of action to reach out to the community.
  • Counseling organizations on specific courses of action after providing results of research.
  • Planning and implementing campaigns that engage with populations.

Whether these tasks involve…

  • Speechwriting,
  • Writing press releases and other pitches,
  • Conducting market research,
  • Holding special events,
  • Networking and
  • Crisis public relations management

…among the plethora of duties a public relations professional might engage in today, the current definition of public relations aptly applies.

Today’s current definition, redefined by the same organization that did so more than thirty years ago, stipulates that public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

In deriving a definition for this industry, one cannot ignore the fact that these definitions evolve as times and attitudes change and the tools of technology make it easier to reach out to the public all in the pursuit of persuasion.

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