Intro PR textbooks reflect very different perspectives.
Obviously, there are a lot of similarities among introductory public relations texts. There have to be. The basic facts of how and when the field developed, who the notable practitioners were, and classic examples of good and bad public relations practices are constants. Such consistency is inevitable and is found among good textbooks in any discipline.
But, there are wide differences in how those facts are presented, interpretted, and emphasized because different authors describing the same situation see it in very different lights. Sometimes those differences are relatively minor and subtle, and sometimes they're blatant and dramatic.
Regrettably, students -- or practitioners -- who read only a single textbook don't get a full picture of their field. They labor under the handicap of an incomplete or narrow or distorted perspective of their chosen discipline, and their performance suffers accordingly.
Fortunately, students who complete a major in public relations and practitioners who are avid readers and keep up with new books in their field will, over time, be exposed to multiple viewpoints and differing interpretations. By remaining open-minded and receptive to alternate viewpoints, they can easily broaden their perspective.
If you haven't yet had the time or opportunity to explore a variety of textbooks, you may find my take on six of the most widely-used and well-established public relations texts used in U.S. colleges today a helpful starting point.
Cutlip and Center's Effective Public Relations (10th edition)
by Glen Broom; Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ; 2008.
First edition: Effective Public Relations by Scott Cutlip and Allen Center; 1952.
For six decades this book has shaped American public relations. It was the de facto textbook of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) for several decades and a key influence on PRSA accreditation. Initially it was encyclopedic and tried to include all aspects of public relations. As a result, each of its first six editions grew bigger than the previous one until, by the early 1990s, it was bloated and unwieldy. Then, Glen Broom became the third co-author and the 7th edition was drastically pared down and more tightly focused. While subsequent editions have contained less detailed and narrower information than the first ones, -- and less than some other texts -- this book remains the standard to which all other PR texts are compared.
The Practice of Public Relations (11th edition)
by Fraser P. Seitel; Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ; 2010.
First edition: 1978.
For many years, this was my favorite text for teaching the intro to public relations course. It was the most readable and dynamic of the public relations texts that were on the market at that time, and it's still written with the conciseness and impact of ad copy and liberally interspersed with mini-interviews, book reviews, case studies, and illustrations. It's heavily practitioner-oriented and really tries to "tell it like it is." But, unlike some books that tout their author's experience as a practitioner, this one doesn't snipe at academic analysis and theory but shows how both theory and how-to-do-it techniques are important. It does, however, seem to overemphasize large agencies and corporate public relations at the expense of small agency, non-profit, and governmental aspects of the industry.
Public Relations: A Values-Driven Approach (4th Edition)
by David Guth & Charles Marsh; Allyn & Bacon: Boston; 2008.
First edition: 2000.
This text which contends that the values, beliefs, and mores of public relations practitioners and the organizations for whom they work are the driving force of public relations incorporates values and ethics in every topic and emphasizes the need for high standards of personal and professional conduct. Its stated goal is to "teach students how to build ethical, productive relationships with strategic constituencies." Over all, it's very effective in explaining basic concepts, encouraging critical thinking, and promoting ethical behavior, but it's a little weaker than some other texts in describing how to perform practical public relations tasks such as writing news releases and planning special events.
Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics (9th edition)
by Dennis L. Wilcox & Glen T. Cameron; Allyn and Bacon: Boston; 2008.
First edition: by Dennis Wilcox, Phillip Ault & Warren Agee; 1986.
With over 700 pages, this book became the heavy-weight champion of public relations texts after the recent editions of Cutlip & Center were pared down to a more manageable size. Its scope is very thorough and is distinguished from many other popular American public relations texts by presenting more coverage of public relations developments outside the United States. It also offers more extensive treatment of women's contributions to public relations than most of its competitors. It quotes from lots of interesting sources but, ironically for an academic textbook, it often fails to provide complete bibliographic citations for these sources, and that makes it difficult to follow up.
Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice (5th edition)
by Dan Lattimore, Otis Baskin, Suzette Heiman & Elizabeth Toth; McGraw-Hill: New York; 2008.
First edition: by Otis Baskin and Craig E. Aronoff; 1983.
This book's view that public relations should be seen as a management function -- rather than a communication function that serves business ends -- once set it apart from its competitors. Unlike PR texts that come across solely as manuals for effective communication, this is a business book that emphasizes strategic thinking and integrated planning to achieve measureable goals. Now, even though it continues to emphasize this approach and portrays public relations as a management function with a holistic and integrative approach to building and maintaining relationships with constituents, other textbooks have also adopted this view and have taken away some of its unique edge.
This Is PR: The Realities of Public Relations (10th edition)
by Doug Newsom, Judy Turk & Dean Kruckeberg; Cenage/Wadsworth: Belmont, Cal.; 2009
First edition by Alan Scott & Doug Newsom; 1976.
Of all the introductory textbooks this one seems to offer the best discussion of the evolution and historic development of public relations. It explains the emergence of the field of public relations in a context that combines social, political and economic history in a way that provides a big picture that is neither vague and superficial nor oppressively detailed. It also identifies and highlights the roles of more key figures in PR history than many of the other texts and puts them in context too, instead of just creating a timeline of "great men." Its treatment of current practices and basic public relations tools and techniques is also appropriate and comparable to what the other books offer.
Any of these can serve as a fine textbook for an introductory undergraduate course in public relations. Each, in its own way, is a good starting point for understanding public relations. However, the smartest students -- and wisest practitioners -- will not limit themselves to one; they'll read several to obtain the best and broadest perspective they can on their chosen field.