PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Publicity phase of public relations
© 1998 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

The publicity phase of public relations aimed at creating awareness and building recognition for the individual or organization engaging in public relations. Getting messages out to the widest possible audiences was paramount. It was/is closely tied to advertising and promotion.

Practitioners in the publicity phase see public relations as:

Maximizing awareness was the first goal of public relations.

In the late 19th century attempts to generate publicity became more and more common as publicity's effectiveness became increasingly apparent. While it seems blatantly obvious to us now from our 21st century perspective, it took a while for promoters who organized concerts and theatrical performances to realize that audiences for entertainers whose names were widely recognized were almost always larger and therefore more profitable than audiences for lesser-known artists. They came to realize that it often didn't -- and still doesn't -- matter whether those well-known entertainers were known for the quality of their performances or simply because of newspaper stories about their personal lives. The sometimes depressing truth is that fame and notoriety are often much more effective in attracting audiences than artistic quality.

In a similar way, manufacturers and store owners saw the sales of common, household products with well-known brand names surge past identical but unlabeled products and also surpass sales of other products with brands which were less heavily promoted and whose names were less familiar to consumers. Brand names started to become important to consumers, and the fundamentals of what's now called "brand management" began developing in large company board rooms.

And, some politicians found that they could get elected on name recognition alone. Voters sometimes vote for the most familiar names on the ballot and show little or no regard for the stance the candidates took, or didn't take, on issues.

Organizations and individuals alike began believing that becoming a household name was the key to success. And, the emerging field of public relations defined its role as getting those names into as many households in as many ways and with as much frequency as it possibly could.

"Making the news" became critical.

Edward Bernays who many regard as "the father of modern public relations" described the actions of early practitioners as follows:

Most of them saw their work only in terms of obtaining favorable mention in the press for their employers.

Edward L. Bernays, Introduction to
The Public Relations Idea Book (1953)

"To know us is to love us." could be considered the rallying cry of the practitioners and clients who believed in this approach to public relations. Their implicit assumption was/is that if they could generate enough publicity and get enough media coverage everything would be fine.

Public relations practitioners focused their efforts on "making the news" or "getting ink", and they measured their success in terms of how many newspaper and magazine column-inches were devoted to the organizations they represented. Other common measures of success became press release placement rates, the percentage of their news releases that were "picked up" and run as news by the media, and the number of media who used each release. The more media who ran the stories and the longer these stories were, the more successful the public relations effort was believed to have been. When the broadcast media became popular, getting and tracking broadcast air time became at least as important as getting and counting column-inches in newspapers and magazines print media, and the basic measure of success remained: "How much coverage did we get?"

The only problem publicity-seeking practitioners usually had with press coverage was not getting enough of it. The following statement, often attributed to P.T. Barnum, epitomizes the view of those who felt publicity and news coverage didn't have to be favorable as long as they were frequent.

I don't care what the newspapers say about me
as long as they spell my name right.

Even when press coverage of their clients was negative and reported bad news or embarrassing revelations, many practitioners were unfazed. While some would respond by trying to create an even bigger wave of positive publicity to over-shadow the bad, others would simply revel in the negative attention.

In some instances, theatrical producers and entertainers sought negative publicity as a way of generating public interest and larger audiences. For many, being able to claim they had been "banned in Boston" almost assured a sell-out audience in other cities. While nowhere near as conservative as Cincinnati, Boston had a long-established reputation as a prim and proper place. It also had a Watch and Ward Society which screened all entertainment presented in the city and tried to shut down any that didn't meet its standards of acceptability. Coincidentally, Boston was also the city most frequently used by major theatrical producers to try out new shows before they opened on Broadway in New York. As pr reporter (2/26/01) said, some producers and playwrights eventually came up with the idea of intentionally including "a slightly sexy scene or a bit of strong language so they could advertise the show as banned in Boston. Never failed to pack `em in."

Even today there's evidence that negative publicity is sometimes beneficial. "When it comes to books and works of art," said pr reporter (6/30/01), "negative publicity can be positively priceless." It then cited the following examples to support its claim:

Obviously, publicity phase thinking hasn't disappeared.

Although most textbooks proclaim that public relations has grown up and changed dramatically since P.T. Barnum's days, there are still many public relations practitioners -- especially those who deem themselves press agents or publicity experts -- who see their primary role as coming up with interesting and exciting stories to pique the interest of reporters and editors. Some, but certainly not all, of these practitioners will do whatever it takes to generate publicity and get their stories into the media including:

Make no mistake, publicity and media coverage are important aspects of public relations no matter what stage of development it's in. Practitioners in all phases of public relations have to be concerned about the media coverage their clients get. But, those operating in the second or third phase of public relations don't use media coverage measured in column-inches or seconds of air time as their primary measure of success.

Table of contents Return to
Three phases of public relations
Further reading on
Explanatory phase of public relations
Further reading on
Mutual satisfaction phase
Practicing Public Relations
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30 Nov 2010