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

The explanatory phase of public relations emphasized getting information from the organization to its publics so these publics would understand, sympathize with, and patronize the organization. Getting the message out was no longer enough; receivers now had to understand and accept the point of view of the sending organization.

Practitioners in the explanatory phase see public relations as:

Practitioners learned public attention didn't ensure public acceptance.

Although it seems patently obvious now, this simple realization helped move public relations from its publicity phase to its explanatory phase, the second step in its development as a profession. In this stage, reasons, motivations, and explanations took precedence over mere awareness. The specific content and tone of the media coverage, whether it was favorable to the organization or critical of it, and the audience's reaction to the coverage became more important than the sheer volume of coverage.

Public relations remained primarily a one-way process. Its emphasis was still on information and messages that flowed outward from organizations to their publics, but the organizations and their public relations practitioners alike realized that simply getting their messages out didn't guarantee a favorable reaction from the public. Simply being well-known wasn't enough. They had to be well-known for the right reasons and, if they somehow became involved in unpopular or inappropriate activities, they had to quickly explain to their publics in reasonable and acceptable ways how and why it had happened.

The explanatory phase began shortly after the turn of the century.

Although they may have thought about explanatory approaches to public relations, very few practitioners adopted them until after World War I. One of the few exceptions was Ivy Lee, a former newspaper reporter who became one of the defining figures of the fledgling profession of public relations by advising John D. Rockefeller, the American Red Cross, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and dozens of other major clients.

Ivy Lee believed in open communication. He fully answered questions that were put to him and tried to provide clear, complete explanations, especially when dealing with the news media and other publics on behalf of his clients. He did this because he saw it as the right thing to do and also because he believed it was the best way to get the public to understand and therefore accept his clients.

One of the best examples of Lee's commitment to open communication and of how effective it could be occurred in 1906 when, within a matter of weeks, there were major accidents on the Pennsylvania Railroad and on the New York Central Railroad. As was the standard and long-standing practice with all American railroads, the New York Central tried to cover up all evidence of what had happened, kept reporters off railroad property, and refused to make any comment about its accident. Executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who had recently hired Ivy Lee, started to follow suit regarding their accident, but Lee convinced them to try things his way.

Instead of stonewalling them, Lee invited the reporters and photographers to the scene of the accident and provided a special train to get them there. He held on-site briefings for reporters, distributed fact sheets, and made railroad experts and executives available for interviews. In the weeks that followed, newspapers and elected officials effusively praised the Pennsylvania Railroad for its openness and apparent concern for the safety of its passengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad received what some historians said was the first positive media coverage any railroad had received in decades, and the New York Central was repeatedly criticized for its arrogant indifference. Within a few years, every major railroad in the United States had adopted a policy of cooperating with the news media and responding to reporters' questions.

Unfortunately, neither all railroads nor all public relations people were as skilled as Ivy Lee or as committed to his high-minded principles. Instead of providing clear and complete explanations, some practitioners who claimed they were offering explanations, resorted to justifications, rationales, and convoluted logic. They also allowed emotional appeals to creep into press releases and public statements, sometimes displacing facts. And, instead of explaining their organization's actions, they sometimes tried to explain them away.

Other practitioners resorted to organizational sleight of hand -- announcing promotions, releasing sales figures, unveiling new products, or hosting open houses -- to refocus public attention away from a problem they didn't want to, or couldn't, tackle head-on.

After World War I, explanatory public relations boomed.

Conditions were ripe for rapid business and social expansion in the years after the war. In both the United States and Europe countless people who had learned the most modern and most effective propaganda techniques while working for their governments during the war began applying these techniques to business when they returned to civilian life. The initial reaction was positive. These new public relations practitioners were using the newest and most scientific techniques of communication and persuasion, and everyone expected them to be as successful in building relationships for profit-motivated businesses as they had been in boosting national morale and community spirits during the war.

Regrettably, the post-war business and social environment were marked by more turmoil and diversity than had been expected. Strategies that had helped fuel patriotic fervor didn't necessarily have the same effect on a company's employees or its customers, and other strategies which had been deemed appropriate for use on enemy nationals were considered offensive when used against business competitors.

And, in the United States although not in Europe, there was a fairly strong and widespread backlash against "propaganda." Although it had been considered an appropriate war-time tactic to use against an enemy, it was essentially regarded as an unethical form of intellectual manipulation and an intentional distortion of truth. Thus, insofar as public relations was linked to propaganda, it too was seen as tainted. What one person saw as a logical explanation was seen by others as manipulation. And, one person's truth might be seen by another as a distortion.

In their enthusiasm for using their new techniques, public relations practitioners sometimes inadvertently added to the noise and confusion of the marketplace instead of enhancing effective communication. As one business writer described the situation:

The woods were full of professional propagandists -- press agents, publicity men, and public relations counselors -- anxious to persuade the public to their clients' point of view by airing certain facts. Factoids might be a better word, for these paid advocates dealt only in usable truths.

Persuasion for ulterior motives rather than disinterested enlightenment was the goal.

They believed in giving the consumer, the voter, or whomever the truth, but the seller's truth, so to speak, rather than the buyer's.

Richard S. Tedlow
Keeping the Corporate Image: Public Relations and Business

Explanation leaves lots of room for interpretation.

Consider the divergent views listed below. Each purports to capture the essence of public relations, and each, in its own way, reflects the notion that public relations' primary purpose is to inform and explain a person or an organization to its key publics.

Public relations is the gentle art of letting the other fellow have your way.
William Nielander & Raymond Miller
Public Relations (1951)
Public relations is skilled communication of ideas to various publics with the object of producing desired results.
Gene Harlan & Alan Scott
Contemporary Public Relations (1955)
Public relations is planned, persuasive communications designed to influence significant publics.
John Marston
The Nature of Public Relations (1963)
Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by the sturdy blooms.
Alan Harrington
Forbes (Aug. 1992)
PR is gift-wrapping. Whether delivered in fancy or plain paper, ... the trick is packaging the truth on your own terms.
Michael Levine
Guerrilla P.R. (1993)

While these clearly divergent views take very different approaches in dealing with facts, truth, interpretation, and explanation, they all reflect the same explanatory notions of public relations. They assume public relations people should always present their organizations in ways that enhance the organization's image and hide its warts. Their implicit assumptions are:

"Spin" epitomizes explanatory public relations today.

In previous decades, there were times when an irate editor or a business competitor who objected to the way a public relations practitioner tried to shine the most favorable light on a situation would accuse him or her of spinning the story or, more negatively, of twisting the truth. But, it wasn't until Ronald Reagan's presidency that the term "spin" gained widespread popularity.

During the Reagan years "spin" was the term applied to the actions of the President's staff and other political commentators who appeared immediately after a Presidential speech or press conference to explain "what the President meant" by what he had just said. Their goal was to insure that subsequent news coverage of the President's statement had the right spin and, very often, the media actually gave more news coverage to the spin than to the President's actual words. Not surprisingly, the people who did this spinning for the President were soon being referred to by media pundits as spinmeisters.

What was surprising is that this initially negative label soon turned into a badge of honor. White House staff members, including many non-public relations people, grew eager to be recognized as spinmeisters, and as they became increasingly recognized as the ultimate insiders, some of them also became more open about what they did and took public delight in appearing on television talk shows and pointing out how effectively they could spin stories. Amazingly, instead of censuring them for twisting the truth, even their political opposition, albeit sometimes with tongue in cheek, praised them for their creativity and admired the effectiveness of their spinning.

By the time George Bush became President, spin was an accepted part of political life and the terminology was soon being applied to other areas of public relations as well. More and more public relations professionals began boasting about their abilities to spin.

For the better part of the last decade, spin has been in. Only in the last couple of years have thoughtful professionals such as Robert Dilenschneider begun writing articles and speaking out at conventions warning public relations practitioners about the potential harm that continuing to accept and promote spin may do to the profession's image, reputation, and credibility.

The bottom line is: the explanatory phase is not always positive.

An explanatory approach to public relations which tries to reason with people and explain things instead of just shouting and performing publicity stunts to attract their attention is definitely a step in the right direction, but explanations aren't always enlightening. The personality, morality, and ethics of the practitioners becomes far more important than the abstract definition or description of public relations. After all, an explanation can obfuscate as well as clarify, and public relations isn't always used by good people to achieve positive ends. It can just as easily be used by sleazy, contemptible people to manipulate publics for nefarious purposes.

Regrettably, too many public relations practitioners resort to such tactics. In May 2000, PR Week reported the findings of an ethics survey of public relations professionals that began, "One out of four pros admits lying on the job." Another 39 percent admitted they had, at times, "exaggerated the truth." In all, 64 percent of the respondents were willing to admit that they had lied or exaggerated while doing their job. Then, in response to other questions, 44 percent of the respondents said there had been times when they "felt uncertain about the ethics of tasks they had been asked to perform."

Table of contents Return to
Three phases of public relations
Further reading on
Publicity phase of public relations
Further reading on
Mutual satisfaction phase
Practicing Public Relations
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