Practicing
Public Relations

 
This article appeared on the home page of my PR Class website in April 2010 when I was teaching Introduction to Public Relations. It is now a separate page within my renamed website.

-- Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC     

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. So, some consistency is inevitable and will be found among most good textbooks in the field.

However, there are wide differences in how those facts are presented, interpretted, and emphasized because some authors describing the same situation may see it in very different lights. Such differences can be relatively minor and subtle or blatant and dramatic.

The result is that 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 future professional performance may suffer accordingly.

And, please don't think this phenomenon is limited to public relations. It's not. It may not be as prevelant in math and the hard sciences, but it is everywhere, to a greater or lesser degree, among the social and behavioral sciences and in the realms of the arts and humanities.

Fortunately, the more courses students take and the greater the number of different faculty members from whom they take them and the more avidly practitioners read new books coming out in the field, the better prepared they become. Over time, they will be exposed to multiple viewpoints and differing, possibly conflicting, interpretations of how to handle various situations. By remaining open-minded and receptive to these alternate viewpoints, they can broaden their perspectives and enhance their performance and professional credibility.

If you haven't yet had an opportunity to explore a variety of textbooks for yourself, you may find my observations about six of the most widely-used and well-established public relations texts currently used in U.S. colleges today a helpful starting point. I've indicated the latest edition I've reviewed -- In some instances, there may be newer editions that have come out since I wrote this. -- as well as the date of the first edition of each of these texts.

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. By the early 1990s, the text was bloated and unwieldy. Then, Glen Broom became a co-author and the 7th edition was drastically pared down and more tightly focused. As a result, recent editions have contained less detailed and narrower information than the earlier editions and less than some other texts. Nonetheless, 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 other books that tout their author's experience as a practitioner, this one doesn't snipe at academic analysis and theory. Instead, it shows how both theory and how-to-do-it techniques are important. It does, however, seem to overemphasize large public relations agencies and corporate public relations departments at the expense of small agencies, non-profit organizations, and government public information units.

Public Relations: A Values-Driven Approach (4th Edition)
by David Guth & Charles Marsh; Allyn & Bacon: Boston; 2008.
First edition: 2000.

This text 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. It, therefore, includes 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 is very effective in explaining basic concepts, encouraging critical thinking, and promoting ethical behavior. However, it's notably weaker than many other texts in describing how to perform such practical public relations tasks as writing news releases or 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 when the most-recent editions of Cutlip & Center were pared down to a more manageable size. Its scope is very thorough, and it is distinguished from many other American public relations texts by the amount of coverage it gives to 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 also quotes from a wide range of interesting sources but, ironically for an academic textbook, it often fails to provide complete bibliographic citations for these sources which can make it difficult to follow up and more fully research a topic.

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 happens to serve business goals once set it apart from its competitors. Instead of just being a manual for effective communication like some other PR texts, this is a business textbook that emphasizes strategic business thinking, integrated planning, and the need to set and achieve measureable goals. When it was first published, this was radical thinking for a public relations text. Now, however, it's more mainstream. So, even though this text continues to portray public relations as a management function with a holistic and integrative approach to building and maintaining relationships with constituents, it's not the standout it used to be. Other texts 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.

Among the introductory textbooks, this offers the best discussion of the evolution and historic development of public relations. It explains the emergence of the field in a context that combines social, political and economic history and provides a big picture that is neither vague and superficial nor oppressively detailed. It also identifies and highlights the roles of many more key figures in PR history than most other texts and puts them in context too, instead of just offering 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 instructors -- as well as the wisest practitioners -- will not limit themselves to just one of these texts; they'll read several to obtain the best and broadest perspective they can on their chosen field.

Click here for a related article highlighting "must-read" books for PR practitioners.

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