How to organise and operate a public relations department

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This topic remains as relevant today as when the following insight into the public relations department of 1948 was written by Conger Reynolds, public relations director at the Standard Oil Company (Indiana), in the book, Your Public Relations. This is chapter five – to read other chapters in our series of posts, use this link to the book’s contents list.

In 1948, according to the University of Iowa, Conger Reynolds received the Award of the National Association of Public Relations Counsel. His biography indicates he worked as a political reporter after graduation from UI, before returning there in 1915 as publicity director and to teach journalism as assistant professor of English. He enlisted in World War I, working in military intelligence in France and then in the press section. After a period as managing editor of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, Reynolds became a vice-consul first in Halifax, Nova Scotia and then in Stuttgart Germany. He took up the appointment as PR director at Standard Oil (Indiana)* in 1922 and was one of the founders of the PRSA. After retirement in 1955, he served in the US Information Agency until 1961 as director of the Office of Private Cooperation promoting international understanding.


How to organize and operate a public relations department by Conger Reynolds, Public Relations Director, Standard Oil Company (Indiana) – written in 1948

The chapter begins by arguing a useful starting point is to assume an organisation is establishing a new PR department and needs to…

Define Its Place in Management

Reynolds states that the public relations department must be: close to the source of policy and decision. As will be brought out presently, public relations work is little more than press-agentry if it is confined to publicizing the institution without attempting to create within the institution itself a better understanding of public attitudes or without attempting to inspire policies and practices that will correspond to the public’s conception of good social behavior.

The ideal place for the department is usually under the immediate direction of the chief executive. Inevitably he is the principal decision-maker and the principal spokesman for the whole organization. Whether he has a public relations department at his elbow or not, he himself will do many things that will be essentially public relations activities. What the public relations department does must at all times be carefully coordinated with the administrative or management position and with intentions known and understood in their entirety by the chief executive and his board of directors.

Noting that many departments do not find themselves in this position, Reynolds states this is: usually because they have developed through enlargement of simple promotional publicity activities or have been born as an aid to some executive with the breath of public indignation hot upon his neck.

A study reported by the Association of National Advertisers showed many combinations of advertising and public relations work. In some instances advertising was under the director of public relations. In still more instances, public relation or something which went under that name was under the advertising manager.

Reynolds reported eight variations of the placement of PR within General Motors, and argued where organisations are “dependent on public favor to a high degree” the senior PR person is more likely to be on the board and “often a vice president”. He noted research that showed a minority of organisations met these criteria, however, Joseph L. Egan of Western Union, was a public relations specialist who had become the company’s chief executive, with other examples of the chief executive who could be viewed as a specialist in public relations.

Choosing the Right Director

To head the public relations department, a special type of individual must be sought. The ideal man is a rather rare kind of introvert who can, despite his natural tendency to withdraw within himself, yet be an extrovert when occasion requires. He must be an introvert first of all because he must be a thinker, a cool analyzer, and preferably a highly capable writer, and if he can express himself skilfully through the spoken work, that will be an added qualification.

Reynolds discussed how an emphasis on writing had led to many public relations men entering PR from the newspaper office, whilst also noting that in larger organisations the head of public relations may not have such skills but employ writers.

The public relations man must be warm in his human sympathies, or he will not competently judge and interpret public opinion and reaction, will not know how to approach his publics tactfully. Obviously he must be well educated – either have a good college education or be capably self-taught.

Reynolds felt experience in a public relations or publicity role was preferable before heading a department saying: It takes a newspaperman or educator or anyone of other experience several months to a year or two to adjust himself to responsibility in public relations work.

He also thought it desirable to be knowledgeable in: business management and accounting, law and the course, the inside of politics, governmental functioning generally, the way associations work, and of course the arts, radio, printing and publishing.

Such a man is not hired for peanuts. As of the time this is written an organization should expect to pay $7,500 to $10,000 a year for a man of barely sufficient attainments… and $15,000 to $25,000 for a superior type. The brilliant stars will cost more.

Functions of the Department

The chapter continues with discussion of various functions, although he emphasised two key aspects:

  1. The department should convey and interpret information about public attitudes and reactions to members of the organization it serves.
  2. It should convey information and impressions about the organization to the public or to individual “publics”.

He also argued the need to “work through others” particularly within the organization where various functions contribute towards “better relations for the institution”. Reynolds also presented public relations as helping the organization to “play the part of a good citizen in working for the benefit of society as a whole”.

Involvement in policy-making and building close relationships with other departments was discussed. Reynolds noted “the relationship between advertising and the public relations function is not always seen alike by specialists of the two fields” but common agreement could be found that advertising to create understanding of the organization rather than to sell products is a public relations activity. In other words, “public relations men regard advertising as one of the tools they should use”.

But Reynolds argued where public relations activity was part of the advertising program it was “questionable” and the two functions should be separated. He also discussed the importance of working closely with the industrial relations or personnel department, the company secretary, the law department and public officials.

Outside services were also recommended to be employed from advertising agencies and public relations counseling firms. The latter were recommended to provide independent input and expertise as well as views that may not be shared by management, where the advertising agency was seen as more tactical being useful to provide technical support for public relations programs.

Reynolds next considered how the PR function should be sub-divided as it expanded considering where it had direct or shared responsibility, the latter involving relations that were not directly involved in interpreting the organization to the public and vice versa. Other models were presented based on operations at General Motors (where a public relations planning committee coordinated activities) and Standard Oil. His own approach in building the public relations function had been to divide duties according to the “groups to be reached and in accordance with the special skills required”, with other tasks being shared among the staff.

The chapter concludes with a detailed checklist as a summary of the advice Reynolds provided – which can be downloaded as a pdf here.


Editors’ Note

Glenn and Denny Griswold provided an editors’ note on the chapter considering budgeting, where they argued:

There is not now and may never be any acceptable formula as to how much money should be spent on public relations work and how many people in an organization should be engaged in it. These totals are best arrived at through discovery of what are the public relations problems and what causes them and then prodding sufficient funds and personnel to solve those problems.

The other main point they make concerns naming the function:

Some shy away from the term “public relations” and put it under such labels as department of information, education and training, et cetera. But if we accept the seeming inevitability that public relations is a major function of management, it would seem better that a common label be accepted and that all cooperate towards giving public relations dignity and acceptance instead of worrying about an earlier tendency to confuse it with press-agency.


Addendum

Yet again this chapter provides advice and insight that seems highly relevant sixty years after it was published. Although today it seems surprising that given his international experience, Conger Reynolds did not present any consideration to working within different cultures. More surprising, or perhaps I should say, disappointingly, few of the considerations raised in the chapter have been resolved in the intervening period. This perhaps suggests that the public relations function remains ill-defined and practitioners have not been successful in learning from the past or finding solutions to the problems the occupation has faced. Without speculating on the reason for such amnesia, there remains much to be gained from the counsel provided by Conger Reynolds in this chapter.

* Standard Oil (Indiana) was founded as a subsidiary of Standard Oil Trust (the industrial empire of John D. Rockefeller) in 1889.

It subsequently became Amoco (American Oil Company) in following a merger with the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, and grew into the largest natural gas producer in North America before merging with BP in 1998.

1 COMMENT

  1. I like that you mentioned positioning it right in management and also having the right director. It really matters for the PR dept to know what their roles are. Although, as time has gone on, PR depts have been forced to realize what their new roles are.

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