One of the notable developments of scholarship in public relations in recent years has been an increased focus on its role in society. A socio-cultural turn was noted by Lee Edwards and Carrie Hodges in their 2011 book: Public Relations, Society & Culture, which presented PR as a “cultural intermediary occupation…central to economic and cultural life due to the power and influence it commands”.
In noting how the lifestyles of those involved in such occupations often blur work and personal lives, an argument is made to consider the social and cultural histories of different groups within PR and the legacy these leave.
James W Irwin, author of the next chapter being serialised from the 1948 book, Your Public Relations, was a member of one such group, The Wise Men, an invitation-only network of PR counsellors informally founded in 1938 in the New York apartment of John W Hill, another of the book’s authors. Other Wise Men and chapter authors were Pendleton Dudley and Dr Claude E Robinson.
Julie Henderson discusses this elite dining club in her chapter: Come Together in Robert Heath’s 2010 Handbook of Public Relations, citing Hill from 1946: “it could be said that the Group contains the cream of the crop in public brains in this country” noting how it had expanded from 15 to 30 men, with newcomers being recommended, “selected very carefully” and approved by the whole group over the years.
Whilst noting the monthly meetings were “purely social”, Hill observes close friendships between the group and stimulating discussions “usually within the realm of public relations and public affairs”. Irwin is quoted as saying in 1952: “We are a most remarkable group… Great minds contributing in a major degree to human progress”.
At the time of joining in December 1938, Irwin was working for Monsanto Chemical Company in St. Louis. His career also involved posts as former assistant to the president and public relations member of the Policy Committee at Ford Motor Company, and he was one of the creators and first director of The Dayton Plan of community and employee relations originated in the Dayton Divisions of General Motors Corporation. By the time he wrote the chapter: Winning better relations with the community, a decade later, Irwin was a counselor servicing a number of leading corporations and industry groups.
It is relevant to mention The Wise Men and the connections between those writing in Your Public Relations as both can be considered in relation to the occupation, and its influence on society, at least from a US perspective, in the 20th century.
In the case of Irwin’s chapter, his observation that “Fortunately for American industry as a whole, a few pioneering companies penetrated the field of good community relations”, is presented in contrast to the “curse” of paternalism on the one hand, and a deliberate “lack of interest in employee and in community welfare” on the other.
The companies who are lauded for developing a “modern concept” of acting “in the community interest” and ensuring such initiatives are communicated, albeit “quietly; even subtly”, are recognisable predominantly as those employing The Wise Men.
As such, this may indicate how this networking group was at the vanguard of developing innovative public relations practices, and in turn, influencing the adoption of community relations in the wider society. Or we can read Irwin’s praise as reflecting his position, and commitment, to championing his fellow Wise Men – i.e. self-interestedly looking after those in this old boys’ club.
Perhaps what is more surprising is how the concept of community relations – or social responsibility as it is commonly termed today – is often considered to have arisen from the mid-1960s’ consumer movement, 1970s’ environmental movement and responsiveness to stakeholder pressures in the 1980s. That is, our modern view is that external pressures have only influenced organisations to address societal concerns in recent decades.
At the time the Dayton Plan was originated [1930s], certain political and labor leaders were engaged in an all-out campaign to discredit business in the eyes of the public.
Such criticism was seen as “misinformation” and “imported rumors and false statements arising from the ulterior motives of the declared enemies of big business”. Not surprisingly, the management scholar Peter Drucker questioned whether the reality of the “two-way street” philosophy promoted in the Dayton Plan was realised in practice.
In the book chapter, Irwin outlines the importance of conducting polls to “determine exactly what the employees and the local community thought and felt about the company” as the first step in the Dayton Plan process. Step 2 is to “remove the causes of dissension” through “adequate information” (media relations, employee publications, letters, open house visits and company executive talks). Winning support is presented as foremost in the plan, with Irwin arguing :
Glowing accounts of company accomplishments in paid advertisements cannot offset the negative effects created by disgruntled employees, angry dealers and resentful community groups. The company policy must first be examined and corrected wherever necessary to avoid conflict with public interest. All factors causing antagonism must be removed, and the company management must be committed sincerely to a program of responsible action and interest in community welfare. The personal behaviour of company officials and the physical appearance of the buildings are important.
He contends, the public and employee relations technician “wisely maintains anonymity at all times in a community program” offering guidance to management which must be the public face to avoid impression of any “inability or insincerity of intention”.
This can be read as presenting a role of public relations practitioners as invisible persuaders (echoing the elitism of The Wise Men private meetings), playing a puppet-master role in organisations and the wider society.
Alternatively, one can take Irwin’s advice at face value as his recommendations for engaging with local communities such as making “every citizen-contact constructive”, “train every executive to participate” and “capitalise on genuine interest in the community’s welfare” arguably remain valid today.
Similarly the “tools of community relations” are largely unchanged: media relations, advertising, employee publications, displays and events, participation in local activities and cooperation with schools. Irwin also provides a detailed “check sheet for rating your community relations program” including:
- company policy
- publicity and advertising
- requests for speakers
- open house and tours
- contributions to local charities
In their contribution to the chapter, Glenn & Denny Griswold, seem to echo Irwin’s beliefs that the aim of a community relations programme is to change the attitudes of those who are not supportive of the organisation. They advocate a focus on influencers: “opinion leaders in the community” (government, education and religion) as well as “opinion making groups” (such as women’s clubs, labor unions, social groups), not just providing information to employees and stockholders. The importance of humanising and personalising any programme is emphasised, with a focus on reaching the families of employees, in the home. They go further in explaining how working with community groups can be beneficial to increasing sales and building prestige. All of this, it is noted, also provides “for good news copy”.
In applying a socio-cultural lens to Irwin’s chapter, and his membership of The Wise Men, to seek to understand the power and influence of public relations, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions.
We can adopt a cynical perspective of a group of elite, secret operators who prefer anonymity for their work on behalf of powerful businesses and industries, thereby privileging their personal and organisational interests over those of employees, local communities and wider society.
Or we can see this as a group that met regularly to improve the standards of their work by sharing best practice ideas, and seeking to introduce new concepts that aimed to offer improvements for employees, local communities and wider society.
As so often in looking at chapters from this book, I am dismayed that its legacy of considered, reasonable thought seems to have been lost in the focus on tactical outputs (media relations, content generation, etc) that have come to dominate modern public relations. I also warn against ongoing claims that public relations is becoming a strategic management function operating in the public interest. This seems to be a cyclical narrative that reveals much about the self-identity of professional bodies and practitioners as wanting to be viewed as a force for good in society and an occupation moving away from more questionable historic practices.
I’m not saying that PR is a nefarious practice, but perhaps it would be better to recognise an ongoing role that is “central to economic and cultural life due to the power and influence it commands” on behalf of organisations and other paymasters. That strikes me as both more honest, and able to support engagement in community relations from a justifiable position that is neither paternalistic nor exploitative.