How to use the Public Relations department of an advertising agency

N.W Ayer & Son, Inc. claimed to be the first US advertising agency (having bought a firm established in 1841 by Volney Palmer). As a leader and innovator in advertising, it is not surprising that Glenn and Denny Griswold asked the firm’s vice president, Marvin Murphy, to author chapter VII in their 1948 US book, Your Public Relations (being serialised here with monthly posts – to read other chapters in our series of posts, use this link to the book’s contents list.).

All that remains today of N.W. Ayer are some classic slogans and its landmark art deco building in Philadelphia (now a luxury condominium The Ayer), after the firm’s remaining assets were  bought by the French advertising/PR firm, Publicis Group in 2002.

Given that Ayers employed Dorothy Dignam, reportedly as head of its public relations department since the 1930s (along with copywriter Frances Gerety who is immortalised for writing the signature line: A Diamond is Forever for client De Beers in 1947), it seems a shame one of these pioneering women wasn’t asked to write the chapter. However, Marvin Murphy had been vice president in charge of public relations since 1941, and the Griswolds claim he had established a pattern in organising the public relations consulting department that was widely copied by other advertising agencies.

How to use the Public Relations department of an advertising agency by Marvin Murphy, Vice President, N.W. Ayer & Son, Inc. (written in 1948)

The focus of this chapter is on choosing an advertising agency to provide public relations services, with Murphy noting that some offer “any phase of public relations“, others handle publicity or offer the services of one or two former newspapermen or newspaperwomen, some “look upon public relations or publicity as a minor but unavoidable service that can be handled by their account executives or their secretaries” and “a great many agencies, evidently feeling that public relations is something foreign to their own field of operations, advise their clients either to employ their own public relations personnel or to engage the services of outside public relations counsel“.

Claiming that the “activity of advertising agencies in the field of organized public relations is of comparatively recent origin“, Murphy sets out its history as dating to Ayer providing publicity for its clients before 1900, with a “one-man unit” established after World War I to prepare and distribute news and feature material to journalists, “without regard to any advertising the agency might have placed with their media“. With recognition that “publicity and advertising were not enough in themselves to establish the proper public concept of their clients“, advertising agencies “gradually extended their activities into the fields of employee relations, stockholder relations, and relations with other groups” developing “techniques for dealing with the problems they encountered” and eventually giving “public relations status to the services they already were providing” or creating public relations units. Indeed, Murphy asserts that “many advertising men were helping their clients to practice better public relations long before the term was ever heard of”, largely owing to a “counselling position with top managements of its client organizations“.

Murphy directs his chapter to “an advertiser interested in public relations“, stating “you should first examine and then define your basic needs“, and underlining that a “real public relations program” is one “in which publicity is only one of the tools to be used“. Presuming an existing relationship with an advertising agency from whom PR services would be obtained, he specifies six questions to be asked:

  1. Does the public relations operation have the sincere support of the agency management?
  2. Are its activities geared to those of the other departments of the agency and considered on a par in importance with them?
  3. Does it have access to and receive counsel from the top creative people in merchandising, copy, research, art, media and radio?
  4. Does the agency provide a real public relations service or does it engage only in publicity?
  5. Does the public relations personnel have sound professional experience?
  6. Is there enough personnel to take care of your needs?

Next, Murphy outlines steps “to prepare a plan based upon a study of the business and its existing public relations” that:

“should set forth clearly what the objectives of the public relations program are – what images are to be aroused and what attitudes are to be created in the public mind regarding the business, its services or its products. It should reveal any policies or practices that are barriers to the development of these images and attitudes and recommend their elimination or modification. It should outline the basic messages to be communicated, define the specific audiences to whom the messages are to be addressed, and plan the channels of communication.”

He states that the agency may find “sufficient reliable information is readily available” to inform the plan or the “agency can make its own studies” or conduct “outside opinion-surveys of the community, of employees, of stockholders, of the trade, of other segments of the public, or of cross-sections of the public at large“.
Further, Murphy argued:

Unless it treats public relations as an integral and important part of its business, the advertising agency is apt to approach the planning solely from the standpoint of advertising and merchandising and to omit or minimize other activities essential to a well-rounded public relations programme. But if it considers modern public relations techniques to be of fundamental importance, it will call upon its public relations department to participate in the planning. The plan then will not be confined to consideration of advertising, packaging, styling, pricing and the multitude of other sales factors. It will also deal with policy matters that have no direct bearing upon sales or advertising such as the relations that exist between the company and its employees, its stockholders, its communities, governmental bodies and other groups. It will recommend channels of communication other than advertising. Such a plan will coordinate the whole effort – the basic action and all the media of expression employed to interpret it. As a result every member of the band will be able to play the same tune.

Next, the chapter considers different forms of organisation between the agency and client listing four types:

  1. Agency works with the client’s director of public relations, giving him advice and counsel and providing the staff for production
  2. Agency coordinates its activities with those of a functioning public relations department in the client’s own organisation
  3. Agency handles the entire public relations program, sometimes putting its own man in the client’s organisation to act as the director of public relations either on the payroll of the agency or that of the client
  4. Agency supplies advice and counsel but undertakes no production except, sometimes, on specific projects.

The “active support and participation of the client’s top management” was emphasised as essential as “without it there can be no assurance that policies will be formulated in accordance with the prescribed public relations principles. The public relations activities will be sidetracked into answering fire alarms to put out blazes caused by ill-advised actions. Without top management support and participation it is difficult for the public relations thinking on policy matters to percolate down through the organisation. Without it neither the company’s own public relations director nor the advertising agency counsel can participate in that free exchange of views that is necessary if management’s thinking is to be understood clearly by those responsible for the execution of the program and if management is to receive the benefit of the outside viewpoint and the counsel’s interpretation of public opinion trends.”

Murphy goes on to outline two case examples before some detailed considerations of how the advertising agency’s PR department works, the importance of internal and external teamwork and the specialised skills required from both those within the public relations area and the broader advertising specialisms. He ends up with a short paragraph on fees and charges stating “there is no set standard for all agencies. Most of those that take their public relations services seriously charge a flat fee plus expenses. In agency public relations services, as in everything else, you usually get what you pay for“.

Note: Sadly the above image was the only one I could find of Marvin Murphy where he was on the far left of a group photograph.

Editor’s Note

Commenting on the chapter, Glenn & Denny Griswold claim that advertising agency men have “feared and suspected public relations” primarily because of its “more intimate contact with top management” and suspicions that the fees paid for PR “were somehow siphoned out of an advertising appropriation”. They assert that advertising has looked and learned from public relations thinking – and additionally recognised how public relations campaigns have “stimulated important advertising campaigns” to sellideas as intelligently and as effectively as they promoted the sale of goods and services”.

However, they criticise those advertising agencies who are “simply adding the words ‘public relations’ to their letterheads and nominating their publicity men and public relations experts“. In particular, they dismiss those who supply public relations services gratis to their advertising clients, citing an Advertising Age survey that revealed “49 percent of the advertising agencies still give free publicity service on advertised products. More important is the fact that 42 percent give free service to clients in the realm of public, community and supplier relations. As many as 13 percent give free advice on employee relations.” They contrast this with management policy where the survey showed “only 22 percent of national advertisers feel they’re entitled to free public relations services from their agencies.” Finally they caution against judging “the quality of an advertising agency’s public relations service by the excellence of its advertising programs.”


Yet another fascinating chapter – but this one reveals a few insights that we can apply today in respect of the reputation and relationship of public relations vis a vis advertising. The Griswolds’ comments are particularly illuminating as their suggestion of the tendency of advertising agencies to give away PR services – notably those that were little more than publicity – may have both enabled advertising to dominate as the lead function, and reduce PR to a lesser quality of operation.

This view contrasts with how insightful Marvin Murphy appears regarding the value of public relations that offers more than publicity services. I find his discussion of planning the most pertinent part of the chapter as I am not sure it could be bettered today in succinctly recommending the importance of being guided by research and setting objectives.

Of course, the debate continues today regarding specialist agencies (or consultancies) versus those that claim to be multi-service or indeed, integrated communications experts. Not only does this battle still involve PR vs advertising, but today the host of digital, online and social media opportunities that have fragmented operations further, along with businesses that offer a segmented or unified focus on different stakeholder groups.

One thing is certain, the more chapters we cover from this 1948 book, the more we can see what has been lost from PR thinking over the decades.

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