How to use Public Relations Counsel
John Wiley Hill, president of Hill & Knowlton, Inc. wrote chapter six in the 1948 US book, edited by Glenn and Denny Griswold, 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.
By 1948 Hill had over two decades’ experience in PR (following 18 years as a journalist and financial editor), which he entered as a consultant setting up a firm in Cleveland Ohio. In 1933, he brought on board Donald Knowlton (the PR director of a banking client that had closed in the Depression), and the next year opened an office in New York City. As Karen Miller Russell writes in the Encyclopedia of Public Relations, Hill & Knowlton became “the largest and most successful public relations firm in history” leading the industry in billings for about 30 years after World War II, and expanding into Europe in 1952 and then into other international markets. Hill remained active in public relations until shortly before his death in 1977.
How to use Public Relations counsel by John Wiley Hill, President, Hill & Knowlton, Inc. (written in 1948)
The profession of public relations counselling originally grew out of press-agentry – probably circus press-agentry, at that. And for a long while it grew slowly. Ivy Lee, whose latter career was built on his earlier work for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Rockefellers, is credited with the original formulation of principles that brought to him recognition – before his death in 1935 – as the first public ratlins counsellor of his day.
One of those principles is this: A large corporation nowadays needs far more than a profitable sales record for continuity of its prosperity. It must above all enjoy a climate of public opinion that is favorable to its operations. The big utilities felt fairly prosperous in the twenties; but that economic fact did not protect them from the anti-utilitary legislation of a Congress egged on by hostile voters.
Neither a prosperous earning record nor a dominant position in the market can raise a company above the need for friendly public attitudes. Indeed, the larger a corporation grows, the more exposed it may become to the dangers of possible public disapproval. The legislative history of recent years has helped to underline this fact.
Functions of Public Relations Counsel
Hill outlines the function of public relations counsel is to help “stimulate and maintain” public attitudes necessary for the continuing success of an enterprise calling it “creative work” which has grown enormously “in a period of world war and world revolution”. He notes:
But while the number of workers in the field of press-agentry and product promotion is now almost legion – for the opportune methods of publicity can be readily grasped – there are still relatively few specialists in the principles of corporate and industrial public relations.
The chapter focuses on “the work of the professional public relations firm” outlining three key advantages:
- Experience in many different fields – arguing that this, ensures “to the counsellor with adequate background and experience, no problem can be quite unique and precedented.”
- Independence of judgement
- A team of specialists – saying the “day of the public relations ‘genius’ who knows all the answers has passed” owing to the complexity of “the public relations problems of modern industry”.
Hill emphasises that this last point “does not in any sense mean the passing of the close and intimate personal relationship between counsel and client. It merely means that the client has a pool of specialized talent and experience on which to draw, in meeting special problems as they arise”. He argues the role of the PR counsel is “not to command, but to suggest”, stating:
Management could not delegate to him, or to anyone else – even if it wished – the responsibility for the company’s public relations. Public relations is so much a part of policy that to delegate its conduct would be to abrogate management itself.
The chapter continues by outlining “hardly a move can be made by a modern corporation without involving some public reaction”, with Hill stating that “even though basic policy decisions are clearly management’s prerogative, wise management weighs every possible public retains when each decision is made.” He then develops how the public relations counsel brings an “independent and objective viewpoint” to be “of vital use to corporation officers”, arguing against regarding PR “as only a kind of product promotion” or as a “device for making a ‘good story’ out of whatever may transpire”:
Stories woven of tinsel soon tarnish. Those that are whitewash leave telltale streaks after rain.
Hill says: “It is the first business of the public relations counsel to help management achieve public relations policy decisions that are sound and in the public interest” contrasting PR with legal counsel which is guided by a legal code “which reflects the long-crystallized sentiments of society”, as the PR counsel is “especially concerned with the public moods and sentiments as a current development, long before they are codified or crystallized. This is one reason his knowledge is not to be found accumulated in abstract texts. Whereas a lawyer focuses on the certainties of yesterday as a guide to today, the wise public relations counsellor is guided by judgments regarding the probabilities of tomorrow.”
Must Combine Many Skills
His lore is even more scientific than that of the lawyer. It stems from sciences as various as psychology, sociology, economics, biology; from arts as different as writing and the handling of men. It is merely unmodified, as it perhaps must be, by its nature. As yet it is not adequately taught. There are a few college ‘public relations courses’ of some academic merit, but there is no generally accepted procedure through which a young man may acquire adequate training in both the theory and practice of public relations as a career.
No profession today calls for more basic understanding of the complex laws that lie behind the workings of our economy, the development of public opinion, the shifts in political trends, the changing attitudes that work to revolutionize the meaning and status of institutions in our society. Public relations problems are interwoven with all the complex and difficult problems of our times.
The counselling organisation which can bring such knowledge into the councils of corporate affairs has guidance exceedingly valuable to offer, even through it may lack the formal status of some of the older sciences.
After this knowledge is used in weighing poicy, by deciding the ultimate effect of any given decision on a company’s relations with any of its many publics, the next job is that of giving the policy intimate meaning to all concerned.
Here is where the public relations counsel employs advertising and publicity, among his other tools. Many of the same tools are also used by advertising men, sales-promotion men, and press agents, for purposes of product sales and promotion. It is his goal which defines the public relations counsellor, and not his instruments.
Hill’s chapter moves onto classify public relations clients in the industrial field as “the industry association and the individual corporation” saying that for the former, counselling firms may “actually provide the public relations operating personnel” or supplement internal PR departments. He argues the first step when working with an industry association is to undertake a public opinion survey the results of which, along with “an analysis of the industry’s problems and objectives” inform the “recommendations for a program”. He discusses how most industry associations of the time had “advisory committees made up of public relations officers of various companies from within the industry” which work with outside counsel to formulate programs for approval of the board of directors. The activities of most associations is argued to be both “the urgent need for greater public enlightenment regarding industry” and addressing the “social problems” of the specific industry. He shares an example of the aircraft industry which had been neglected after the first World War and post-World War II needed government procurement for its survival, yet faced “public indifference” combined with “a public clamour for government economies”, and so risked being seen as “a self-serving war-monger”. Hence a “long-range program was developed to tell the public and the Congress just how history is repeating itself in the threatened postwar collapse of the aircraft manufacturing industry”.
Four key planning steps are recommended:
- An outline of the client’s problems, appraised as to relative importance both immediate and long term
- A phrasing of the objectives of the programme to be proposed
- A summary of media, tools or projects embraced in the plan, together with the timing of their use
- The assignment of responsibility for execution of the plan
The handling of legislative problems is given particular attention with Hill observing:
The term ‘public relations counsel’ probably comes in for more abuse in Washington than anywhere else. Every twopenny lobbyist and pressure-group artist clocks his activities in the cocktail lounges of the town under the label of ‘public relations counsel’.
Hill argues the “bona fide public relations counsel” does not rely on “the fashion of the gentry” and an “extravagant entertainment expense account” or written “bombardment of the Congress” as “his procedure is confined to the marshalling and presentation of facts”. He argued “No one can get the facts together so well as industry itself and in this job experienced public relations counsel can give expert guidance.”
Attention then shifts to representing a corporation which considers a “different kind of approach and different procedures” as it requires focus on the specific “policies, labor relations, community relations” and so on affecting the individual concern. Community relations is noted as of “rapidly growing interest” in the field of PR, and needs to work “hand in hand” with employee relations and communications.
For years the simple act of man-to-man talking with employees has been almost a lost art.
Industry’s own ineptitude and the rise of great labor unions have combined to create a yawning gulf between management and men. The boss has abandoned his place as the natural leader of his employees. In most cases he actually has forgotten how to talk with them. Somehow management must learn how to find its tongue.
These activities of employee communications and community relations are of vital importance to every corporate, and to the whole system of free enterprise as well. If the industry’s own workers and their neighbors in the community do not understand the meaning of industry, and are not ready to defend it, the outlook for ultimate survival of free enterprise in America is bleak indeed. Here is an important and fruitful field for effective communication with employees under the guidance of independent public relations counsel of broad experience.
Of course, if a corporation needs promotion and publicity for its products, and lacks an adequate department to handle the work, the public relations counsellor makes certain that the gap is filled. He is naturally concerned with making sure that any inadequacy in the corporations’s operations is overcome.
If the creative work required for product promotion is extensive, he may recommend that a publicity department be set up under a qualified director as a new department of the business – under any name that is preferred. Sometimes it is frankly called a publicity department. Sometimes it is called a news bureau, as at the Ford Motor Company. We know the growing tendency to call it a public relations department. The name does not matter much, if the function is correctly performed.
In some cases, the counselling firm is itself asked to assume full responsibility for staffing the internal department and directing its operations.
Both ways of handling the operation are within the scope of the public relations counsel whose clients are numerous enough to have various requirements.
Hill begins his conclusion by emphasising that “from the very beginning, the client must properly take his public relations counsel completely into his confidence. The more counsel knows about his client’s business, the more effectively will he be able to function. Management should hold back nothing, should give counsel ready access to any desired records and data, should instruct all of its associates to render every possible assistance as counsel requires. Only in such mutual confidence between client and counsel can a true public relations program be developed and advanced.” The need for the client to “be ready to act on advice” and realise “better ways to construct adequate two-way channels of information” are said to be necessary for “an effective public relations program”. Unlike legal counsel, Hill argues the PR counsel “seldom appears in the limelight” and “responsible company officials should be willing to meet personally with press representatives, public officials, or others whenever his public relations counsel believes the situation warrants, taking advantage of all the aid offered by counsel in handling what may be a difficult assignment.”
Public Relations Earns its Way
Surprisingly enough, the fees public relations counsel are accustomed to set for their services are often relatively small. Few indeed are the corporations which spend on their over-all public relations work, even in these times, ten percent of the sums they devote to product advertising and other various forms of sales promotion.
This may partly be explained by the fact that many a corporation still tends to regard expenditures for sales promotion as an investment, while regarding those for public relations as an operating expense. But this view is already in process of change, under the impact of current history.
Seven suggestions are presented as a summary of the chapter:
- Select the right counselling firm on the basis of: Broad industry public relations experience, a record of solid achievement, and ability to provide a pool of specialists for a variety of problems
- Counsel is entitled to the complete confidence of the client in all matters pertaining to public relations
- Counsel should learn the important policy decisions at first hand, through his presence at policy-forming meetings
- The power of final decision reposes in management. However, in all matters touching upon public relations, counsel’s views and recommendations should be requested and given full consideration
- Public relations is a responsibility of management. It cannot be avoided not delegated. Counsel’s function is to provide management with independent expert guidance and help
- Public relations is an over-all function. It is not to be confused with publicity in the narrow sense. Competent public relations counsel is skilled in all of the arts of communications, including publicity and advertising. He is experienced in the use of all channels of communications, including the press, radio and the public forum.
- Good public relations have their roots in policies and acts that square with the public interest. Outside counsel cannot make black appear white, and honest ones won’t try.
Glenn and Denny Griswold provided an editors’ note on the chapter to provide their own views on the topic. This starts by recommending that in hiring a professional public relations counsel, the client should be “as willing to accept his advice as that of your physician”, and:
Don’t try any smart opportunism. Don’t try to get a lot of free advice during tour initial negotiations. Competent public relations counsel refuse to submit horseback guess as to a program on a competitive basis. The good counsel must spend weeks and usually months learning your organization and your policies and studying your problems before he has any program suggestions on which he has any program suggestions on which he is willing to stake his reputation.
Such relationships should always be based on a clear and concise written agreement as to mutual responsibilities. Few public relations programs show tangible results within six months. The logical arrangement is for the counsel to be given a year in which to study a situation, devise a program and get it working to the extent that its effectiveness begins to be provable and obvious. All of this of course relates to the planning and execution of a long-term program. For the spot job, you will employ a counsel who has demonstrated results in similar situations and who can work much faster by concentrating on a single problem.
You are asking a competent profressional to give a substantial part of his time and thought to your problems and you are paying him well for it. But he can’t earn his fee unless you give a substantial portion of your time to constructive consultation with him. He will need equal cooperation from minor executives and even from supervisors. It’s your job to see that your whole organization cooperates in that spirit.
The Griswolds outline two ways of operation among “good consulting organizations”:
- Restricting the number of accounts so the head of the business can personally supervise these
- Employing account executives as able as the head of the firm who are left to manage policy matters
They identify four basic philosophies in the client-consultant relationship:
- Agency is purely a consultant and takes “little or no part in the execution of programs
- The consultant performs all the above plus guides the establishment of a PR department if it doesn’t exist and sits in at department level on all operational planing (i.e. is a consultant to the department as well as to management).
- The consultant operates as the PR department of the business
- The consultant handles spot jobs – frequently as specialists in “such areas as labor relations, communication relations, company publications, etc”.
Finally they discuss the cost of public relations consultant services, noting “the most common practice is to charge an agreed monthly fee which includes only the advice of the principals of the agency and the agency’s administrative costs. The note that production costs are frequently “charged with an override averaging about 15 per cent” and not this model had been extended to general charging stating “the exact time of everyone in the consultant’s office devoted to a client’s program is charged at cost plus an agreed percentage which ranges from 15 percent to 50 percent”. They state that “well-established consultants with any substantial reputation seldom accept less than a minimum fee of $1,000 a month” “and some charge a minimum fee of $5,000 per month”.
There are no bargains in the employment of public relations counsel. Those that are employed for less than they seem to be worth were not worth what you thought in the first place. The best way to evaluate what you can afford to pay a good public relations counsel is to calculate what is might cost you in the long run if you failed to employ one and ran into some of the crippling experiences that you remember have been the lot of some of your competitors and neighbors. But what you think you can afford to pay has a direct relationship to the importance which you as a management executive attach to the public relations function itself. As recognition of the management importance of this function spreads, appropriations increase and the expenditure is justified by the experience.
Their concluding remarks concern:
The dangers of one area of fallacious thinking in public relations management. This is that friendships and public understanding rest largely on lavish entertainment, expensive gifts and personal favors. Editors and the managers of media are no hungrier or thirstier than other individuals, but most of them are far more resentful than the average of any assumption that their medium is for sale or that their personal appetites are a way to editorial favor. Dinners, luncheons, cocktail parties and entertainment occasionally are appropriate and productive but poor taste and bad judgement in the staging of them can be harmful and sometimes dangerous. Competent public relations counsel will know where to draw the line.
Finally, they end by sharing four sources of information where public reactions counsel can be found:
- Experience of other executives who have employed counsel in similar situations
- National public relations associations
- The counsel of one of your competitors (on the basis that they “seldom accept competitive accounts” and “will give you informed and objective advice”)
- Guidance from a business editor
I have reproduced much of this chapter in full – along with insight from the book’s editors – as it seems to cover many areas which have been discussed in recent Public Relations posts. As such, it underlines how perspectives of public relations were far more considered and strategic some 65 years ago than many who lack any historical knowledge tend to assert. Clearly arguments that PR reflects a progressive history with contemporary practice viewed as superior to the past is not true on the basis of this 1948 work. It should be noted that the activities of Hill & Knowlton both during Hill’s tenure and subsequently have been criticised (see Corporate Watch). Today H+K Strategies is part of WPP and says it offers “wisdom on a global scale” building on John Hill’s legacies.
Image via: IU School of Journalism