Management's Stake in Public Relations

Harry A. Bullis, chairman of the board of General Mills Inc, was a champion of “the importance of public relations as a basic policy-making function’ according to Glenn and Denny Griswold, editors of the 1948 US book, Your Public Relations, which I’m reproducing as a series of monthly blog posts.

Bullis is stated as believing “public relations is good business and that it deserves a position in management thinking alongside production, distribution and finance.”

The significance of management support is evidenced by Bullis’ chapter immediately following the Griswolds’ introductory one.

Management’s Stake in Public Relations by Harry A. Bullis, Chairman of the Board General Mills. Inc (written in 1948).

During the early years of this century, expansion and production, almost exclusively, occupied the country’s best business brains.

The years between the two world wars were characterised by tremendous emphasis on selling and merchandising.

I firmly believe and hope that the second half of our century will be marked by inspiring progress in the field of human relations. Unless men set their minds to achieve this progress, unless the many intricate group relationships of our modern world can be harmonised – with forbearance and understanding – we can expect no perpetuation of our American experiment in freedom, no peace, nor opportunity.

Benefits of Sound Public Relations

The newly-emerging function of public relations is being called upon to play an important role in the development of human relations in the 20th century. A sound policy and program of public relations should be part of the day-to-day operating philosophy of every modern company. Here are just a few of the things a systematic practice of public relations can do for management:

  1. Increase company good-will, by developing public understanding and appreciation of services rendered.
  2. Build wider customer acceptance of products.
  3. Make easier the introduction of new products.
  4. Help promote good labor relations; reduce employee turnover; and make easier the securing of high-caliber personnel.
  5. Create broader understanding of, and sympathy with, the problems management faces.
  6. Facilitate new-financing plans and the attraction of new-venture capital.
  7. Build public confidence in the American system of free competitive enterprise as the most desirable economic climate.

What is Public Relations?

Public relations, in essence, is our “dealings with people.” As part of the broad science of human relations, it is as old as humankind – as ancient as the continuous struggle for men’s minds. When Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony in regal splendor on the banks of the Nile, she was practicing public relations. When General Electric announced price cuts on their appliances, they were using public relations. When Sears Roebuck achieved outstanding success with its profit-sharing plan for employees, that, too, was public relations.

Every company, regardless of size, each day has thousands of “dealings with people”, that is, relations with the public. For example, whenever your salesman makes a dealer or wholesaler happy, that’s public relations. When the receptionist or telephone operator in your office is pleasant and helpful, that’s public relations. When a consumer gets real satisfaction from using your products, that’s public relations. When thousands of people read in their newspapers that you are building a new plant and creating new jobs in their community, that’s public relations. When you gladly loan your two best trucks to the Red Cross in an emergency, that’s public relations. When you make it possible for employees to take part in worthwhile civic projects and encourage them to do so, that’s public relations. When one of your people is made an officer of his union, or an executive is elected president of your trade association, that’s public relations.

The chapter discusses the concept of being a “good business citizen” throughout an organisation but emphasises that “You must also do a systematic job of telling the public about it.” Bullis highlights two basic principles of public relations:

(1) Do good; and (2) tell other people about it.

The next piece of advice that Harry Bullis provides is that “Everyone on Payroll Is in Public Relations, recounting how he sent a message to each of the 12,000 General Mills employees, to highlight how their enthusiasm and support boosts the company, and a “gloomy or negative approach” will “drain away valuable company good-will”:

Our goals should be to make all these human relationships so good that they will contribute to a broader understanding and appreciation of our company and of the services it renders… We, personally, represent the company to the public. We are its good-will ambassadors.

The function of public relations is not limited to a small staff of experts, or to any one executive. It is an operating philosophy that must permeate the entire organisation, from the chairman of the board, the president, and all other major executives down to the sweeper in the mill.

All employees should share in the job of getting the essential facts about the company across to the public; the services it renders, the profit it makes, and the place it occupies in the community.

Next, the chapter considers arguments made by “the Rip Van Winkle type of business executive” who dismisses PR, saying “In slothful thinking of this kind, real danger lies.”

What these head-in-sand managements do not realise is that public relations is something you’ve got whether you want it or not, and whether you consciously do anything about it or not.

Bullis shares examples to illustrate his points and demonstrate how “Public Relations paid dividends” before sharing some steps to building good public relations:

  • Put your house in order. Sound business ethics, high standards of operation, and a sincere desire to serve the public – these are the first requisites of good public relations.
  • Analyze how you stand currently with your various “publics,” and set about formulating a program for improvement… To have all of the “publics” with which you come in contact, directly or indirectly, know you readily, and think well of you– that should be the goal of your program.

Building such productive relationships involves telling your company’s story, simply and truthfully, through all available channels. It is a continuous job of keeping the public informed of what your organisation is doing, with emphasis on the services it renders to the public.

Bullis argues in favour of prioritising “those groups that have a close natural interest in your enterprise: employees, stockholders, customers, suppliers, and members of the plant community” before turning “your attention to the press and general public”, calling this the “Supreme Court of Public Opinion”.

Give the Public Facts

Bullis claims: “Failure of business to explain itself adequately in this manner has produced a set of dangerous misconceptions.” He argues: “It is obvious we are not getting the truth across to the public. We are not even getting it over to our own employees. In consequence, there is no firm foundation for public understanding of our services, and the labor-management conference tables are too often ruled by prejudice and emotion rather than by a give-and-take attitude based on facts.”

After discussing “increased skepticism”, Bullis calls for business to “regain leadership” by telling “positive and progressive stories” about a company’s activities. Turning attention more specifically to public relations assistance, the chapter considers the selection of public relations personnel. He sets out the options and states:

Be careful to obtain thoroughly qualified personnel. You will find self-styled experts in the field galore, all eager to get their names on the payroll, but many of whom unfortunately still think of public relations in terms of publicity. Favourable press relations, of course, are an important part of public relations-but, as we have seen, the art also encompasses many other vital relationships as well. The safest policy is to seek your guidance among those who have had experience with other programs and who have demonstrated their ability through successful accomplishment.

Further advice includes a call to “place public relations at policy-making level” and ensuring a PR “program must be a continuous, long-range, year-to-year operation. Good-will cannot be written on the books overnight. And it can never be written on the books so that it will stay there without subsequent entries. All ink tends to fade in the ledger of public opinion. We must make our entries every day.”

This ongoing approach extends tomeasuring public relations accomplishmentthrough the employment of public attitude surveys which arenot difficult to make, nor are they out of line as to cost.”

Noting the importance of “developing public relations consciousness in the company”, Bullis notes how General Mills had issued an illustrated pamphlet to all employees, entitled Your Public Relations Job , containing specific ways in which our people can make the company better and more favourably known. Other ideas for stressing the importance of public relations were given, including ensuring responsibility was delegated within plant communities and branch offices, not only to disseminate information but with a remit to “funnel news of company operation from the field to headquarters”. Bullis concludes:

Information, after all, is the raw material of public relations. Checking its accuracy, boiling it down, and disseminating it where it will do the most good is the manufacturing process, so to speak, of public relations… Along with the giving of information, therefore, we should try to build a sense of participation.

Addendum – Editor’s Note:

As with the introductory chapter in this book, these views seem modern in attitude. This makes one wonder why more business leaders did not adopt such views on an ongoing basis. That is, why public relations has not been institutionalised within organisations in the way that has been described in this chapter.

The arguments for a holistic view of public relations in 1948 may have been drowned out by the emergence of television advertising into the 1950s, which undoubtedly shifted executive attention onto the shiny new toy at the expense of the less exciting, solid building of public relations as advocated here. That trend also arguably resulted in PR being evaluated not by investment in opinion surveys but by comparison to the cost of advertising – a detrimental move that is still being fought.

Where Bullis argued for a focus on engaging employees this has been adopted within human resources (personnel) and is being viewed as a specialism called internal communications rather than PR. At the same time, the call for viewing employees as ambassadors has echoes of the marketing terminology  of ‘internal customers’ who are urged to champion the brand. There are many organisations led today by advocates of strategic PR, but the function is being squeezed at a time when its significance is being once again recognised as Bullis did 65 years ago.

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4 Replies to “Management's Stake in Public Relations

  1. The article explains me lots about Public Relations one thing that really impress me about PR is that is not just about publicity but to create a bond between 2 person and the beauty of this relation is that it leads to the development of society, individual person and which directly or indirectly generate profit.

    Time changes so does companies method of promoting business, PR experts are get hired by consulting agencies so that they can observe the in and out. On that basis they help marketing professionals in promoting the product or services for a company. The only bad thing which I feel is that everybody is giving priority to the profit and then anything else but as we can see from Harry A. Bullis point of view the Sound Public Relations have better benefits then just only profit.

  2. Thanks Paul. Of course 1948 was a more optimistic time for economic growth and social advancement, but I expect there are many CEOs today who would position PR as necessary to help achieve the organisation’s aims (commercial and otherwise – depending on the nature of the concern). For me, PR practitioners often seem to fall into two camps: those who focus primarily on generating publicity (whether or not this achieves anything tactically or strategically) and those who focus on ‘strategic’ issues, but frequently without connection with what operational directors are seeking to achieve. [Of course, there are those who understand and deliver what you and I would position as strategic PR – but they seem to be a minority].

    Fraser Likely spoke with Bournemouth University students and local practitioners a few weeks ago and one of the things he said that resonated with me was how in a previous role he had felt he was doing a good job managing the organisation’s reputation. However, in talking with operational directors, he was reminded that they didn’t see what the PR function was actually doing for them and yet, it was their operational responsibilities that actually created and delivered the firm’s reputation.

    We have to be close to what really matters in organisations – sometimes that may relate to addressing environmental or consumer related issues, sometimes that may involve stimulating profit and communicating the benefits of new technologies. As I remember Danny Moss (UK academic) once saying, the job of PR is to help address what keeps the CEO awake at night.

  3. What’s great in Bullis’s take is the progressive role he see’s for PR in support of economic growth and social advancement; something sadly missing in the predominant modern perspective. Today’s PR is all about limits (informed by pessimism and moral distaste), for example on consumerism, economic growth, the environmental impact of business, the virtue of profit, energy usage (less, not more, supposedly, is better) and the benefits (as in lack of) of globalisation and new technologies such as GMOs and fracking and old ones such as coal-fired electricity.

    In contrast, Bullis’s optimism is refreshing. Particularly because he gets that the core purpose of a business is whatever it does as a business in pursuit of the business; things that need to be done well within an ethical framework. If only modern PR could see things that clearly…. then perhaps things might improve.

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