Winning better relations with the community

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.

Irwin notes:

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

Editors’ Note:

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.

Read other chapters in our series of posts from the 1948 book: Your Public Relations, via this link to contents list.

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7 Replies to “Winning better relations with the community

  1. Heather, I have to say this is a very interesting post.

    I’d like to take up one point, however, which over-states an assumption: “external pressures have only influenced organisations to address societal concerns in recent decades”.

    Odd as it might sound, I maintain that the above presents life out of true to the extent that the external pressures it refers to are more based on the prejudices of the influential few than on the view points of the majority.

    When societal pressures were existential – for instance in pre war Britain or post war Germany circa 1910 to 1916 – the response from the authorities was brutal (it cost Rosa Luxembourg her life). But today the so-called external pressure is a minority middle class one…. it is neither radical nor progressive. But it is listened to and therefore seemingly more influential than ever.

  2. Talking of ‘historically specific’ and connecting Taylor’s great text on propaganda, the past and the present, I’m still pondering this story:

    I’ve linked to the tabloid Mirror report as it was introduced as a paper for women, but now more known for being left-wing, working class – but has a great propaganda history:

    There’s a quote presumably from the army press release – but interesting it isn’t Tweeted from @britisharmy as far as I could see – that a social media squad will be set up within the British army to develop the “means of shaping behaviour through the use of dynamic narratives” (contemporary PR speak or what?).

    Fascinating to read all the media, and social media coverage of this announcement – as if such attempts at military propaganda are anything new. I’m also interested to read that rather than training squaddies to use social media it will be staffed by new recruits with experience in journalism and social media.

  3. Have to challenge Sean. One can’t equate the Nazis (fascists) with Stalinists no more than we can usefully conflate either of them with Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun or any other dictator or infamous ruler. Hitler and Stalin were only superficially similar at the level Sean describes. Scratch the surface and one sees profound differences. Though I agree that neither of them were remotely progressive or worthy of our sympathy or support. But that’s no reason to lose sight of their distinct specificities.

    As to inserting the state into every aspect of life… welcome to the modern age of nudge and intervention. The state in Scotland even proposes to super-impose mandatory state-approved parents over real parents in the bringing up and control of children: hello 1984, “for the public good” of course. In addition, in the UK today the state exercises the penal power to police our speech, our thoughts and our opinions. In Britain, say the wrong thing on Twitter and you’ll end up in the slammer or out of work or hounded by the mob, and you might even suffer all three fates simultaneously…. but the UK is neither communist nor fascist…it’s historically specific.

  4. Hi Heather – The Cold War is an interesting case study, as the choices were certainly presented as binary. It’s fascinating to me that people still believe that Nazism and Communism were somehow opposites as Hitler and Stalin defined them. Both are economically socialist and politically antidemocratic. Both sought primacy for the State over the individual, both sought to insert the State into every aspect of human life and endeavor, both featured a power elite that saw itself above the people, and both systems eventually collapsed as their reach far exceeded their grasp.

    Of course, if you look at the real Gilded Age, you see the seeds of social and economic upheaval in Europe, particularly. Of course socialists seemed fully rational – when land, money and power were so thoroughly concentrated and the middle class so small and ineffectual, the power of a change message was important and welcome. Marx thought 18th century Britain would surely be where Communism would rise, or Germany! Surely not in agrarian, peasant-dominated Russia.

    But returning to your thesis – the idea that business can be enlightened, that it can act symmetrically, is too often dismissed. Witness the debates with Alan K on these pages! Cheers.

  5. Sean – thank you for your comment. Interestingly Kevin Ruck and I were discussing today ‘fundamentalism’ in academia, whether that comes in the form of adherence to specific theoretical perspectives and/or particular research philosophies (or even sub-sets of these). In contrast, we were considering how important it is to be able to see, and understand, different perspectives and appreciate nuance, flexibility and not label others in a derogative way.

    Likewise, I’ve been reading Taylor’s classic text on propaganda, including around the Cold War where the type of zero-sum approach you mention was evident. Certainly then the capitalist versus Marxist narrative was played out strongly. So quite surprising when there is such a strong anti-business sentiment there, but perhaps more understandable in Europe for example where socialism hasn’t been such a dirty word 😉

    I’ve always believed that freedom in society includes accepting responsibilities, and a good level of self-control rather than relying on others to control our behaviours. I find the French Charlie Hebdo situation less clear cut than some commentators seem to argue regarding censorship vs freedom.

    It also often seems that those seeking to ‘protect’ the weaker or powerless in society do so by speaking on their behalf, where I’m an advocate for enabling people to speak for themselves. Again, I’m rather fed up of the current trend to take offence on behalf of others.

    I think that we do need to be mindful of vested interests, and careful of privileged access – but that can come in many forms, from many directions, and not just employed by those deemed to have power and influence. Indeed, that was another conversation I had this week about how journalists tend to see themselves as champions of public interest, when the reality is, and always has been, less saintly. But that’s probably a subject for another post…

  6. Heather – I wonder whether the modern practice (which largely seems to forget any history prior to Bernays and Page) is so steeped in the left-right political/economic fallacies that it can’t help but be perceived as zero-sum. Certainly our modern cynicism promotes the idea that all actions by business are inherently self-interested, and any attempt to find nuance apart from that interest is dismissed out of hand; we see that reflected in the assertion that all communication is marketing, that all objectives are sales objectives and that no one should claim otherwise.

    The critics of business mainly adopt a Marxist view of labor and capital, of hierarchies of power, and scoff at the concept that one can do right by doing good. We’re better off, they claim, if we just assume that any company will act first in the interest of its management at the expense of everyone else, and make policy and personal action accordingly.

    Charles Wilson, ex-head of GM and while US Secretary of Defense, said, “…[What is] good for our country [is] good for General Motors, and vice versa.” It probably isn’t an accident that this quote gets flipped around to put GM first. In the Marxist view, the powerful always victimize the powerless, the strong batter the weak and only relentless vigilance protects any gains for labor in the constant war in Capitalism. Business simply has to be bad. Otherwise, there is no point to a revolution.

    One of the costs of this view is in rational discourse. Instead, it becomes more like arguing religious dogma between two fundamentalists.

    Thanks for a stimulating post.

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