Today's Public Relations: An Introduction

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Robert L. Heath & W. Timothy Coombs

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    Preface

    Today's Public Relations: An Introduction is a project that has been in the works for several years. It began as a challenge to create a text for the basic public relations course that maintained the best of other texts and built on recent research and theory. Public relations is a dynamic field, both in practice and because of the increasing research. Whereas little new thought existed in the early 1980s, since the middle of that decade, substantial achievement has occurred. This burgeoning literature has paralleled the growth in the numbers of students who study public relations. Today's public relations students stand on the shoulders of a century of practitioners who have honed this timeless discipline. They benefit from the richness of research and theory that emerges with each issue of major journals.

    Now, students can have a text that explains public relations processes and functions as well as details how they can use messages to build mutually beneficial relations between organizations and key markets, audiences, and publics. Other texts tend to feature the processes of public relations, as part of the mass media. This text takes that foundation and builds on it in several ways. One of these ways is to draw on the heritage of rhetorical theory that has contributed much to the strategic design and use of messages as well as the critical evaluation of such messages. So, the text has historic origins but also seeks to encourage students to watch the Web for ways that technology will continue to reshape the practice of public relations. The Web not only gives another vehicle for organizations to communicate but also is loaded with the critical statements of activists. It is also a playground of misinformation and rumor that can damage the reputation and operation of good organizations.

    Few professions are more important to society than is public relations. It is often more subtle and “silent” than other forms of professional communication. It tends to communicate through other communicators, such as getting stories out through reporters. Also, in comparison to other aspects of professional communication practice, public relations is less well understood and the victim of this misunderstanding. Recognizing this fact, the authors offer a text that builds on the heritage of public discourse that has been refined at least since the time of Aristotle and Plato. This book takes the view that public relations practitioners need to be strategic thinkers who know principles of message design, best public relations practices, and ethics. Add to this list an understanding of current research in public relations, and you have the makings of the next generation of public relations practitioners.

    Chapter 1 is titled “Strategic Relationship Building: An Ethical Organization Communicating Effectively.” This chapter draws on the timeless advice of leading rhetoricians that to communicate well, a person or an organization must first be good—ethical. This chapter sets the tone for the book by featuring the elements that lead to mutually beneficial relationships. Some years ago, academics and practitioners began to realize the potential in featuring relations as the foundation of relationship building. This book features that logic by advising that sound public relations practices cut two ways. One is to help the organization be a credible and ethical source of information and opinion. The second, then, is to know how to communicate effectively because the organization is good.

    The wise practitioner learns how to think strategically and to listen to others, especially consumers and key publics who can influence whether the organization is successful. Markets, audiences, and publics can affect organizations' success by the choices they make and the actions they take. If they like the organization, they reward it by buying goods and services, contributing to it as a nonprofit, or supporting rather than opposing it during public policy battles. Along the way, practitioners have to understand their field; they have to know what public relations people do and how they think. To advance students' understanding of the practice, Chapter 1 distinguishes between public relations and marketing, advertising, and integrated communication.

    Public relations may be as old as the human experience. Chapter 2 helps students to understand the profession by giving a solid historical discussion of key moments and pioneers of the profession. The record of public relations is mixed, but a continuing commitment to increase its professional standing can strengthen its positive role in society. Leading figures have not only practiced the profession in ways that help students understand the foundations of the profession, but these professionals have also worked to create professional associations that strengthen the practice.

    Chapter 3 features principles and processes required to build mutually beneficial relationships. On this foundation, the next four chapters build a solid professional and academic basis for learning the profession by explaining how research is conducted (Chapter 4), how planning is central to the role public relations plays (Chapter 5), action plans (Chapter 6), and evaluation of results from public relations efforts (Chapter 7). The logic is that research helps practitioners to listen to their markets, audiences, and publics. What they hear can help identify whether relationships are strong and mutual—or fractured and contentious. Problems can be identified and understood to set the next step of planning and taking action. Planning and action steps are intended to create, maintain, and repair relationships as necessary to the success of the organization and the happiness of the people whose goodwill the organization needs. Evaluation allows practitioners and other managers the opportunity to assess how effective the public relations program is to help the organization manage these key relationships.

    Chapter 8 explains theory in practice. Many academics and practitioners believe that theory strengthens the ability to practice public relations. Thus, they conduct research to unlock the mysteries of the profession and guide its development. This chapter explains how theory is created and how it can help practitioners to be more effective in building mutually beneficial relationships. This chapter offers theory that is basic to all public relations efforts and some that helps practitioners deal with crises and the risks that key publics experience. Theory can be used to manipulate, but it can also add value to relationships. To this end, Chapter 9 discusses ethics. It features the kinds of ethical challenges practitioners face each day.

    The next four chapters build on these chapters to explain issues management (Chapter 10), strategic media choices (Chapter 11), strategies and principles of promotion and publicity (Chapter 12), and collaborative decision making (Chapter 13). Practitioners help their employers and clients discuss issues to assist society's efforts to create effective public policy. Controversy occurs. One strategic solution to controversy is to engage in collaborative decision making. Today's Public Relations is unique because of the attention it pays to topics such as crisis, risk, issues management, collaborative decision making, and promotion and publicity. It strives to be aware of what the successful practitioner needs to know and to explain that material in ways that can be applied successfully. Many public relations texts avoid substantial chapters on publicity and promotion despite the fact that much of what practitioners do supports this vital function.

    Chapter 14 discusses the ways students can increase their ability to land that first job by preparing themselves during their college studies. Preparation requires many ingredients. These include knowing the principles and best practices of the profession, as well as having a solid sense of the ethics of effective public relations practice. Students need to build a strong portfolio to demonstrate their skills, have practical experience, including an internship, and participate in student organizations such as the Public Relations Student Society of America. As the last chapter (Chapter 15) points out, public relations is increasingly global and influenced by new media such as the Internet. The wise practitioner understands other people, other cultures, new media, and the challenges they present.

    Along with the material in these chapters, the book features comments by working professionals to help students know “the business.” Professional Reflections are placed near the ends of the chapters to help students follow in the footsteps of persons who have served the practice effectively and wisely. Each chapter challenges students to become increasingly aware of the role that the Web plays in the practice and the success of organizations. Ethical quandaries and case studies are used to keep students on their toes. Ethical pitfalls and challenges abound in the profession. Students need to become increasingly ethical to practice effectively and to advance the professional status of public relations. They will be challenged in life, and we constantly point to ethical pitfalls as well as successful cases. Each chapter starts with a vignette based on practical challenges, to set the course for the chapter. These vignettes frame and justify the discussion that follows in each chapter.

    An Instructor's Resources CD provides teachers with assessment tools, as well as materials that will help students to further engage with the text. The disk includes Microsoft® PowerPoint® presentations for each chapter that may be used as lecture outlines. It also offers recommended resources, such as additional real-world cases, journal articles, and trade books that would nicely supplement the text. Web resources, which include the links in the book, are outlined as well. Furthermore, the CD outlines how to bring guest speakers into the classroom, set up field experiences for students, and more! Study guides that can be distributed to students as study aids or used to guide a review session can be found on the disk, as can a related test bank full of objective, short-answer, and essay test items. For instructors who do not assess their students using tests, the CD includes group and individual assignment ideas.

    Acknowledgments

    No book is the product of the efforts of the authors alone. This one is no exception. The authors acknowledge the imaginative and thoughtful help of several persons at Sage Publications: Margaret Seawell helped breathe life into this project when it seemed doomed. Margo Crouppen thoughtfully and systematically drew together the parts of the manuscript. Sarah Quesenberry was diligent and imaginative in finding visual material that would enrich the book. Laureen Shea helped keep the pieces from flying to the wind. Carla Freeman patiently and skillfully brought order and coherence to the final draft as it went to production. Along the way, in this book's development, many academics and professionals, including the following, read some or all of the working manuscript:

    • Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman, Purdue University
    • Tracy Senat, University of Central Oklahoma
    • Weiwu Zhang, Austin Peay State University
    • Diana Knott, Ohio University
    • Annnemarie Marek, University of Texas, Dallas
    • Beth Wood, Indiana University
    • Bonita Neff, Valparaiso University

    To these people, the authors tip their hats and give thanks. We hope that we listened well to the advice and responded appropriately. Also to be thanked are legions of students who have contributed to this book by asking questions and seeking advice from the authors. They want to know how to practice ethically and effectively and how to use public relations to make their employers more ethical. We hope we have answered most of your questions in ways that truly give you solid grounding for a successful and enjoyable professional experience.

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    About the Authors

    Robert L. Heath holds a PhD from the University of Illinois in Speech Communication and Rhetorical Theory and is professor of communication at the School of Communication, University of Houston, where he is also the faculty advisor for the Public Relations Student Society of America chapter. He is the author of many books and articles, most on public relations, including Strategic Issues Management (1997, Sage Publications). He is the editor of the Handbook of Public Relations (2001, Sage Publications) and the Encyclopedia of Public Relations (2005, Sage Publications). The Handbook is a collection of chapters by leading academics and practitioners who discuss an array of topics ranging from theory to best practices. The Encyclopedia of Public Relations is a two-volume collection of long and short entries that cover the full range of topics that are unique to the practice and societal role of public relations. Dr. Heath has helped to define issues management and to establish it as a key part of public relations. He has recently written on crisis communication, risk communication, and terrorism. All of these topics offer unique challenges to practitioners who can help to make society more functional through their ethical and effective practice of public relations. Although he is interested in all aspects of public relations, Dr. Heath came to the profession through his interest in activism and social change. He has served as a consultant to many companies and organizations.

    W. Timothy Coombs holds a PhD from Purdue University in Issues Management and Public Affairs and is an associate professor in the Communication Studies Department at Eastern Illinois University. Dr. Coombs has been involved in the teaching and practice of public relations for more than 20 years. His primary research area is crisis research with a focus on the development and testing of the situational crisis communication theory (SCCT). His crisis research was awarded the 2002 Jackson, Jackson, and Wagner Behavioral Research Prize from the Public Relations Society of America. His book, Ongoing Crisis Communication, won the PRIDE Award for Best Book in 2000. He also won a PRIDE Award for Best Article in 2002. He has published articles in Management Communication Quarterly, Journal of Public Relations Research, Journal of Business Communication, Journal of Public Affairs, Public Relations Review, and Communication Studies. He has given public-relations-related presentations to a variety of professional and academic gatherings throughout the United States. Dr. Coombs also has lectured on public-relations-related topics in Australia, Austria, Egypt, Norway, and the United Kingdom.


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