Theories and Effects of Public Relations

Carl Botan. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

This chapter introduces public relations theory and effects and is divided into three sections. Section 1 covers a brief review of some of the social and economic effects of modern-day public relations—what students who chose public relations will walk into in terms of job availability, pay levels, and the like. The second and third sections then look at theory. The second section explains how often unconscious or unnoticed assumptions about public relations combined over time to create misunderstandings about the field in the minds of students, the general public, and some supervisors. These unconscious assumptions often function as lay theories. A lay theory is an informal theory that lay (i.e., nontrained) groups and individuals develop on their own to explain how things work or are related. The third section is a short summary of more formal public relations theory based on a longer review of public relations theory that was published by Maureen Taylor and this author in 2004. This section uses a bit more field-specific jargon, although it has been reduced to a minimum. The reader needing additional formal academic discussion of public relations theory is referred to the Botan and Taylor article in Journal of Communication (2004) or to two public relations theory books coauthored by this author, Public Relations Theory (Botan & Hazleton, 1989) and Public Relations Theory II (Botan & Hazleton, 2006).

Social and Economic Effects of Public Relations

Public relations affects a society in many ways, from direct economic contribution, such as promoting a product or company, to public diplomacy and nation-building campaigns. Public diplomacy is the branch of public relations in which one government seeks to influence the policy of another government by first influencing the publics of that other government through a public relations campaign in the hope that those publics will, in turn, influence their own government. Nation-building campaigns are those used to help build underdeveloped nations or nations trying to rebuild from civil war or some other large disaster. Such large-scale effects are interesting and have been addressed by many authors (e.g., Kunczik, 1997; Signitzer & Wamser, 2006; Sriramesh & Vercic, 2003), but the effects of primary concern in this chapter are ones that affect the work experience of those in the field.

This overview of the social and economic effects of public relations is divided into two parts: makeup, which affects practitioners and publics alike, and pay. Not discussed under these headings are several attributes of the field that are not central to the argument developed in this chapter but that are still discussed briefly in the conclusion—that public relations has become highly international and intercultural, that public relations has become a research-centered field, and how much public relations has moved up the organizational and corporate ladder.

Makeup of the Field

Public relations has grown and changed at an amazing rate in the past quarter-century. It is a field on the upswing, and its changing composition is one indicator of that. The resulting effects include substantial opportunities for women and a growing role in areas that have previously been the domain of journalism and advertising.

Gender Composition

A long time ago, the public relations field was predominantly male, but the 2006 report of the National Curriculum Commission’s (Curriculum Commission, 2006) report on public relations education said that in “a field that was once predominantly male, females now constitute almost two thirds of all practitioners and as much as 70 to 80 percent of undergraduate enrollment in some university programs, an imbalance that has been increasing since 1999” (p. 13).

Growth Compared with other Areas within Communication

Public relation has grown to the point that “public relations’ large enrollments often are used to fund other subject areas” (Curriculum Commission, 2006, p. 16) in departments of communication, mass communication, and journalism. The large enrollments of public relations are easy to see and well documented, particularly in comparison with another popular, career-focused specialty in communication, advertising. The May 2005 newsletter of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication reported that in just the 197 universities responding to a survey, there were 281 programs and that of these there were 133 for public relations, 95 for advertising, and 53 for joint programs. Most important, however, the newsletter went on to report that between 1992-1993, the number of public relations programs increased by 14, while advertising dropped 25. The Public Relations Student Society of America, the campus branch of the primary national professional organization, the Public Relation Society of America, has grown to 275 chapters (Curriculum Commission, 2006).

In fact, public relations’ growth has been so great that the National Curriculum Commission identified finding enough qualified faculty to teach public relations as one of the major problems the field faces. The Commission saw this problem as so great in 2006 that it issued the following warning in its report:

In the past, teaching vacancies in the field have too often been filled with instructors without the PhD or research and theory knowledge, without actual practitioner experience, or both. Absent documented and specific public relations experience or graduate study in public relations, a degree in English, business, advertising, journalism, mass communication, or another professional field, is not evidence of preparation to teach public relations. (p. 14)

The high growth rate of public relations is not surprising in light of the expanding number of jobs (and the increasing pay scales). The 2006 Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that public relations employment will grow from 18% to 26% between 2004 and 2014 while jobs for news analysts, reporters, and correspondents, for example, are expected to be relatively flat over the same period, growing only 0% to 8%.

The BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook 2008-2009 currently lists 243,000 jobs for public relations specialists, exclusive of the 50,000 or so jobs for public relations managers (BLS, 2008). This same source projects 286,000 jobs for public relations specialists in 2016, an increase of 43,000 and a growth rate of 18%. In the same period, jobs for public relations managers are expected to grow 24.1% (

Pay Scales in Public Relations

What was once a fairly low-paying field has divided into two quite distinct groups, both much better paid than in the past. Public relations specialists include the lower ranks of pay and those who choose to make their living doing only technical-level work such as layout or clipping files. Public relations managers, however, are those who either manage the public relations function withinanorganizationinwhich public relations is just a subdivision or have a management role in a public relations firm. Because a very common goal of those taking university public relations courses is to achieve such management-level jobs, this discussion of pay scales will focus mostly on the pay of public relations managers.

While median hourly earnings for public relations specialists are about $24.05 in 2008-2009 (BLS, 2008), mean hourly wages of public relations managers are $46.71 for a mean annual income of $97,170 (BLS, 2008). During the 2005-2007 period that Labor Department source ranked public relations managers, then earning mean annual salaries of $85,548, as the 17th most highly paid profession, well below physicians and surgeons ($139,849) and lawyers ($126,530) but well ahead of economists ($79,585), engineers ($79,381), nuclear technicians ($73,271), physical scientists ($71,660), and advertising and promotion managers ($67,018). Insome markets, suchasWashington, D.C., public relations pay is appreciably higher, and the field may rank among the top 10 in income, but in other locales public relations pay scales may drop below the top 20.

Such highly competitive pay scales and the rapidly increasing number of public relations jobs suggest that the field is having greater and greater effects both on the organizations it is part of and on society as a whole. For example, two reasons for the higher pay scales of public relations specialists and managers in recent years are the greatly expanding use of social scientific research methods in the field and the growing internationalization of the practice of public relations.

As public relations has increasing effects on society and the economy, and more and more people are called on to use it, learning about the assumptions and lay theories that color the day-to-day practice of public relations becomes important. These assumptions and lay theories are what a student often walks into on a new job, and we turn our attention to them in the next section.

Assumptions and Lay Theories

Assumptions about what public relations is and how it should be used often rule the workplace, and sometimes even the college classroom when teachers lacking proper public relations credentials are hired because of the teacher shortage. The assumptions of nonprofessional lay people often come from lay theories. Some lay theories are based on hundreds of years of experience and are quite sophisticated, such as some of those involving folk medicines. Some lay theories, on the other hand, are not based on much more than wishes and superstitions—even those affecting life and death matters. For example, some of our ancient ancestors believed that wearing blue face paint or human sacrifices would appease otherwise angry gods. Some lay theories are very widely accepted but are still wrong. Kerlinger (1986) used the example of a coin that has come up heads five times in a row when flipped and the commonsense (i.e., lay theory) notion that according to something they call the law of averages it is due to come up tails. Naïve bettors no doubt keep many gambling casinos in business by doubling or even tripling their bets on the fifth flip—when the odds of a tail are the same 50% as they were on the first flip.

Thus, sometimes assumptions, and the lay theories that are often behind them, are useful, and sometimes they are not. The same is true regarding the assumptions many people make about public relations, so this second section of the chapter examines the technician approach, the most commonly held assumption about public relations and the one most frequently run into in the workplace and in the mass media.

Technician Approach

The most commonly held assumption about public relations is that it is just a set of technical writing and publicity skills, so public relations practitioners should be called on to implement the technical aspects of plans only after these are made. This assumption is most commonly called the technician approach or technician role, although it is sometimes also referred to as the functional approach.

The technician view sees public relations from a non-strategic and nonethical perspective as just a set of technical journalism-based skills to be hired out. Most important among these is the ability to write press releases well, but organizing and hosting news conferences, laying out or editing publications, taking pictures, and handling media relations are also important skills (Botan, 1994). In effect, the practitioner becomes no more than a hired journalist-in-residence or a mechanic for media relations whose job is to get as much free advertising as possible. In fact, the productivity of public relations practitioners working for this kind of employer is often assessed by reporting the amount of dollars that it would have cost to buy advertising of the same length. This is known as advertising equivalency in the trade and is disparaged by most experienced public relations people as the second weakest way to evaluate public relations work (the weakest is by just measuring the output of public relations workers, such as how many news releases they send out).

In the technician approach, the practitioner cedes unquestioned authority to decide major ethical and strategic matters to someone outside themselves, in most cases to corporate leaders. In doing so, the public relations department usually accepts a one-way communication role and ensures that it will have little voice in strategic planning, deciding what is ethical or exactly how public relations will be practiced. Those making the calls under this model are often organizational leaders with little or no training in public relations who, thus, rely on lay theories and assumptions.

Hired-Gun View

The technician approach is based on what Sullivan (1965) and Pearson (1989) called craft and partisan values. Good public relations is defined as being loyal to the employer and doing good craft work such as writing good news releases. So this approach is often likened to the hired-gun stereotype of the Old West. The assumption is that public relations should try to make bad practices look less bad than they really are and poor practices look positively dazzling—thus the term spinmeister, or to spin a story. When teaching public relation students, I often refer to this kind of practice as perfuming the pig—making something smell better than it really is. I tell my students this is bad public relations, at best, and that if you allow yourself to be trapped into perfuming other people’s pigs not only will you probably never work your way out of the sty but sooner or later enough the sty will rub off on you: that others will start to think you smell worse than the pigs and, thus, should not be allowed even to work perfuming other pigs.

Lay Theories Behind the Hired-Gun View

There are at least three lay theories behind the hired-gun/technician approach to public relations: If they only knew what I knew …, hypodermic needle or silver bullet, and the court of public opinion.

If you only knew what I know, you’d make the same decision …

One of the lay theories underlying the technician approach to public relations is reflected in the management assumption that they know more than publics do, that their interests are the most legitimate, and that the company has already looked at all aspects of a problem. Thus, they assume, if the publics only knew these truths, they would come to the same decision. With this assumption, they feel that what all public relations practitioners have to do is get their story out effectively and everyone will fall in line. Unfortunately, they also often believe the inverse—that when publics do not go along with them the public relations staff is at fault, since their own actions and decisions are beyond reproach. Clearly, then, the hired-gun view is not good for publics, not good for clients, and certainly not good for practitioners. In fact, this line of reasoning has been debunked many times, including by Gaudino, Fritch, and Haynes (1989).

This lay theory, that the only problem is that publics do not understand things as they should, is inherently paternalist and assumes that publics need only to be informed about how smart management decision making really is in order to be convinced to buy the product, vote for the candidate, quit smoking, or the like. This lay theory about public relations, in turn, draws on two others, one from mass media and one from public relations.

Hypodermic Needle or Silver Bullet

Although these are actually two different ideas, they serve somewhat the same role in assumptions about the practice of public relations, so they are treated together here. Actually, the hypodermic needle/magic/silver bullet was at one time a formal mass communication theory (see Bineham, 1988, for a review) that said that individuals are directly and very heavily influenced by what they see and hear from the media. In the academic arena, this theory was debunked long ago and replaced by what came to be known as the limited-effects model of media influence (Bauer, 1964; Klapper, 1960).

Although no longer generally accepted by researchers, the old silver-bullet view—that in each situation a single mass media message exists that can shape how people think—remains firmly entrenched as a lay theory in the minds of many. Those who argue that television or particular music causes violence and leads our youth astray may be essentially arguing this view. Thus, if a silver bullet exists, it only makes sense to hire the technically most proficient public relations practitioner available and assign him or her the task of finding and using it. Furthermore, since these same folks often assume that “if they only knew what we know, they would agree,” there is, of course, no need to do any research on publics, to check the organization’s motives or practices, or take any other steps except search for the magic bullet. Real public relations professionals reject this and do research on both the public and the organization hiring them.

Court of Public Opinion

Public relations practitioners are sometimes cast as the hired advocates of a company that merely deserves its day in [the] court [of public opinion]. Thus, this lay theory holds, the job of a public relations practitioner is to pull out all the stops to get their client off, just as television lawyers do for their clients. When combined with “If you only knew what I know” and the belief that a magic bullet exists if you can just get your story out, this last lay theory offers justification for some very backward publics relations practices.

Of course, this analogy between a court of law and a court of public opinion falls down when examined closely. First, in a court of law, both sides are nominally equal because they both can be represented by a trained attorney. In the public domain, on the other hand, single individuals or small groups of citizens and activists have nowhere near the resources of the large corporations and government bodies with which they contend and do not typically have equal access to the media. Second, there is no assurance of a trained, objective, and disinterested authority (a judge) who can see through the two one-sided presentations in a court of public opinion. The weakness of the court of public opinion argument becomes even more evident when one of the parties involved in a public policy dispute is a government body. Not only does government often have the sole authority to pass judgment on its own behavior, but it also can use tax money (including the taxes of those who are disagreeing with a particular government action) to defend its practices.

For example, many developing countries complain bitterly about how they are portrayed in the media of developed countries such as the United States. Since their complaint is against the multibillion-dollar media conglomerates that control access to the channels of mass communication by virtue of owning them, it can be difficult for them to even get into the court of public opinion, let alone get an impartial verdict. Interestingly, however, an increasing number of developing countries are hiring U.S. public relations firms, possibly because some of them also buy into this lay theory. In addition to these and other lay theories, there is a whole body of academic theory about public relations to which we now turn.

Formal Public Relations Theory

Academics have discussed a number of competing approaches to public relations all the way from the level of paradigms (Botan, 1993b) to four specific models (Grunig & Hunt, 1984) and from systems theory, critical models, and the rhetorical approach (e.g., Crable & Vibbert, 1985) to the very backward and unprofessional hired-gun approach discussed above. But how is such a varied theoretic history best organized for understanding?

We faced a similar challenge some years ago, when Maureen Taylor and I (Botan & Taylor, 2004) reviewed the state of formal public relations theory and summed it up in what we called the functional and co-creational perspectives. To do this, we first reviewed the five major meta-analyses of public relations theory that had been published up to that time. A meta-analysis is an analysis of analyses, a doublespeak way of saying that a meta-analysis is a summary and evaluation of previous analyses. The five we looked at, in chronological order, were Pavlik (1987), Botan and Hazleton (1989), Pasadeos, Renfro, and Henily (1999), Vasquez and Taylor (2000), and Sallot, Lyon, Acosta-Alzuru, and Jones (2003).

A Short Summary of Public Relations Research and Theory

Contrary to the assumptions of those with a technical perspective on public relations, this specialty is one of the most researched in the broad field of communication and mass communication. In 2003, for example, there were more than 250 scholarly research papers presented at conferences just in the United States (Botan & Taylor, 2004) with many more in Europe, Asia, Australia, and elsewhere. Public relations is taught in several hundred universities in the United States, but the densest public relations enrollments may be in Australia and, increasingly, in Korea. There are two international academic public relations journals (Public Relations Review and Journal of Public Relations Research), with a semi-academic journal (Public Relations Quarterly) and the closely allied International Journal of Strategic Communication, as well as two primarily public relations journals in Britain, one dedicated journal in Korea, and others. All these journals and academic papers mean that lots of work is published on public relations theory each year. Far too much, in fact, to go into any kind of detail here, so this chapter resorts to very broad strokes and generalities in the interest of readability. For more detail, see the five meta-analyses referenced in the last paragraph as well as Botan and Taylor (2004).

The history of public relations was covered in the previous chapter, but public relations theory has its own history. Public relations theory began to come into its own in the United States in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, sparked in part by the work of Scott Cutlip and his students coming out of the University of Wisconsin. These scholars produced some of the first real theory work in public relations and contributed to overthrowing the technical approach, which had, up to that time, largely dominated college campuses as it did the practitioner community. Drawing mostly on existing social science and mass communication theories, these and other scholars began to develop a recognized area of theoretic work in public relations in the 1980s and 1990s. They also identified some of the major questions the field is still wrestling with today, including whether public relations should be focused on relationship building (Ferguson, 1984), whether it should be practiced from a symmetrical or asymmetrical model (Grunig & Hunt, 1984), and what roles public relations practitioners play and should play in the workplace (Broom & Smith, 1979).

Botan and Taylor (2004) looked back on the evolution of public relations theory and said that it could best be summarized as representing two very different views of what the field is and what it should be. The first of these, the functional, was based on the technician view discussed above. The second, the co-creational, represented a sea change from the old message-and-sender focus of the technical view. It adopted a new and much more humanistic focus on the role of publics—particularly the role of publics as co-creators of meaning. Thus, a co-creational view sees publics not just as groups that react to what an organization does but as equal players in defining the environment in which they and the organization interact as equals.

Functional Perspective

Of the functional perspective, of which the technical approach discussed above is a part, Botan and Taylor (2004) said,

The most striking trend in public relations over the past 20 years, we believe, is its transition from a functional perspective to a cocreational one. A functional perspective, prevalent in the early years of the field, sees publics and communication as tools or means to achieve organizational ends. The functional perspective traditionally uses public relations theories to achieve specified outcomes. The focus is generally on techniques and production of strategic organizational messages. Research plays a role only insofar as it advances organizational goals. (p. 7)

In spite of the weaknesses of the lay theories and assumptions underpinning the technical approach (discussed above), it remains overwhelmingly the most popular lay theory about public relations. Thus, there was a major lay theory supporting the functional approach, and some of the works in the early body of academic literature accepted it.

Co-Creational Perspective

Of the co-creational perspective, Botan and Taylor (2004) said,

The cocreational perspective sees publics as cocreators of meaning and communication as what makes it possible to agree to shared meanings, interpretations, and goals. This perspective is long term in its orientation and focuses on relationships among publics and organizations. Research is used to advance understanding and the field embraces theories that either explicitly share these values (e.g., relational approaches or community) or can be used to advance them. The major relationship of interest is between groups and organizations, and communication functions to negotiate changes in these relationships. The cocreational perspective places an implicit value on relationships going beyond the achievement of an organizational goal. That is, in the cocreational perspective, publics are not just a means to an end. (p. 8)

We went on to state,

Examples of cocreational research include the shift to organizational-public relationships, community theory, coorien-tation theory, accommodation theory, and dialogue theory, but the most researched cocreational theory is symmetrical/excellence theory. (p. 8)

A co-creational approach to public relations assumes that the ability to construct what Boulding (1961) has called mental images is a fundamental part of the human experience and that public relations practices that facilitate this process inside publics are more ethical than those that inhibit it. It shares the view that humans are uniquely equipped to use symbols and that it is this ability that sets humans apart from other creatures (Burke, 1966; Wieman & Walters, 1957), so in many respects it is the antithesis of the technician perspective, which focuses on the capacity of a message to elicit the desired behavior from publics, often by short circuiting rational decision making or manipulating publics.

The reader should also note that the co-creational approach did not simply evolve after the functional because one focus did not disappear before the next took hold and a given theory might reflect aspects of both of these at once. One outstanding historical example of how a single theory or body of work with a theory implicit in it began at a functional level and moved to a more co-creational level is found in role theory.

Role Theory

The technician view of public relations might be thought of as assuming a single, invariant role for the public relations practitioner as a technician. The natural next evolutionary step then was to study other possible roles, often by comparing them with the technician role. Thus, roles research is important in the history of public relations theory because it represents one of the earliest points at which widely held nonacademic assumptions come face-to-face with solid scholarship.

Role refers to the repetitive set of behaviors a person plays out within an organization (or elsewhere). For example, you might have the role of a boss at work; the role of a friend with certain people; and the role of a husband, wife, or parent at other times. As a boss you are called on to display one pattern of behaviors, while as a friend you live out a very different set of behaviors.

Although roles were first discussed in other fields in the organizational context, public relations research into roles is primarily associated with the work of Broom and various coauthors (see Broom & Smith, 1979; Dozier & Broom, 2006). For a more in-depth discussion of public relations roles, see Dozier and Broom (2006). From this point of view, practitioners might fill any of several roles within an organization, including communication technician, media relations expert, writer, and so on.

As public relations grows both in practice and theory, more and more roles will emerge, and our sophistication in identifying them is likely to grow as well. For example, from the simple technician versus manager dichotomy of early role research, an understanding of the difference between the tactical and strategic approaches to public relations has evolved. As we move more into a co-creational approach, other roles and role relationships may be studied including, possibly, the interdependent roles involved in co-creating meaning itself.


This brief survey of the theory and effects of public relations has necessarily left out many of the effects and theories that characterize the field. It has, however, discussed the effects and economic impact of public relations and examined the assumptions and lay theories behind some of the common understandings—and misunderstandings—of the field. In the last section, a quick look at formal public relations theory was offered.

There are several very important issues affecting the public relations field and its theory that have been left out of this chapter. This has been because they did not fit well before this point or because it would take whole books such as this one to cover them adequately. Among these are the following:

  • Political campaigns: Public relations has always played a major role in political campaigns, but that role is becoming more and more central each year as public relations becomes more strategic, moving up the ladder from a simple technical practice to one located at the very center of strategic campaign planning and execution. Nowhere was this ascendency clearer than in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections. During the Democratic primary, the pollster Mark Penn—who is also the CEO of the world’s largest public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller—emerged as a key, or the key, strategist in the Clinton campaign (, 2008) and drew front-page coverage of his own for representing the governments of other nations.
  • Centralization: The major public relations firms are rapidly becoming centralized in the hands of a few multinational conglomerates, much as has been happening in journalism and mass media. There are a number of reasons for this trend, but one that is often mentioned has to do with the tremendous growth of public relations, making its firms good investments, while another has to do with the need to diversify in the face of the information revolution. As new information technologies contribute to the demassification of messages, both traditional media outlets, such as printed newspapers, and the advertising industry, with all the waste coverage inherent in mass-media ads, are being confronted with economic challenges. The public relations industry, however, is experiencing a virtual golden age, in part because of the communication revolution. Thus, public relations firms with their record of stability and growth in the face of new information technology have become particularly attractive acquisitions for large conglomerates that are heavily invested in traditional media and advertising.
  • Health: Public relations techniques have always been important in public health campaigns, such as those for wearing seat belts or cardiovascular health campaigns. As public relations has become more strategic and research based, it has become an even more prominent area within public health. In fact, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA, has a whole membership section dedicated to health campaign practitioners. In many areas of health, however, the term public relations is not used; the more common term is health marketing or social marketing (Centers for Disease Control, 2008). Health and social marketing practitioners often take as their starting point advertising or marketing models, sometimes without noticing that the parts of those models were, in turn, taken directly from public relations.
  • Intercultural Work and Diversity: The rapid internationalization of public relations practice was mentioned above, but the important and closely related concept of intercultural public relations was not. International public relations work is also always intercultural public relations. In addition, some of the public relations practiced within a large multinational state such as the United States or Russia is also intercultural public relations. The field has become increasingly attentive to the need to respect cultural diversity and to tailor campaigns to the needs of diverse audiences. For example, the 2006 National Curriculum Commission Report “A Professional Bond” (Curriculum Commission, 2006) said, “Diversity in public relations often takes two forms: intercultural/multicultural communication and diversity management” (p. 28), with the latter including human resources, staffing, and personnel decisions.
  • Research: Nowhere is the evolution of public relations from a mere technical field into a management and strategic area more clear than in the important role that research has come to play in all aspects of the field. In fact, as the National Curriculum Commission (2006) report also said, “Training in research methods should now be only a half step behind writing training as a priority in the public relations curriculum because sophisticated research is central to strategic planning and evaluation” (p. 14).

For the reader who wishes to explore the theory base and effects of public relations in more depth, a list of further reading follows.