Public relations: a fifth leg on a dog?

While browsing through The Times’s archive today, I came across an interesting article from 1947 that sets out the newspaper’s view of public relations.

Thirty years on from when Basil Clarke started public relations in Britain by joining the Civil Service, The Times makes it clear that the industry had already grown massively.

It suggested the Treasury was now spending £878,468 a year on the wages of 1,100 public relations staff (including clerical and typing staff), a massive increase on the £21,000 a year the Government was spending on public relations in 1921.

The Times was sceptical as to the value of the industry, quoting approvingly from a White Paper on publicity for local government that suggested that “the public relations ‘spirit’ ought to permizeate the whole organization.”

“This means, in even plainer language,” The Times told its readers, “that men and women must know their job, be courteous in their business dealings, be ready to give the information to which citizens are entitled, and not hope to be saved from these obligations by a deus ex machina called a PRO.

“It is admirable doctrine and should be digested by those local authorities, for instance, whose most active interest in public relations expresses itself negatively, in attempts to prevent local newspapers from doing their duty, which is to give the facts about local government.

“Public relations are always part of efficient administration and they may need special provision and even a special officer, but, unless all his colleagues share his spirit, he is as useless as a fifth leg to a dog.”

It is an interesting simile. I’ve heard public relations being referred to as the tail of the dog before, but never as an additional leg!

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Abraham Lincoln on public relations

Abraham Lincoln: "Public sentiment is everything."
Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything.”

Abraham Lincoln may have died half a century before the birth of the public relations industry, but a quote of his I came across today could have been written as a defence of it.

Debating with the Democrat politician Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said:

Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

It is a quote I wasn’t previously aware of but, for those of us who work in public relations, I think it is worth remembering.

Public relations often has a bad reputation. But this gets across, perhaps better than any other quote I can think of, why virtually every successful organisation understands that they cannot do without it.