Cases in Public Relations Management
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Cases in Public Relations Management

The Rise of Social Media and Activism

Patricia Swann

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eBook - ePub

Cases in Public Relations Management

The Rise of Social Media and Activism

Patricia Swann

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About This Book

Now in its third edition, Cases in Public Relations Management uses recent cases in strategic communication designed to encourage discussion, debate, and exploration of the options available to today's strategic public relations manager, with the help of extensive supplemental materials.

Key features of this text include coverage of the latest controversies in current events, discussion of the ethical issues that have made headlines in recent years, and strategies used by public relations practitioners. The problem-based case study approach encourages readers to assess what they know about communication theory, the public relations process, and management practices.

New to the third edition:

  • Eighteen new cases including Snap, Wells Fargo, SeaWorld, United Airlines, and Starbucks.

  • Additional emphasis on social media and social responsibility for communication management today.

  • End-of-chapter activities that reinforce concepts.

Developed for advanced students in strategic communication and public relations, this book prepares them for their future careers as communication and public relations professionals.

The new edition features a fully enhanced companion website that includes resources for both instructors and students. Instructors will find PowerPoint Lecture Slides, Case Supplements, Instructor Guides, and Answer Keys for Quizzes and End-of-Chapter Activities. Students will benefit from Quizzes, a Glossary, and Case Supplements.

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Chapter 1

A Brief Introduction to Public Relations

Have an Organizational Purpose

What is “public relations”? If you asked a hundred people, you would probably get a hundred different replies—and several confused looks!
Whether you’re a student getting ready to enter the public relations field or a practitioner already on the job, the answer to this question will provide focus, direction, and purpose for your career. A clear understanding of what public relations is, and how it contributes to organizational effectiveness, is necessary to making a difference in your organization.
Often, practitioners fall into the trap of being defined by the most visible and technical aspects of their job. “I write news releases.” “I write and edit the company newsletter and other publications.” “I get the media to cover our events.” “I handle our company’s communication.” These are examples of practitioner products or “outputs.”
What these responses do not convey is strategy: why practitioners do all these communication-related activities. For example, a news release about an organization’s open house published or broadcast in the mass media can help meet some obvious needs, such as increasing awareness of the organization and its event, and possibly getting people to show up. But why does the organization want people to attend an open house in the first place? How does the event, and publicizing it, tie in with the organization’s mission and goals? Who does the organization want to attract to the event (what specific groups—men, women, kids, senior citizens, parents, singles, working professionals, job seekers)? What the news release says, and how and when it says it, could make a big difference in its published/broadcast appeal to members of different groups. The result could be a well-attended open house—or a public relations problem.

Defining What We Do

A good description of public relations helps define the practitioner’s organizational role. One early definition was created at the World Assembly of Public Relations in Mexico City in 1978:
Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, and Glen M. Broom, authors of Effective Public Relations, wrote one of the best-known definitions:
Robert Health and Timothy Coombs’s more detailed definition captures the complexity of its five characteristics:
Interestingly, these definitions do not contain the word communication. What they emphasize instead is building relationships with specific groups of people, because organizations and entities do not exist on their own; they are created to meet a need—almost always to provide goods and/or services for consumption. They rely on outside people or other organizations to buy those products and services or to support their mission.
Inherent in the concept of building relationships is trust. Solid relationships require trust, which is often achieved over time by both words and deeds. The concept of transparency is an important factor in building and sustaining trust, since stakeholders want to know how decisions are made at the top levels. Public relations practitioners are experts in managing the relationship-building programs that promote understanding of an organization by its important constituents. Practitioners also counsel management to consider the consequences of organizational actions on its publics.

Moving Toward an Alignment With Marketing

In 2017, half of public relations executives predicted that PR would “become more aligned with marketing.” The USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations Global Communications Report noted that it was the “first time ever” PR execs had expressed that view by such a significant margin; just 8 percent of public relations professionals thought that “PR will be a distinct and separate function.” This study also found that 87 percent of public relations executives believed that the term “public relations” wouldn’t adequately describe their field’s work in the future.
The study reported that technology innovations continued to dominate trends in the field. Respondents said “digital storytelling” would lead trends in the next five years and that social listening, social purpose, and big data would continue to grow in importance.
New knowledge and skill areas are also a priority for Rob Flaherty, former CEO of Ketchum, the well-known public relations agency, whose “The Future of Communications: A Self-Assessment” asked respondents to rate their abilities in areas beyond public relations talent and capabilities:
Figure 1.1Rob Flaherty, former CEO and president of Ketchum public relations, created this scorecard to assess a practitioner’s capabilities and knowledge beyond core public relations know-how.
Source: Courtesy of Rob Flaherty
  • Social listening and analytics.
  • Creativity: campaign-leading ideas.
  • Advanced content creation: film, animation, VR.
  • Paid amplification of content.
  • AI-enabled influencer management.
  • Change management/employee engagement.
  • Issues management/public policy.
  • Corporate purpose, social issues.
  • Real-time measurement of ROI.
  • Ability to integrate all of this.
Flaherty’s list shows that public relations professionals need to expand their toolbox considerably to maintain relevance in today’s rapidly changing communication field.

The Value of Public Relations

Public relations should have a purpose, and this purpose should provide value for an organization. What would happen if the public relations function were eliminated from your organization? Would anyone notice?
When public relations programs are not linked to the mission of an organization, public relations practitioners are often caught up in the production of meaningless work. In an effective public relations office, practitioners know their organization’s mission and support it. For example, businesses that produce a product in a competitive environment may focus on product quality as a way to distinguish themselves from competitors. Public relations can help develop employee relations programs that promote a healthy and friendly working environment, resulting in high morale, pride in workmanship, and—ultimately—a better product.
While many public relations practitioners are doing good work, sometimes their efforts are ignored because they fail to demonstrate the value of public relations in ways that management can appreciate.
Public relations legend Patrick Jackson once summed up the contributions of public relations for organizations. These nine contributions were featured in Public Relations Strategies and Tactics:
  • Awareness and information—Public relations provides publicity and promotion to raise awareness and aid sales and fundraising efforts.
  • Organizational motivation—Public relations builds internal relationships to foster positive morale, teamwork, productivity, and corporate culture.
  • Issue anticipation—Public relations through environmental monitoring, research, and connections with its publics can provide an early warning system of potential problems.
  • Opportunity identification—Public relations through environmental monitoring, research, and connections with its publics can identify new markets, products, methods, allies, and positive issues.
  • Crisis management—Public relations can manage an appropriate response to crisis or situations that will minimize the harm to an organization’s reputation and allow it to continue functioning.
  • Overcoming executive isolation—Public relations through research and counseling keeps management in touch with what is happening so that appropriate decisions are made.
  • Change agentry—Public relations can assist with organizational changes through communication and other activities to ease resistance to change and promote a smooth transition for those affected by the changes.
  • Social responsibility—Public relations can take the lead in helping organizations act responsibly in such areas as the environment, workplace issues, and philanthropy. These actions can lead to greater public trust and positive feelings for the organization, which can increase mutual understanding and translate into increased sales and use of services.
  • Influencing public policy—Public relations can use its connections to government officials and other influential individuals or groups to gain acceptance for the organization’s activities, products, or services and also remove political barriers.

Management Support

If a CEO understands the value of public relations to the company, all is well. If, on the other hand, a public relations department is known in the company for producing “fluff” and “bells and whistles,” watch out! In bad times, companies find they can do without the bells, whistles, and fluff because they have no real value. Strategic public relations can build this internal understanding by demonstrating its value to an organization, especially the positive outcomes generated by the building of relationships with the organization’s key stakeholders.
The commitment to establishing lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with key publics has to come from the organization’s leadership ranks, where organizational policies and management strategies are determined. To be effective, public relations must have a seat at the management table to guide the organization’s public relations and communication strategy. Organizations that “talk the talk” but aren’t committed to “walk the talk” have often strayed from their missions. They may have made a series of decisions based on short-term gain, without considering their publics—and the effects on long-term relationships. Public relations plays an important organizational role in helping management understand the consequences of its actions and its responsibility to do the right thing.
Management will support things that make a positive and measurable difference for an organization, especially communication and relationship-building activities that build stakeholder awareness and understanding of organizational initiatives. But simply “getting the word out” has been complicated by the explosive growth of communication outlets and the fragmentation of audiences. Managing the communication function today involves many strategic decisions, such as selecting the most appropriate and effective delivery vehicles, creating and producing effective messages for those delivery vehicles, and evaluating the effectiveness of the communication.
The complexity of communication strategy is underscored in democratic societies that encourage open and liberal debate of virtually any topic. In the U.S., the First Amendment protects the right of organizations and individuals to freely express themselves in most situations. Citizens are free to criticize organizations, their products or services, and their leaders. Public relations helps organizations participate strategically in the “marketplace of ideas,” so that viewpoints important to the organization are present in public debates that could affect an organization—including debates that aid the promotion of products and services.
Some of these public debates take place at the legislative level. Newly proposed legislation that could have positive or negative consequences for an organization may involve public relations practitioners who influence the debate and the legislative outcome by providing information; this strategy is often accomplished through government affairs and lobbying activities.
While organizations cannot participate in every conversation and debate taking place, public relations can identify and prioritize the communication needs most important to an organization and then create an effective communication plan. Management understands and wants communication with a defined purpose that protects and enhances the organization.

Business Sense

One factor preventing some public relations practitioners from entering the ranks of management is a lack of understanding of basic business principles, management strategies, and number crunching. Most executives have business management backgrounds and are driven by business goals and strategies that help organizations achieve their missions.
Public relations practitioners pride themselves on their communication skills, but some are unprepared or unable to read a balance sheet or explain a campaign’s return on investment. Executives are not enthusiastic about departments that spend large sums of money; they want to see how such spending changes customer attitudes, boosts the consumption of the company’s products or services, and increases profits. Public relations should not merely make a difference to an organization’s bottom line; it should communicate that difference to top executives.
To be a part of management, a public relations practitioner should understand the language of business, how the organization operates, how it makes money, and how its strategic plan meets current and future challenges.
This textbook will introduce basic business terms, concepts, and management skills to begin building a business management foundation. Students and professionals can also read the business sections of their daily newspaper, watch cable and broadcast TV business shows, or take introductory college business courses to learn more about the business world. Case study, which this text employs, has its roots in business education. It started at the Harvard Business School (HBS) when Arch Wilkinson Shaw began teaching a course using real examples of business problems. In 1921, HBS’s first case study, “The General Shoe Company,” was created to prepare business majors for the realities of the business world. The 1999 report of the Commission on Public Relations Education, “Public Relations Education for the 21st Century: A Port of Entry,” recommended a minor or double major in either business or the behavioral sciences.

Public Relations as Activism

Most of the discussion so far has been about public relations functioning within the traditional organizational sphere. Some scholars, however, are calling for the need to expand our thinking of public relations practitioners, especially as change agents for social change. Kristin Demetrious, Derina Holtzhausen, Timothy Coombs, and others have questioned organizational public relations’ role in society. Some argue that unethical public relations practices at the organizational level oppress social movements and that activists need to assert asymmetrical and persuasive methods to force organizations to act socially responsibly.

The Public Relations Process

Public relations helps build strategic relationships with stakeholders to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities, whether the client is an individual, a small organization, or a l...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Cases in Public Relations Management
APA 6 Citation
Swann, P. (2019). Cases in Public Relations Management (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Swann, Patricia. (2019) 2019. Cases in Public Relations Management. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Swann, P. (2019) Cases in Public Relations Management. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Swann, Patricia. Cases in Public Relations Management. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.