Jo 2003 The Portrayal Of Public Relations In The News Media
MASS COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY, 2003, 6(4), 397–411
The Portrayal of Public Relations
in the News Media
School of Mass Communications
Texas Tech University
This study explored the meanings and connotations of public relations in news stories
carried by major newspapers and network television. The findings suggest that the
term public relations was primarily used to suggest image building, reputation man-
agement, and persuasion efforts. News story interpretations of public relations terms
were likely to refer to publicity, image, campaigns of persuasion, and marketing ef-
forts to promote an organization’s claims. The results reveal that negative connota-
tions of public relations prevail in journalists’ stories discussing the practice of pub-
lic relations. The results imply that public relations practitioners trying to pitch their
clients’ stories need to understand how journalists will likely perceive the stories’
news value. Two-way communication should begin with media relations via an un-
derstanding of journalists’ viewpoints.
For a long time, the relationship between public relations practitioners and journal-
ists has been an uneasy alliance. The term public relations has been met with skep-
ticism and sometimes cynicism by journalists. Even though some scholars provide
well-organized definitions of public relations, media professionals appear to be
hesitant to credit a reputable definition of the practice (Bishop, 1988). A vari-
ety of definitions have been offered by scholars and the Public Relations Soci-
ety of America (PRSA); a widely accepted definition of pubic relations is still
Even though many scholars have adopted Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) definition
of public relations as the management function, most media professionals have
not. In journalism practice, journalists view public relations as an image-making or
tactic-oriented profession. These individuals often equate public relations with
Requests for reprints should be sent to Samsup Jo, School of Mass Communications, Box 43082,
Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 79409-3082. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
publicity activities—writing news releases, pitching news stories, and making
attempts to influence public opinion in favor of organizations. In short, they do
not see public relations as a management function that nurtures mutually reward-
Because the general public sees the world through the lenses of the mass media,
journalists’ word choices have an important impact on ordinary people’s under-
standing of any subject. As Severin and Tankard (1997) suggested, mass media
play a critical role in forming the meaning of any terminology. Thus, the media’s
use of certain terms results in the construction of broad public meanings (Taylor &
Condit, 1988). For this reason, it is important to understand how the media define
public relations and use the term in the context of news stories. When most corpo-
rate executives or ordinary people talk about public relations, they have formed
their conceptual images and definitions of public relations based on perceptions
derived from mass media.
The importance of this study lies in how media deal with the term public rela-
tions. By analyzing news stories containing the term public relations, we can infer
the connotative meanings of the term in the news media. One of the advantages of
content analysis is its potential to identify portrayals of certain issues or objects
over a period of time (Wimmer & Dominick, 2002). Portrayals of public relations
can give us a better understanding of how the term—and thus the practice—is per-
ceived in the news media. Also, the study can provide a starting point to educate
the news media as to the correct meaning of the term public relations. Thus, the
study can provide public relations practitioners with grounds for better relation-
ship building with the media.
The purpose of this study was to explore the meanings and connotations of pub-
lic relations in the context of news stories carried by major national newspapers
and network television. In this study, news stories containing the term public rela-
tions were content analyzed using a framework of public relations’ purposes and
Grunig and Hunt defined public relations as “management of communication
between an organization and its publics” (1984, p. 94)—that is, they defined public
relations as a management function beyond communication techniques such as
publicity and news releases. Noting the existence of negative connotations of pub-
lic relations, they suggested that “although public relations is probably the oldest
concept used to describe the communication activities of organizations, many or-
ganizations now use terms such as business communication and public affairs to
describe these activities” (1984, p. 4).
Hutton (1999) argued that public relations has failed to reach a broad definition
of itself from its fundamental purpose to its underlying dimensions. In particular,
he argued that public relations needs to reach some sort of general consensus about
its definition if it wishes to advance as a scholarly and professional endeavor. He
asserted that one of the most common criticisms arises from the fact that academic
THE PORTRAYAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS IN THE NEWS MEDIA 399
definitions inadequately express public relations’ true functions in contemporary
business and politics: “For example, the concept of persuasion is very much a part
of everyday practice, yet few academic definitions include persuasion as a basic
tenet” (p. 201). Largely, the general public perceives that public relations has
played a decisive role in shaping public opinion and the ethos of advocacy (Lee,
Hutton (1999) identified the heavy use of public relations terms in politics as
well as in the business sphere. Hutton asserted the need for additional dimensions
of public relations for individuals: “Virtually all of the definitions speak to the is-
sue of ‘organizations,’ ignoring the practice of public relations for individuals or
groups of people who are not formally organized” (p. 202).
One problem faced by public relations practitioners seeking better public re-
lations is that the reputation of the practice seems to be getting worse rather than
better (Henderson, 1998; Ihator, 1999; Spicer, 1993). In sum, antagonism and
animosity toward public relations have been embedded in journalistic culture.
Content analyses of public relations terms provide more evidence of negative
connotations of the public relations profession (Aronoff, 1975; Henderson,
1998; Olasky, 1987; Rhinebeck, 1999; Spicer 1993; Ward, 1998; Weaver &
Wilhoit, 1986). Several studies demonstrated that journalists view public rela-
tions practitioners as adversaries and rate public relations as one of the least hon-
orable occupations (Ryan & Martinson, 1988; Spicer, 1993). Journalists tend to
believe that public relations practitioners are more inclined to mislead the pub-
lic than is actually reported to be the case. Public relations practitioners argue
that media professionals are biased against them and their clients and that they
are often unfamiliar with the topics they write about (Ward, 1998). Overall,
previous studies confirm the existence of antagonism among journalists toward
HUTTON’S PUBLIC RELATIONS DIMENSION
Hutton (1999) argued that the public relations has failed to evolve broadly ac-
cepted definitions of public relations in terms of its purpose, its dominant meta-
phor, its scope, or its underlying dimensions. He asserted that the academic defini-
tions are too normative to describe the contemporary public relations practices of
businesses and of individuals, such as politicians. Hutton (1999) proposed that the
three I (interest, initiative, and image) dimensions are most likely to encompass a
variety of orientations or definitions of public relations.
The interest dimension is similar to the “balance of intended effects” proposed
by Grunig and Hunt (1984). The critical question is “To what degree is the public
relations function focused on client interests versus the public interest?” The sec-
ond dimension, initiative, asks “To what extent is the public relations function re-
active versus pro-active?” The third dimension, image, suggests the following
question: “To what extent is the organization focused on perception versus reality
(or image versus substance)?” (Hutton, 1999, pp. 201–204).
Based on these three dimensions of public relations, Hutton (1999) developed
six frameworks for analyzing public relations theory and practice. Hutton’s di-
mensions of interest, initiative, and image capture the range of public rela-
tions functions more fully than Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) two dimen-
sions—the way of communication and the intended effect. Thus, the six
frameworks are more descriptive of contemporary public relations than
Grunig and Hunt’s conceptualization.
Persuasion refers to the prevalent practice of public relations. Hutton (1999) ex-
plained that persuasion is oriented toward persuading audiences to think or act in
ways that benefit the client–organization. Promotion, propaganda, and the “engi-
neering of consent” fall in this category.
Even if advocacy is similar to persuasion in its intentions, it is different from per-
suasion in that advocacy arises out of controversy or active opposition. Thus, advo-
cacy public relations efforts are triggered by a crisis or other catalyst.
Public information as defined by Hutton (1999) is similar to Grunig and Hunt’s
(1984) public information model. Public relations serves primarily as an informa-
tion subsidy in an organization and as an information clearing house.
The cause-related framework is similar to advocacy in that it may be reactive and
triggered by a public event. Cause-related public relations, however, serves a
broader public interest rather than any special-interest group or individual. For ex-
ample, Hutton (1999) stated that public relations carried out by the Red Cross and
the American Cancer Society falls into this category.
THE PORTRAYAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS IN THE NEWS MEDIA 401
Like the publicity (press) agentry model of Grunig and Hunt (1984), image–repu-
tation management looks primarily to publicity, spin control, and the creation and
manipulation of symbols as its primary tactics.
Relationship management values the relationship between an organization and its
publics. This framework emphasizes mutual trust, compromise, cooperation, and,
whenever possible, win–win situations (Broom, Casey, & Ritchey, 1997; Bruning
& Ledingham, 2000; Grunig & Huang, 2000; Hon & Grunig, 1999; Ledingham &
One of the excellent aspects of Hutton’s (1999) framework is the distinction be-
tween public relations roles and the functions of public relations, which are not end
goals in themselves but means by which a given objective is achieved. Thus, he ar-
gued that some tactics do not necessarily involve communication activity between
an organization and its publics. For example, “publicity” does not define public re-
lations but is simply one possible function or tactic of public relations. He pro-
posed that communication is not necessarily a sufficient foundation for public rela-
tions. In classifying the term public relations in mass media more extensively,
Hutton provided a relevant framework for analyzing the connotation of public rela-
tions in news content.
Analysis of news stories containing the term public relations can shed light not only
on how public relations is portrayed in the news media but also on how it is under-
stood in a society. Given the earlier studies, the meanings of public relations can be
analyzed depending on the public relations definition. The connotative meanings of
public relations may be related to the news type and organizational type.
Thus, the following hypotheses can be proposed:
H1: The overall connotation of public relations is more likely to be negative
than positive in news stories.
H2: With regard to the function of public relations, image making is more likely
to appear in the news stories than is management function.
H3: The negative use of public relations is more likely to be associated with a
business organization than a government agency.
The first hypothesis reveals the overall connotation of public relations in news
content. The second hypothesis illustrates the function of public relations in news
stories. The third hypothesis explores the relations between organizational type
and the connotation of public relations in news content.
Data Collection and Analysis
Instances of the term public relations were drawn from five media sources, in-
cluding two prestigious newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street
Journal, and the evening news on the three main television networks—ABC,
CBS, and NBC. It is reasonable to assume that the two newspapers represent na-
tional news and business news, respectively. The three television networks cho-
sen represent national television networks in the United States. To reflect con-
temporary use of public relations, the time period examined spanned from
October 1998 to October 2001. News stories containing the term public relations
were drawn from the LexisNexis database. These news stories basically contain
a public relations term, the term public relations, or a related term such as public
relations war. The LexisNexis database yielded 567 stories containing the term
public relations. For the purpose of the relevant objectives of the study, this
study excluded public relations terms related to position and company name,
such as public relations agency, public relations firm, and public relations direc-
tor/manager. After the screening process, a total of 303 public relations terms
were selected for analysis. The newspapers yielded 207 stories with the term
public relations and the network television news yielded 96 stories found in the
transcripts of network news stories. The content analysis unit was a news story
containing the term public relations. To examine research questions, chi-square
was used for statistical analysis.
First, the term public relations was analyzed by the purpose of public relations,
based on Hutton’s (1999) framework. Based on Hutton’s classification, the pur-
pose of public relations was interpreted as persuasion, advocacy, public informa-
tion, cause-related public relations, image–reputation public relations, and rela-
tionship management. Second, news story types were analyzed by news format
(straight, feature, opinion column, editorial). Third, the connotation of the term
was analyzed in the news context. In this regard, the coding category refers to
whether the term public relations was used positively, negatively, or neutrally. A
positive meaning displays the positive role of public relations, suggesting the accu-
THE PORTRAYAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS IN THE NEWS MEDIA 403
rate meaning of public relations and a beneficial outcome to an organization. A
negative meaning involves a dilemma of image, or failure of reputation manage-
ment toward the organization. In this case, public relations was portrayed in a de-
rogatory manner. A neutral meaning denoted a general adjectival use of public re-
lations as in the phrases public relations strategy and public relations campaign.
To test for intercoder reliability, two coders coded the same 303 stories. The Scott’s
pi intercoder reliability was conducted for the primary public relations purpose,
primary news type, and the perceived meaning of public relations. Scott’s pi was
.85, .94, and .82, respectively. The overall Scott’s pi coefficient was .84.
This study examined the meanings of public relations in the context of news me-
dia. Table 1 shows the primary purpose of public relations as placed in the news
context. Among Hutton’s (1999) six frameworks, image–reputation management
(51.8%) was the most frequently used for the primary public relations purpose, fol-
lowed by the purposes of persuasion (25.1%), public information (13.2%), advo-
cacy (4.3%), cause-related public relations (3.0%), and relationship management
(2.6%). In fact, image–reputation management, persuasion, and public informa-
tion covered more than 90% of the total news stories. The journalists most fre-
quently perceived public relations as image–reputation management (51.8%) fol-
lowed by persuasion (25.1%) when the term public relations was displayed in the
news media. Thus, it is possible to reason that most journalists perceive public re-
lations primarily as image–reputation and persuasion efforts.
Table 2 shows the news type covered in the news stories associated with the use
of the term public relations. Straight news stories (65.3%) were the most frequent,
Primary Public Relations Purposes in News Stories
Purpose of Public Relations Frequency %
Persuasion 76 25.1
Advocacy 13 4.3
Public information 40 13.2
Cause related 9 3.0
Image–reputation management 157 51.8
Relationship management 8 2.6
Total 303 100.0
News Story Type Containing the Term Public Relations
News Type Frequency %
Straight 198 65.3
Feature 61 20.1
Opinion 25 8.3
Editorial 19 6.3
Total 303 100.0
followed by feature stories (20.1%), opinion (8.3%), and editorial (6.3%). Table 2
demonstrates that the majority of news stories containing the term public relations
appeared as either straight news or feature types.
Table 3 demonstrates how public relations terms were used in the news stories.
As noted in this study’s coding category section, a positive use involves the accu-
rate meaning and constructive function of public relations. In contrast, a negative
use refers to image problems and the failure of image making. In other words, pub-
lic relations was perceived only in relation to the image-building function. A neu-
tral use involves the general naming of public relations related to its routine func-
tions. Even though the neutral meaning (46.9%) was most frequent in the analysis,
negative connotation (40.9%) was much larger than positive connotation (12.2%).
The high frequency of neutral use may be attributed to the journalistic practice that
emphasizes fairness and objectivity in gathering information and reporting issues.
Moreover, communication through media generally tends to be a publicity func-
tion, which is rarely practiced by two-way communication. Journalists doubt the
credibility of news sources in that public relations material is often disguised as
news, or too frequently insists on promoting products and services that do not de-
serve news space (Aronoff, 1975). It is important to note that negative terms were
used much more often with the term public relations than positive terms. Table 3
summarizes the classification of the meanings of the term public relations in the
The connotation of public relations was more likely to be negative when the
news stories dealt with business organizations and federal or state government,
χ2(8) = 23.73, p < .01 (see Table 4). In addition, if the news stories involved a ce-
lebrity or politician, the connotation of public relations exhibited a more negative
tone. In contrast, the term public relations was more likely to be used positively
when dealing with nonprofit organizations, with 38.9% of total news stories on
nonprofit organizations. Only 7.6% of business organizations were described posi-
tively in relation to use of public relations terms.
When the relation between organization type and public relations purpose was
analyzed, the image–reputation function managed by business organizations was
the most dominant coverage in the news media, χ2(20)= 31.8, p < .05. These results
Meaning of the Term Public Relations
Meaning Public Relations in Newsa n %
Positive PR support (4), PR success (3), PR victory (3), PR advice (3), PR help 37 12.2
(2), PR tutelage (2), Good PR (2), PR benefit (7), PR value (3), PR
support (1), PR boost (1), PR fronts (1), PR comeback (1), PR boon
(2), PR bonanza (2)
Neutral PR campaign (39), PR strategy (17), PR move (2), PR efforts (18), PR 142 46.9
blitz (10), PR exercise (8), PR pitch (4), PR news release (3), PR
offensive (2), PR move (2), PR assistant (1), PR expert (4), PR
makeover (3), PR drive (4), PR operation (1), PR standpoint (1), PR
guru (1), PR service (1), PR venues (1), PR people (1), PR department
(1), PR promotion (3), PR apparatus (2), PR and marketing (5), PR and
advertising (6), PR opportunity (2), PR maven (1)
Negative PR disaster (27), PR problem (10), PR liability (2), PR debacle (4), PR 124 40.9
damage (5), PR nightmare (7), PR battle (6), PR war (4), PR stunt (3),
PR difficulty (4), PR fiasco (2), PR coup (5), PR blunders (2), PR mess
(2), PR mistake (2), PR risk (2), PR headache (4), PR ploys (2), PR
wizardry (1), PR black hole (2), PR grunt (1), PR flair (1), PR flop (1),
PR ordeal (1), PR back eye (2), PR crisis (3), PR spinmeister (3), PR
maneuver (1), PR buzz (2), PR gaffe (1), Bad PR (1), PR fallout (1),
PR shadows (1), PR hell (1), PR hirelings (1) PR fumes (2), panache
for PR (1), PR concern (3), PR embellishment (1)
Total 303 100
Note. PR = public relations.
aNumbers in parentheses indicate the frequency of appearance.
Organization Type and Connotation of the Term Public Relations
Positive Neutral Negative Total
Organization n % n % n % n %
Business 12 7.6 81 51.3 65 41.1 158 100
Federal or state government 7 14.9 23 48.9 17 36.2 47 100
Nonprofit 7 8.9 6 33.3 5a 27.8 18 100
Citizen group 1a 7.7 5a 38.5 7 53.8 13 100
Politician or celebrity 10 14.8 27 41.1 30 44.1 67 100
Total 37 12.0 142 46.9 124 40.9 303 100
Note. χ2(8) = 23.73, p < .01.
aThe cells less than 5 are not included for overall calculation of the chi-square test.
indicated that image–reputation was covered as the most dominant function of
public relations (see Table 5).
As shown in Table 6, a chi-square test showed that the most negative connota-
tion was statistically significant when public relations was used to convey the
purpose of image–reputation. In addition, the neutral meaning of public relations
was closely related when the term public relations was used for the purpose of
persuasion. There was no statistical difference between media types in the use of
public relations terms.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
This study examined the use of the term public relations in newspapers and net-
work television news stories. Ordinary people’s perception of public relations is
the product of socialization, education, and incidental learning from both mass
communication and personal experience. Lippmann (1922), for example, used the
term stereotypes to describe our stock of mental images. Social psychologists use
the more neutral term schemas. Schemas denote knowledge structures based on
experiences that organize people’s perceptions of the world. The analytical ap-
proach to schemas is based on the notion that people are “cognitive misers,” that is,
people have well-defined cognitive limits (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Thus, analyzing
how the term public relations was used in news stories may help us to understand
the meaning of public relations in media.
By using Hutton’s (1999) public relations framework, this study analyzed the
connotative meanings of public relations that influence the general public’s under-
standing of public relations. The findings suggested that news stories primarily use
the term public relations to suggest image building, reputation management, and
persuasion efforts. The use of public relations terms was likely to refer to publicity,
image, campaigns of persuasion, and marketing efforts to promote an organiza-
tion’s products or services. Contrary to the recent emphasis on public relations as
relationship management, the overall news portrayal of public relations suggested
a discrepancy between the normative definition of public relations and media us-
age in news stories.
In particular, the results of this study reveal that negative connotations of public
relations were overwhelmingly prevalent in news stories discussing public rela-
tions. For example, the phrases public relations disaster, public relations problem,
and public relations debacle were frequently used when journalists wrote news
stories about organizations. In most news stories, public relations was described as
an image-building function and reputation management.
The results demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of news story refer-
ences to public relations are negative or unfavorable in tone. Only 37 of 303 refer-
ences were classified as positive, with 142 neutral and 124 negative. There are multi-
Organization Type and Primary Public Relations Purpose
Primary Public Relations Purpose
Public Cause Image or Relationship
Persuasion Advocacy Information Related Reputation Management Total
Organization n % n % n % n % n % n % n %
Business 42 26.6 2a 1.3 23 14.7 6 3.8 80 50.2 5a 3.3 158 100
Federal or state government 11 23.4 3a 6.4 6 12.8 3a 6.4 24 51.0 47 100
Nonprofit 2a 11.1 4a 22.2 12 66.7 18 100
Citizen group 7 53.5 2a 15.5 4a 31.0 13 100
Politician or celebrity 14 21.0 6 9.0 7 10.3 37 55.2 3a 4.5 67 100
Total 76 25.1 13 4.3 40 13.2 9 3.0 157 51.8 8 2.7 303 100
Note. χ2(20) = 31.81, p < .05.
aThe cells less than 5 are not included for overall calculation of the chi-square test.
Purposes of Public Relations and Connotations of Public Relations Terms
Positive Neutral Negative Total
Primary Purpose n % n % n % n %
Persuasion 4a 5.3 15 19.7 57 75.0 76 100
Advocacy 9 69.2 2a 15.4 2a 15.4 13 100
Public information 2a 5 15 37.5 23 57.5 40 100
Cause related 1a 11.2 4a 44.4 4a 44.4 9 100
Image or reputation management 21 13.4 102 64.9 34 21.7 157 100
Relationship management 4a 50 4a 50 8 100
Total 37 12.2 142 46.9 124 40.9 303 100
Note. χ2(10) = 113.43, p < .001.
aThe cells less than 5 are not included for overall calculation of the chi-square test.
ple definitions and meanings of public relations. Grunig and Hunt (1984) defined
public relations as “management of communication between an organization and its
publics” (pp. 14–15). Given the results of the analysis of the term public relations, it
appears that media professionals do not buy the normative definition when writing
news stories. The adjectives added to public relations terms in news stories are most
likely to be restricted to image–reputation management and persuasion efforts.
Cancel, Cameron, Sallot, and Mitrook (1997) proposed contingency theory as
an alternative to the normative theory of public relations. Cancel et al. argued that
public relations practices encompass a wide range of functions from the extremes
of pure advocacy to pure accommodation. Thus, they proposed that this continuum
perspective better reflects public relations practices and strategies in a real world.
The contingency theory emphasizes the primary function of public relations—the
accommodation of the interests of organizations employing public relations activi-
ties—rather than the secondary consideration of the public’s interests. In this vein,
the use of public relations in news stories is generally perceived as an advocacy
Although some public relations scholars and practitioners are now embracing
two-way communication models that allow mutual understanding and accommo-
dation, public relations has historically been practiced as publicity, persuasion, and
media relations, which are primarily one-way directional communication. Given
the widespread influence of mass media, negative connotations of public relations
make it difficult to reframe the status of public relations in society.
In recent years, public relations scholars have defined public relations as rela-
tionship management (Bruning, 2002; Bruning & Ledingham, 2000; Grunig &
Huang, 2000; Ledingham & Bruning, 2000). Relationship management implies
THE PORTRAYAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS IN THE NEWS MEDIA 409
that public relations should be sought in the organization–public relationship and
should result in beneficial outcomes to both publics and organizations. Clearly,
media outlets are critical constituencies of public relations for an organization.
Greater understanding of the news media’s perceptions of public relations as per-
ceived in news media may help public relations practitioners address the problem
of distorted definitions of public relations in news stories.
In general, public relations scholars define public relations as relationship man-
agement between an organization and its publics. Surprisingly, the results of this
study show that personal public relations is perceived largely as the positioning
and promotion of individuals to form a public identity. The study demonstrated
that the news media frequently use public relations terms when describing politi-
cians or celebrities in the news. As Morton (1999) pointed out, public relations for
individuals is steadily emerging as a significant area of practice, yet little research
and theoretical development is currently being undertaken in this area. The study
of public relations references reveals that individuals practice positioning, image
building, and positive forms of public identity creation. Given the frequent cover-
age of personal public relations, public relations research needs to include personal
public relations in the future.
One of this study’s important findings is the close relation between the negative
connotations of public relations and the organization type covered in the news sto-
ries. The majority of negative connotations centered on public relations failures,
problems, and disasters. The results indicated that the definition of public relations
was still understood as image making and reputation management. Often the term
is used in a derogatory manner, such as “public relations headache” or “public rela-
tions ordeal.” In particular, business organizations facing a public relations prob-
lem were portrayed in a negative manner when the organizations had failed in im-
The analysis of public relations purposes based on news stories clearly indi-
cated that the interpretation of public relations was narrowly defined as opposed to
the normative definition advocated by scholars. Among the six dimensions of pub-
lic relations purposes, almost half of the references to public relations referred to
image–reputation management (51.8%), followed by persuasion effort (25.1%)
and public information (13.2%). Even when the term public relations is under-
stood as advocacy (4.3%), cause related (3.0%), and relationship management
(2.6%), the overall references to public relations suggested one-directional com-
munication to audiences. Although recent relationship management emphasizes
mutual understanding and dialogic accommodation efforts by two sides, most cur-
rent usage of public relations in the news predominantly referred to marketing,
publicity, and campaign efforts for the purpose of image making.
One common criticism of public relations definitions is that many academic defi-
nitions are too normative or idealistic rather than descriptive of public relations func-
tions in contemporary business and politics. This study’s analysis of the term public
relations in news stories uncovers the actual understanding of public relations in
mass media. A normative definition of public relations explains how public relations
should be practiced (Grunig, 2000). Some scholars have defended an asymmetrical
approach to public relations by arguing that the symmetrical model meant that orga-
nizations would have to abandon their self-interest, which they considered to be un-
realistic as well as ill advised. In response to these criticisms, Grunig argued consis-
tently that the symmetrical model actually serves the self-interest of the organization
better than an asymmetrical model because “organizations get more of what they
want when they give up some of what they want” (Grunig, 1992, p. 539).
The analysis of connotative meanings of public relations terms indicated that
news stories do not yet display favorable attitudes toward the term public relations.
The dominance of image making as a public relations function exhibits a disparity
between the academic definition and the lay person’s understanding of public rela-
tions. Henderson (1998) suggested that education of journalists, editors, and col-
umnists would remedy the misuse of the term public relations. However, the re-
sults seem to indicate that showing the effectiveness or the value of two-way
communication by public relations practitioners would be a more convincing alter-
native to correct the restricted understanding of public relations among journalists.
Unless public relations practitioners show the excellence of two-way public rela-
tions, news media are likely to continue their inaccurate uses of the term public re-
lations. The results imply that public relations practitioners trying to pitch their cli-
ents’ stories need to understand the news value of these stories from the perspective
of the news media. Two-way communication should begin with media relations
via understanding news media’s viewpoints. The generation of news coverage in
the news media has been the central work of public relations for a long time. In line
with the newly emerging framework of relationship management, media relations
should be redefined to build an accurate definition of public relations for both news
media and public relations practitioners.
Aronoff, C. (1975). Credibility of public relations for journalists. Public Relations Review, 1(1), 45–56.
Bishop, R. L. (1988). What newspapers say about public relations. Public Relations Review, 14(1),
Broom, G. M., Casey, S., & Ritchey J. (1997). Toward a concept and theory of organization–public rela-
tionships. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(1), 83–98.
Bruning, S. D. (2002). Relationship building as a retention strategy: Linking relationship attitudes and
satisfaction evaluations to behavioral outcomes. Public Relations Review, 28(1), 39–48.
Bruning, S. D., & Ledingham, J. A. (2000). Perceptions of relationships and evaluations of satisfaction:
An exploration of interaction. Public Relations Review, 26(1), 85–95.
Cancel, A. E., Cameron, G. T., Sallot, L. M., & Mitrook, M. A. (1997). It depends: A contingency the-
ory of accommodation in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(1), 31–63.
Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
THE PORTRAYAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS IN THE NEWS MEDIA 411
Grunig, J. E. (1992). Symmetrical systems of internal communication. In J. E. Grunig, David M.
Dozier, William P. Ehling, Larrisa A. Grunig, Fred C. Repper, and Jon White (Eds.), Excellence in
public relations and communication management (pp. 531–576). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Grunig, J. E. (2000). Two-way symmetrical public relations: Past, present, and future. Journal of Public
Relations Research, 12(1), 23–48.
Grunig, J. E., & Huang, Y. (2000). From organizational effectiveness to relationship indicators: Ante-
cedents of relationships, public relations strategies, and relationship outcomes. In J. A. Ledingham &
S. D. Bruning (Eds.), Public relations as relationship management: A relational approach to public
relations (pp. 23–54). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Henderson, J. K. (1998). Negative connotations in the use of the term “public relations” in the print me-
dia. Public Relations Review, 24(1), 45–55.
Hon, C. L., & Grunig, J. E. (1999). Guidelines for measuring relationships in public relations. (Avail-
able from the Institute for Public Relations, University of Florida, PO Box 118400, Gainesville, FL
Hutton, J. G. (1999). The definition, dimensions, and domain of public relations. Public Relations Re-
view, 25(2), 199–214.
Ihator, A. (1999). Society and corporate public relations: Why the conflict? Public Relations Quarterly
Ledingham, J. A., & Bruning, S. D. (1998). Relationship management in public relations: Dimensions
of an organization-public relationship. Public Relations Review, 24(1), 55–65.
Ledingham, J. A., & Bruning, S. D. (2000). Introduction: Background and current trends in the study of
relationship management. In J. A. Ledingham & S. D. Bruning (Eds.), Public relations as relation-
ship management: A relational approach to the study and practice of public relations (pp. xi–xvii).
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Lee, M. (2001). The image of the government flack: Movie depiction of public relations in public ad-
ministration. Public Relations Review, 27(3), 297–316.
Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Morton, J. (1999). Personal public relations: Identity as a public relations commodity. Public Relations
Review, 25(4), 465–480.
Olasky, M. N. (1987). Corporate public relations: A new historical perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Law-
rence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Rhinebeck, A. (1999). Society and corporate public relations—Why the conflict? Public Relations
Quarterly, 44(3), 33–40.
Ryan, M., & Martinson, D. L. (1988). Journalists and public relations practitioners : Why the antago-
nism? Journalism Quarterly, 62, 131–140.
Severin, W. J., & Tankard, W. J. (1997). Communication theories: Origins, methods, and uses in the
mass media (4th ed.). New York: Longman.
Spicer, C. H. (1993). Image of public relations in the print media. Journal of Public Relations Research
Taylor, C. A., & Condit, C. M. (1988). Objectivity and elites: A creation science trial. Critical Studies in
Mass Communication, 5, 293–312.
Ward, K. L. (1998). Successful public relationships. New York: Ladd Ward.
Weaver, D. H., & Wilhoit, G. C. (1986). The American journalist: A portrait of U.S. news people and
their work. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wimmer, R. D., & Dominick, J. R. (2002). Mass media research: An introduction. (7th ed.). Belmont,