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Strategic Communication in Public Relations Expository Essay

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Updated: Sep 20th, 2019

Public relations/Advertising history


Public relations have always had an advocacy function and recently the field moved towards a management aspect.

The field was purely activitist in nature as it only related to actions seeking to influence relationships in any way, but the managerial orientation of PR has created parameters to follow and narrowed the definition of PR to only include actions that seek to influence relationships with constituents in a sustained strategic manner (Nan & Faber, 2004).

While PR has its roots in activism, advertising started as small scale PR attempts by private individuals or entities. The press was the preferred form of carrying advertising messages because of its reach to the masses.

Historical features of public relations and advertising

Growth in PR throughout the recent centuries has mainly been a response to democratic freedoms and the growth of free markets (Cutlip, 2013). Before free markets, publicity, puffery, and press gentry were still preferred ways of promoting causes, such as raising funds or calling for reforms.

In the nation’s political struggles, techniques and tools of persuasive communication were preferred because of their effectiveness in achieving intended purposes. Slogans, staged events, and being the first to reach the public and using a sustained approach to saturate the public with campaign messages are old tricks that have passed on from the informal forms of PR to the present well managed forms (Weilbacher, 1996).

One of the biggest beneficiaries of PR in its primitive forms is the Constitution of 1787. Ever since, the presidential elections have been avenues for strategists and skilled publicists to influence the public to be sympathetic to their causes (Hallahan, 1999).

On the other hand, the commercial aspect of advertising meant that it could serve as a revenue source for the medium used to carry the message. Thus, the practice of press ‘agentry’ took root in book publishing, resorts, and professional sports, among other forms (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). Rapid industrialization called for an increase in consumption to sustain industries.

The need fuelled the rise of advertising as a field (Hon & Grunig, 1999). A blanket focus on promotion of products and services caused many firms to spend on advertisements without scrutiny.

More precise forms of quantifying results were developed when it became difficult to justify spending with results, together with the emergence of different channels for advertising (The Economist, 2004). The growth of the newspaper led ads to be treated as news and companies used the opportunity to use ads to highlight new features of their products and services (O’Barr, 2010).

Direct selling messages were the preferred forms of advertisements by merchants in smaller towns that did not enjoy early coverage of major newspapers. Thus, the most significant communicators of product features were storekeepers who interacted with customers. Meanwhile, merchants would aim to have the storekeepers in good relations terms.

Before salesmen, there were commercial travelers who owned mobile shops, which were merely a collection of goods that they sold from one town to another, like a less mobile hawker. Just like the early PR campaigns, slogans became a common form of advertisement, partly due to the increase in the number of products and the need to retain consumer attention.

Slogans were easy to memorize, while product descriptions were a mouthful; thus, they consumed the salesman’s time during interactions with customers. Advertising space was also becoming valuable and gender targets had already emerged, such that it was easier to use catchphrases that used less space and went down well with a particular gender, such as women (O’Barr, 2010).

Both PR and advertising benefited from technological advancement in mass media (Staudenmaier & Laird, 1989). The introduction of broadcast meant that more people would receive the same message at a given time and the communicated message could be enriched with music and other sound effects when being passed over the radio.

While advertisement was geared towards being relevant to the ongoing broadcast show, PR simply sought to cannibalize attention (Nan & Faber, 2004). Even though PR was formally organized during the Ludlow massacre events around the Colorado Fuel and Coal Company, it evolved to become organized propaganda used by the state and against the state. Technology only increased the speed of PR (Pinsdorf, 1999).

False advertising became an ethical crime after competitors and regulatory authorities sought to verify claims by advertisers about their products (O’Barr, 2007). For the first time, corporate PR emerged to manage advertised messages to ensure that the context of adverts was well interpreted (Collins & Zoch, 2007).

While the public was increasingly becoming concerned about corporate effects on society, advertising became insufficient as a form of corporate communication and companies that had become big enough to control the lives of thousands of people resorted to PR because it also allowed them to dominate the marketplace (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).


In the end, the features of PR and advertising were shaped by technological innovations and the growth in size and influence of corporations. PR, which began mainly as a form of activism, ended up embracing management principles and being a corporate tool for strategic communication, just like advertising.

However, increased numbers of advertisements across mediums forced advertisers to become more innovative, while some used false promises and claims that would eventually need adequate PR campaigns for restoring public trust.


The Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court: A Transformative Moment for Equality was named as one of the award winners for reputation management and brand management (PRSA, 2014). The campaign was carried out by a non-profit organization.

In the first stage of the situational analysis, HRC partnered with dozens of similar organizations in groundbreaking coalition efforts (Harris & Whalen, 2006). This would eventually transform the single, organization campaign into a nationwide movement that spiked conversations about marriage. The partnership must have created a relevant environment for setting the objectives of the campaign as step two.

Here, the objectives were to launch coalitions with peers and legal advocates. The coalition would then conduct oral arguments for two days in 50 states. The strategy was to reach all targets in whatever media they used. The targets for the campaign would be all adults in the United States. However, there were specific targets represented by various sectors of the American society.

For example, there were the military, media personalities, major corporations, prominent republicans, the White House, 44 million twitter followers, and 379,000 Facebook followers. The HRC campaign had separate strategies and objectives that fell into the overall plan of the campaign for these different groups. For example, for social media, the objective was to create an internet sensation into action.

The strategy involved the use of sign-up forms for the petition (HRC, 2014). After signing, users could share the petition across social media platforms and increase the reach of the campaign (HRC, 2014). In all the used tactics, the HRC campaign relied on fixed timelines, such as days or hours to achieve its objectives.

In the last stage, the evaluation of the effectiveness of the plan was made possible by the use of quantifiable objectives. It was simply a matter of monitoring sign-ups for each category and matching them with the targets (Hallahan, Holtzhausen, van Ruler, Verčič, & Sriramesh, 2007).

One of the reasons for the success was that the message of the campaign had a credible originator. The message of the campaign was comprehensible, the logo of the Human Rights Commission came to symbolize a moment for equality, and anyone spotting the logo was deemed to support the calls for the Supreme Court to make the right ruling on the case (Petty & Cacioppo, 1996).

The ease of the message made it easy to attend to and comprehend, as one only looked at the logo and got the message from association (Booth-Butterfield & Reger, 2004).

Channel factors also played a role; the fact that the HRC’s campaign message was being put through all media types, including the social media, meant that is was a mass appeal, rather than an elite appeal. Moreover, both corporates and the public could easily identify with such a message (Petty & Cacioppo, 1996).

Approaching the campaign from different angles, such as media, personalities, and institutions would ensure that the public had contact with the message and interact with it in various forms, before later forming their decisions.

At the same time, multiple points of contact allowed the campaigners to examine strategies that were working and those that were not very effective, such that they would alter messages accordingly (Bator & Cialdini, 2000). The use of slogans and the logo ensured that information retrieval was easy. The memory storage requirement was achieved by the use of multiple sources of information (Grunig, 1990).

Public relations and advertising theories

Most useful theory

The overall aim of any marketing communication should be to make consumers learn the availability of the brand and accept it and know its reality (Weilbacher, 2003).

I found the behaviorist theory to be the most reliable posit for use when making interpretations and implementations of marketing communication strategies. Knowing that marketing communication is not a stimulus in the behaviorist sense paves way for changing consumer perception so that the message has the desired effects.

Human behavior is not rational at all times and perception of an advertisement depends on several habits and attitudes, which may not necessarily be part of the perceived advertisement (Weilbacher, 2003). The theory calls for marketers to understand how consumers think and accept it so that they do not end up with advertising campaigns that fail to have the required impact on consumers.

The behaviorist theory, when applied to advertising and PR, removes clutter, repetition, and skepticism in marketing communication. The theory helps to eliminate confusion that could arise when advertisements are categorized together with other forms of marketing communication, like public relations, by being distinct about the meaning of advertisements.

Explanation of the theory and description of its application to the practice of strategic communication

The behaviorist theory offers a pragmatic understanding of the psychological ideology’s application in the modern times. It describes development and learning. The theory continues to undergo modifications, such that today it is best explained by assumptions held by its main proponents, normally referred to as the behaviourists.

According to the behaviorists, children come into the world clean, without any perceptions and go on to learn behavior from the objects they interact with in the world. The behaviorists focus on environmental stimuli that produce and reinforce desirable or undesirable actions and responses (Mackey, 2003).

The tie between behaviorism and marketing is tight. Initial connections were based on the need to solve consumer problems. The modern corporate marketing has been a big project of behavioral research.

Marketing researchers are already seeking ways to understand how consumers respond to stimuli. The researchers continuously infuse new findings into their communication strategies to ensure desired effects of advertising campaigns are achieved (Moncur, 2006).

In the practice of strategic communication, the behaviorist theory calls for the specific use of communication towards consumers to inform the context for consumers to make decisions. The message balances or reinforces a stimulus to have a positive orientation towards the intention of the communicator (Weilbacher, 2003).

The impact of the theory on strategic communication is that it compels researchers to use more elaborate forms of communication to create awareness, instead of limiting their attention to techniques that can only work on a section of the target population. Behaviorist segmentation has been a consequence of merging the behaviorist theory and strategic communication approaches.

Thus, practitioners now have to think of at least six things when choosing their strategy for communication (Hallahan, 2000). For example, they have to consider their present position in consumers’ minds and the promise that they bring to the target audience. With these two considerations, those in charge of delivering the message have to manage the delivery system for the message and its presentation.

Meanwhile, they should be appealing to the personalities of the audience and making propositions with the aim of being dominant features in the consumers’ decision making context. Thus, rather than focus on causing consumers to act in a given way, the communicator aims to be believable and become part of the main reference that the consumer uses when making decisions (Ledingham, 2001).

Research conducted by Vasquez and Escamilla (2014) on the SMEs’ use of strategic communication strategies using social media aimed to identify best practices and to confirm the existence of social media usage as a marketing strategy among SMEs.

The research confirmed the linkage between strategic communication and behaviorist theory, as it brought out the failures that companies make when they use social media without understanding the behavioral aspects of the target audience.

For example, while social networks offer real time, valuable and transparent information to SMEs, many of the impacted companies fail to reciprocate by presenting valuable and transparent information to their social media audience, which should help to inform their future buying choices.

In fact, the research confirmed the behaviorists’ claims that consumers are always taking in stimuli and their actions may not be specifically related to one marketing message. Consumers become influences of each other’s behavior by creating externalities though being intermediaries for the word of mouth transfers in social networks (Vasquez & Escamilla, 2014).

A persistent challenge for advertising and public relations theories is the multidisciplinary focus that prevents practitioners from realizing a common practicable working way for strategic communication. For example, when framing situations to deliver messages, marketers will still be subject to other influences that are not attributable to framing, because consumers are taking in various stimuli at any given time.


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