Column: How different is PR in Canada versus the U.S.?

Just before eight o’clock on the evening of Nov. 6, 1947, an eager group of students filed into the auditorium of the University of Toronto’s Economics Building on Bloor Street to take part in an historic event. They were there to attend the first class of the first Canadian university course in public relations. According […]

Just before eight o’clock on the evening of Nov. 6, 1947, an eager group of students filed into the auditorium of the University of Toronto’s Economics Building on Bloor Street to take part in an historic event. They were there to attend the first class of the first Canadian university course in public relations.

According to the brochure issued by the U of T’s Department of University Extension, the course would be “of interest and value to all levels of management personnel.” The lecturers were “recognized authorities” from Canada and the United States, and included PR chiefs from such major American corporations as General Foods and AT&T. The costs of bringing these high-profile people to Toronto were picked up by the course’s co-sponsors, the Association of Canadian Advertisers and the Advertising and Sales Club of Toronto.

The scene in the Economics Building auditorium on that November evening was interesting on a number of levels. Nearly 25 years after PR pioneer Edward Bernays launched the first public relations course at New York University, a Canadian university was finally taking the subject seriously enough to consider it worthy of academic study. The fact that more than half the scheduled speakers were being imported from the U.S. demonstrates how closely intertwined the U.S. and Canadian industries were. It also reveals how underdeveloped PR in Canada was in 1947, still seen, in some circles, as a subset of advertising.

But that would quickly change. Fueled by a post-war economic boom, and a fear among many Canadian business leaders that the public mood was turning against business and in favour of more government regulation, many Canadian companies quickly began adding PR specialists to their payrolls.

In the spring of 1948, a small group of PR practitioners in Montreal formed the Canadian Public Relations Society. They restricted membership to people who held staff positions in large companies, excluding consultants, who they feared might give PR a bad name, and anyone connected to advertising since they already had their own professional associations.

Today, as the CPRS celebrates its 65th birthday, the public relations industry in Canada, if not necessarily the CPRS, has never been healthier. According to The Holmes Report 250, net revenues for Canadian PR firms grew a healthy 15.3% in 2012, while a study of 15 Canadian PR firms done for StevensGouldPincus found that their operating profits rang in at 22.6% in 2012. Meanwhile, Statistics Canada reported that 54,605 Canadians worked in PR and communications in 2011, double the number of a decade earlier.

And even though most of the large PR firms in Canada are branch plants of American companies, most observers agree that today, public relations is perceived and practiced differently on this side of the border. The Canadian industry doesn’t carry much of the negative baggage that has so damaged PR’s reputation in the U.S. There have been few of the high-profile ethical missteps – the astroturfing, the faking of online identities, the deliberately deceptive spin doctoring – that flare up with distressing regularity south of the border.

How different is PR in Canada and the U.S.? The CPRS Code of Ethics is a statement of general principles that fills up a single page. Its American counterpart, the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Professional Ethics, runs on for seven pages and is still growing as unethical practitioners find new ways to abuse the guidelines.

Several years ago, both the CPRS and the PRSA set out to develop new definitions of public relations. The CPRS concluded that one of PR’s tasks was to “serve the public interest.” The PRSA rejected the CPRS definition, arguing that serving the public interest was not an appropriate goal for PR.

What accounts for the difference? Terry Flynn is a professor of Communications Management at McMaster University, and a former national president of the CPRS with decades of experience as a practitioner in the U.S. and Canada. He believes that PR in the U.S. should be viewed as part of the American culture of “boosterism.”

“They are more visible, louder, more colourful in how they do things than we are,” Flynn explained in an interview. “We’re quieter, more prone to listening than speaking, more interested in mitigating conflict.”

The answer can also be found in the history books.

From the very beginning, the U.S. was built on the shifting sands of promotional hype. In his classic history of American PR, Scott Cutlip examined the pamphlets produced by the businessmen behind the earliest colonial settlements. Desperate to attract settlers and investors back in England, they wildly inflated their charms, and seriously downplayed the risks associated with settlement.

By contrast, the settlement of Canada was considered too important a job to be left to land speculators. The first PR practitioners in Canada were employees of the federal government.

By the end of the 19th century, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior ran extensive PR operations out of the Canadian High Commission in London designed to attract settlers to the Canadian west. And as might be expected from a PR operation run largely by federal civil servants, the emphasis was not on hype, but on disseminating information and serving the public interest.

But it was the two world wars that really established the template for how PR in Canada and the U.S. would be practiced and perceived.

For the Americans, the defining moment was World War I. Within days of declaring war in 1917, the U.S. government brought together many of the country’s top advertisers, artists, writers and PR practitioners, including a young Edward Bernays, and created a massive wartime propaganda machine called the Committee on Public Information. Their mission: to use their formidable powers of persuasion to rally a reluctant American public to the cause.

They succeeded spectacularly. Within months, American opinion became rabidly pro-war and anti-German. The CPI propagandists appealed not to the head, but the heart. They played on Americans’ subconscious fears and desires, portraying the enemy as ruthless monsters and establishing iconic symbols like “Uncle Sam.” The head of the CPI later called it “the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.”

Bernays and other CPI members were both shocked and inspired by how easily they were able to manipulate public opinion through emotional rather than rational appeals. If those techniques worked in wartime, they wondered, why would they not work in peacetime? Bernays emerged from the war convinced that America was run by a small group of men “who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses,” and it was the job of public relations to assist them in “engineering the consent” of the masses.

The PR industry in the U.S. exploded in the 1920’s, with Bernays as its public face. Suddenly, the hidden hand of PR was everywhere. But rightly or wrongly, from that point on, PR would be associated not with the presentation of facts, but with manipulation and spin.

In Canada, PR was largely unknown at the time of World War I outside of government and a few large corporations. The first independent consultancies didn’t begin to appear until the 1930’s. So undeveloped was the industry at the start of World War II, that Jack Donoghue, a Winnipeg-based Canadian Press reporter who enlisted in 1942, wrote in his memoirs that he knew nothing about PR before he joined the army. In fact, Donoghue claimed, “I’d never met a PR person or seen a news release,” a statement that few American reporters in 1942 would have been able to make.

But all that had changed by the time the war ended. The Canadian military, under the guidance of Richard Malone, who went on to be the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and The Globe and Mail, established a PR corps, largely comprised of journalists, whose job was to help reporters on the front lines convey an accurate picture of what Canadian soldiers were facing on the battlefield, with only a minimal amount of censorship and spin.

And that PR corps proved to be an important spawning ground for the first generation of Canadian public relations practitioners, the one that gave birth to the CPRS in 1948. Many of the journalists who served in it never returned to their previous jobs after the war. Instead, they took the lessons learned in managing the media on the front lines and became part of the growing world of corporate and government PR. They didn’t see themselves as going over to the “dark side.” For them, PR meant openness and honesty and a genuine attempt to assist reporters rather than obstruct or mislead them.

Even journalists appreciated the effort. Writing in Saturday Night magazine in 1944, correspondent G.A. Woodhouse concluded that public relations practitioners were certain to play a critical role in the post-war world. “If he does his job well he will be worth all his keep and society will owe him a debt,” Woodhouse wrote. “If he uses his power for ends other than the highest, he is capable of becoming a public enemy. But of that, there is little fear.”

Today, few Canadian journalists would look upon PR quite so favourably, and the Canadian public remains distrustful of PR practitioners, but amongst both groups, PR is still generally seen as a more benign force than in the U.S.

But more benign doesn’t necessarily mean less effective. “PR has more of an obvious impact in the U.S. because of its role within the culture of organizations and how they communicate,” Terry Flynn argues. “We are just as effective as they are. We just have a different way of achieving our goals and objectives.”

Ira Basen is an instructor in the Masters of Communications Management program at McMaster University.

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