The initials became almost as ignominious as the scarlet letter itself. Putting them on your letterhead or business card was like hinting the return of the locust. You whispered them even to your friends.
Public relations people even changed their titles: information specialist, public affairs director, community relations manager, corporate issues director. Boston University dropped the name altogether. ''School for Public Relations and Communications'' became simply ''School of Communications.''
It worked for a while, but people grew wise. You had to drop out of public relations or face the name-calling: flacks, blast artists, space-grabbers. Leave it behind and you were likely to be told, ''Glad to hear you're going straight.'' Let's face it, they said, a flack by any other name smells as sour.
Not any longer.
This often-sneered-at vocation is coming of age. The symptoms are a near-doubling of the number of public relations people in the past 15 years. As the worldwide communication and information explosion has brought people closer together - across town and across continents - people and organizations have had to get better at communicating with one another. The new demand has brought a better educated, more mature and responsible group of people into the PR fold - which has generated greater public acceptance.
The newest landmark in PR is a student population that for the first time is pursuing public relations in greater numbers than its ever-popular cousin, journalism. A major survey of 243 colleges and universities performed by Paul V. Peterson, professor of journalism at Ohio State University, reflects the new demand. ''The largest percentage of students enrolled in the autumn of 1980 as majors in journalism are interested in working in public relations,'' he says. On the heels of this, Dr. Albert Walker of Northern Illinois University recently found that the number of students majoring in public relations at 256 colleges has doubled in the past five years - all this at the close of the decade that saw Woodward and Bernstein fill journalism schools to the tune of 70,000 (more than enough to fill every current journalist position in the country).
''It's booming at the moment,'' says Joseph Awad, public relations counsel for Reynolds Metals and president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). ''Now, it's just as important a management function as finance or research and development or marketing or any of the other disciplines in a corporation.''
In that wake comes a burgeoning number of books, periodicals, and public relations associations. These reflect the serious efforts to surround public relations with status and advance the competence of those who practice it.
PR started in business corporations. But now you'll find it is a vital part of management in any organization, be it government agency, university, financial institution, cultural organization, or trade association.
Mr. Awad attributes this growth to the rise of consumerism, environmentalism, and the loss of public credibility of many institutions in the 1960s and '70s.
''That gave a tremendous impetus to the rise and to the legitimizing of public relations, particularly in business corporations,'' Awad says. ''Many who prior to that had maybe given lip service to PR but hadn't really used it the way it should be used, or many of them who didn't even have a department or PR counsel, got into it and are now sold. They know it's got to be a way of life and an everyday way of doing business.''
In all, there is a pretty bright next decade for PR, experts say. For the first time it is being considered a worthwhile ''first-line'' career rather than a sub-field that journalists and others ''happen into.''
The first thing you find in trying to get a grasp on public relations is that there have been as many definitions of what it is as there are followers of the craft.
''Today, any plumber or car salesman can call himself a public relations expert until he's found out. And if he's found out, it reflects on all public relations people because there are no standards,'' says Edward Bernays, the acknowledged founder of modern public relations. In 1923 he wrote the first book , entitled ''Crystallizing Public Opinion,'' and taught the first PR course, at New York University.
''My solution to that situation is that public relations do the same thing that law, medicine, and architecture have done to prevent antisocial elements from creeping into the activity: by demanding the state define it in terms of education, training, and character.'' In other words, license and register PR people.
The field is divided - just about 50-50 - on the issue of licensing. It is also sharply divided about what PR practitioners do and thus what they should be taught.
Mr. Bernays takes issue with PR as merely a communication function taught hand in hand with journalism - as it is taught on about 250 campuses across the country. ''Receive the broadest training possible,'' he suggests. ''And specialize in the general social sciences. Know something about society and study sociology, social psychology, public opinion research, anthropology, and cultural anthropology. If you don't get a widely diversified background, you become a tool instead of a counselor. A good communicator alone does not necessarily make a good public relations man.''
The Bernays story shows the strength of his argument.When Mr. Bernays set up shop in 1913, PR was better known as straight publicity. That could include stonewalling, whitewashing, even lying. Companies used it to try to counter the dirty linen hung out by the muckrakers and politicians. But the more business found out about the verdicts of public opinion, the more they wanted to respond to it, even mold it.
Bernays was the leader in making public relations a two-way street - not just handing out publicity or finagling the company name into the news columns. He led the movement toward a profession of adjustment - of people, groups, and organizations to one another. A company that did not adjust its attitudes and actions to public opinion suffered the consequence of poor public relations, he says.
''Procter & Gamble came to me and said they were worried about kids growing up to hate the company - because mothers washed their faces so the soap stung their eyes,'' he says. A bit of research turned up the possibility of soap as sculpture. Bernays engineered a national contest that he says helped overcome 22 million youngsters' resistance to soap and the company name.
A few years ago, the United Way wanted to know why donations drives weren't doing as well as they would like. ''I asked people why they did and didn't give: peer pressure, altruism, whatever,'' Bernays says. ''It turned out, donors resisted giving at the office and allowing their company the credit for donations.'' United Way began collecting at home and income soared.
Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, has written and edited 14 books on public opinion and public relations. He was the personal agent of opera singer Enrico Caruso, movie magnate Samuel Goldwyn, ballet producer and choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, publisher Henry Luce, and a sprinkling of US Presidents from Coolidge to Eisenhower.
Bernays's philosophy is to use research to find what people are interested in so the message and program can be properly conceived and directed. To him, PR is the art of advising the client on how to create and meet his company's goals, remembering that the court of public opinion is more powerful than that of law.
In another instance, Bernays's client was the United Fruit Company. It had a problem with its labor force: The Indians who worked for the company would stay in one place for only three years because the corn that was their staple crop exhausted the soil in that time. The first solution - developing a hybrid corn that would grow in the same soil year after year - failed because the Indians believed corn was highly associated with their procreative powers. They feared the new hybrid. Research with an anthropologist produced the result: A tribal shaman blessed the new corn, the Indians accepted it, and the company's labor problems were solved.And PR refers not only to companies but to causes, says Bernays. He has been involved with such projects as: how to get the American public to stop smoking; how to develop better community relations between school systems and the public; how to get the United Nations accepted.
In sharp disagreement with the Bernays philosophy are educators like Prof. Walter Seifert, who in 1968 co-founded the Public Relations Student Society of America. In August, Seifert completed a study of Ohio State PR graduates he has placed in the field over the past 20 years. Respondents' on-the-job experience averaged more than 8 years. Results showed that 80 percent are engaged in ''news bureau functions.'' Therefore, he feels, the field is properly embraced by journalism.
''Most PR people plow the mundane fields of news releases, booklets, newsletters, fact sheets,'' he says. ''The top 10 functions are almost all journalistic, the things that PR people dom . . . . If they had come out of a school of behavioral science, like sociology and psychology and so forth, how would they do the following things: news releases, booklets, manuals, newsletters, fact sheets, special events, magazine articles, still photos, product publicity, and trade paper publicity?''
Mr. Seifert emphasizes that his study is based on respondents already in the field. His study showed the Bernays-style ''policy counseling'' was 30th in a list of 60 - from news releases to labor relations. ''It would be nice if all PR people, like the big shots in New York, helped companies change the set of their sails, initiated policies, told them to start this and stop that,'' he says. ''The great majority of people who call themselves PR people have not reached the corporate suite, the executive level. Most PR people are communicators.
Somewhat in the middle of these divergent opinions is Betsy Anne Plank. She is head of the PRSA's Educational Affairs Committee. It consists of half professional practitioners and half educators.
''We're trying to reinforce what the professors teach with the experience of the practitioner,'' she says. ''It's ironic indeed that many schools of journalism have not yet caught up with where their students are. For the students themselves, that can not only be ironic, but tragic.''
She was a member of the joint task force of PRSA, the PR division of American Educators in Journalism in 1976, which released ''A Design for PR Education,'' considered the bible of that field. The study recommended an eclectic curriculum in English composition and literature, psychology, sociology, economics, history , accounting, and political science, in addition to current communications courses.
Ms. Plank says no recent college graduate, no matter how much of an academic background he's had in the field, is going to become a counselor right away. ''You've got to go through your apprenticeship. . . . In our sense, you have to back it all up by experience, and 10 or 15 years down the line that's when you do things like the Bernayses and Ivy Lees.''
And although studies show that students are attracted to the high-income brackets possible in PR, a high percentage seem attracted to the prospects of future counseling. They want to learn how to design programs that can have far-reaching effects for the smooth acceptance of worthwhile organizations or causes, such as:
* To dramatize the spirit of American Thanksgiving, the US ambasssador to Ecuador invited 250 workers and their families to a Thanksgiving dinner at a YMCA in a workers' district of Quito. Six hundred people were served dinner by American Girl Scouts, Brownies, and Boy Scouts. The ambassador read the President's Thanksgiving Day proclamation and explained the meaning of Thanksgiving and America's desire to share its abundance with all peoples. The event, planned by the ambassador's information officer, was recorded for rebroadcast over Ecuador's radio stations, the main channel of communications in a nation where illiteracy is common.
* In 1963, the Swedish parliament voted to change Sweden's traffic from left-hand to right-hand driving. This change was effected in September 1967, with a minimum of difficulty and a reduction, not increase, in auto accidents. The successful switch was made possible because of a $5 million public relations and advertising campaign that paved the way for this drastic change in driving-walking habits. A research group prepared 60 reports and guiding memorandums. These were used as the basis of an imaginative, intensive educational effort that saturated every channel of communication and reached every person in Sweden.
But the grand strides taken by PR in numbers and acceptance don't offset the gap between where the vocation is and where it would ultimately like to be.
The perception of the public relations person as an immoral chameleon is far from stamped out. That is the creature who can adapt easily from, say, fund raising for a hospital to rousing public opinion against medicare. And in doing that, they appear to have no convictions of their own but simply serve the master that pays them.
State-administered competency examinations could pave the way out of charlatans abusing the catchall term. One-third of the PRSA membership of nearly 11,000 is accredited, having passed a battery of oral and written examinations in PR theory, history, and ethics. But the program is voluntary. ''Public relations can never be considered a profession until it has prescribed standards for all, an enforced code of sanctions, and expulsion,'' says Professor Seifert.
Ray Hiebert is professor of communications at the University of Maryland and editor of Public Relations Review, the most scholarly of periodicals in the field. He says the civil rights movement was a classic PR effort that succeeded because it paved the way through understanding, not cover-up or image-conscious publicity. And he sees the Vietnam war as one of PR's biggest failures:
''The Pentagon simply pursued that war based on its own interests in using its military hardware, and the political interests of containing communism, and never once took into consideration public attitudes, public opinions,'' he says. ''And they did not do anything about assessing those attitudes - even what it did know it didn't act on. Therefore it never did a very good job of PR.''
He says the vocation must educate the public as well as its own ranks about the proper province for its skills. His comment shows the strides PR has taken since Ivy Lee merchandised the image of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by having him hand out dimes.S
'PR has a funny kind of problem. You've got people who think that all PR is is a way to cover up the truth. They want to hire people to cover up the truth, that that's PR. That isn'tm PR. PR is uncoveringm the truth on every hand. Because you can't really operate for very long in a society like ours by hiding things from people.''
But asked for the biggest problem confronting public relations today, he responds:
''The big question is, how do you prove that PR is effective? That's the No. 1 question. Actually, I don't think PR will mature completely until it can solve that problem. It will have to be able to say, 'We have a legitimate function and we operate in that function effectively, and we can prove our effectiveness.' ''