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In Module 2, Unit 2, we tried to trace the historical origins of public relations. We noted that public relations is as old as human history. It therefore follows that the relationship between public relations and society is one that existed long ago. From the earliest crude methods of public relations to the modern form, the practice of public relations has had one effect or other in society. This is because public relations practitioners are members of the society and they carry out the profession in the society. The society is therefore the laboratory where PR practitioners experiment their policies and programmes. It therefore follows that the practice of public relations affects society positively and negatively. Due to the power that has been ascribed to communication in general and public relations in particular, a lot of concern and controversy has been generated on the influence of public relations on society whether for good or for bad, or what we can refer to as minus and plus of PR. Debates on public relations and society are equally as old as the practice of public relations. A lot of concerns have been expressed by society and practitioners themselves. In a bid to address some it these concerns, the profession has adopted various codes of ethics worldwide to guide the practice of public relations.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. Identify the impact of public relations on society. 
  2. Explain the benefits and harmful effects of public relations in society 


3.1 The Impact of Public Relations on Society

As a subset of communication, public relations functions to inform people, to persuade people or integrate people with people. Public relations affects people and is equally affected by people.

Public relations can be said to influence society two perspectives. One perspective sees it as impacting positively and adding value and progress to society. The other perspective sees public relations as influencing society in negative ways. This is true of anything in society. Anything in society should have its high and low points.
Those who argue in favour of the positive influence of public relations point to many values it credits its work to society, whereas critics are quick to point to its negative sides on society. This is to be expected on any activity that is undertaken by human beings which must have its good and bad sides. These arguments must be judgemental but ultimately the use of public relations to society must form the basis on which its pros and cons must be weighed. Let us consider some of its uses. Public relations is expected to be useful to society through the promotion of free competition of ideas and institutions through means that are wholesome. If publics relative campaign performs the function of suppressing counter ideas, then the social utility of public relations can be diminished.

Public relation serves useful role when it is used to ventilate public opinion as issues of concern to the public.  Public relations serves public good when public communication is conducted  in open and transparent way and not on the basis of hidden motives. To the extent to which public relations has succeeded in fulfilling the expectations of society or falling short of this expectations could form the basis of praises or criticisms of its impact on society. One thing is however clear, in the information age that society is, public relations is having a profound influence on how people in society relate to one another.

The social responsibility aspect of public relations reminds us that both individual practitioners and the profession as a whole are entrusted with the wellbeing of larger society as a condition on how they serve their clients.

3.2 Positive Impacts of PR on Society

It would be an understatement to claim that public relations has impacted positively on society. In the last three decades, public relations has contributed greatly to
building cohesion in society or what an American author refers to as the “Creation of Consent”. Public relations has been utilized by governments, big organisations and economic systems to maintain mutual relationships with their various publics. It has been used to prevent or minimize crisis situations, provide conducive environment for investment and profit for investors. It has helped to create a more harmonious employee relations that resulted in more stable jobs for employer as well as facilitating the smooth flow of goods for the consumer. The feedback mechanism provided by public relations has been useful in drawing the attention of governments to issues affecting the people. It has also created channels for governments, organisations and other well endowed people to contribute to uplifting the conditions of the less privileged in society through activities of non-profit organisations and societies. In sum, we can credit public relations with those positive impacts on society.

Public relations minimizes friction and conflict in society. This helps to provide conducive environment that engenders progress and development. Social stability is the mission and product of public relations. Public relations promotes mutual adjustments and adaptation between institutions and groups. These adjustments help establish smoother relationships that benefit society. Public relations provides avenues through which organisations and government speak to the people. It also creates avenues through which the public conveys its desires and interest to the government and corporate organisations.

Public relates helps to enhance social change by providing the communication needed to lubricate the challenging complexities and effects of these changes.

Public relations have played an important role in the communication system by enabling individuals to be informed on several aspects of subjects affecting their lives. Public relations stresses the need for public approval. This helps improve the conduct of organisations in their relations with the public.

3.3 Negative Impacts of Public Relations

As there are claimed positives sides of public relations, there have been criticisms about public relations and conduct of public relations practitioners.
Cutlip, Centre and Broom have identified three major ‘minuses’ of public relations in its relationship with society. They are:

  1. Public relations gains advantages for and promotes special interests, sometimes at the cost of the public well-being. 
  2. Public relations clutters already chocked channels of communication with debris of pseudo events and phony phrases that confuse rather than clarify. 
  3.  Public relations corrodes our channels of communication with cynicism and “credibility gaps”. 
Critics have argued that too often, the thrust of public relations is to obfuscate and obscure rather than to clarify complex public issues. Heilbroner recognized public relations as a social force that has contributed to the debasement of our communication. Writing on public relations: the invisible sell, he says:

No one can quarrel with the essential function that public relations fills as a purveyor of genuine ideas and information. No one denies that many public relations men, working for corporation as well as for colleges or causes, honestly communicate things which are worth communication. Nor can anyone absolve public relations for loading the communications channels with noise. We read the news and suspect the behind it ties the “news releases”. We encounter the reputation and ascribe it to publicity. Worst of all, we no longer credit good behaviour with good motives, but cheapen it top the level of “good public relations”.

Expressing concerns that practitioners clog communication channels with noise and clogging them with the clutter of manufactured stories, historian Daniel Boorstin argues that “pseudo-event” blur, rather than clarify public issues. In his book the Image, Boorstin writes:

The disproportion between what an informed citizen needs to know and what he can know is even greater. The disproportion grows with the increase of the officials’ power of concealment and contrivance. The news gathers’ need to select, invent, and plan correspondingly increase. Thus inevitably, our whole system of public information produces always more “packaged” news, more pseudoevens”


The debate on the influence of public relations on society is a continuous one. The relationship between society and public relations will continue to attract diverse comments for sometime to come. This is because public relations will continue to affect society positively and negatively. While the positive said can be encouraged, the negative side can be ameliorated through the high professional standards and ethical conduct on the part of practitioners.


In this unit, we have examined the minuses and pluses of the influence of public relations on society. We also saw that while practitioners have influence on society, society can also influence public relations by continuously harping on the need to exhibit sound ethical conduct in their practice.


The impact of public relations on society can be said to be both positive and negative. Discuss.


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