A Great Books Approach to Teaching Public Relations:
A method for merging public relations discourse with a liberal arts curriculum


Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Communications
Elizabethtown College
Elizabethtown, PA 17022


A Great Books Approach to Teaching Public Relations
A method for merging public relations discourse with a liberal arts curriculum

This paper presents an approach to teaching public relations which combines modern public relations discourse with the liberal arts tradition of the great books of western literature. The author proposes specific examples for integrating Plato's Cave (Republic, Book 7), Machiavelli's Prince and Thoreau's Walden as means for exploring questions concerning the development of current public relations practices and theories. This approach serves to develop critical analysis skills and an appreciation for the roots of modern public relations practices.

A Great Books Approach to Teaching Public Relations:
A method for merging public relations discourse with a liberal arts curriculum

In the late 1980s, Allan Bloom (1987) and E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (1987) questioned what our American education system -- from basic education to college -- was teaching students. Hirsch offered a catalog of what Americans needed to know to make sense of the world, while Bloom suggested that our failure to rely on great literature of Western culture and critical analysis skills would surely mean doom for future generations of college students (and our collective social conscience). When it comes to the practice of public relations, perhaps there is a happy medium among these ideas -- a means for bridging the gap between the practical discourse of public relations and the traditional liberal arts curriculum.

What do Plato's "Cave" (Republic, Book 7), Machiavelli's Prince, and Thoreau's Walden have to offer students who will practice public relations in the 21st century? How can these books be introduced in a public relations course curriculum? These are the questions that can be answered using a great books approach to teaching public relations.

Putting Public Relations and the Great Books in Context
Acknowledging the history of public relations may help put into context our modern interpretation -- definitions and roles -- of public relations. Erma Bombeck once quipped that motherhood was the second oldest profession. Byerly (1993) insists that public relations can be traced back just as far -- to biblical times. The public relations function has been carried out by governments and other institutions since the earliest days of civilization. For as long as public opinion has been important, the practice of public relations has been alive and well.

In its early stages, public relations was practiced for political influence. Machiavelli recognized the value of manipulating public opinion as an important force for ruling principalities during the Renaissance. The publication and distribution of the Federalist Papers, which led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, has been called "history's finest public relations job."

The practice of public relations has evolved from its early roots in press agency to the process of building and maintaining relationships that earn trust and motivate supportive behaviors. Today, the role of the public relations practitioner may be defined by some typical activities (Center and Jackson, 1995) which include research, strategic planning, counseling, internal education, communication, and evaluation.

Center and Jackson (1995, p. 6) present a list of "proven maxims" based on research and writings of such diverse scholars as Cantril, Lippmann, Roper and Gallup, which address laws of public opinion, barriers to communication, and innovation dissemination. These same principles and guidelines to the practice of public relations may be found in Plato's "Cave," Machiavelli's Prince, and Thoreau's Walden .

Plato's Cave
Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" provides lessons for the roles that public relations practitioners can play within an organization. The "Allegory of the Cave," as told by Socrates in Plato's Republic, compares the everyday world to an underground cave were people are chained in place. Before them is a wall and behind them is a fire. Unable to turn their heads, they see only the shadows cast on the wall. Knowing nothing else, they take these shadows for reality. If one of these people were unchained and brought to see the light of day and the reality outside of the cave, they would come to know the shadows from the real things that cast the shadows. After becoming accustomed to the world outside the cave, that person may feel remorse for those left in the cave and wish to return to free them as well. But his fellow cave dwellers would not believe the wild tales of the world outside the cave and they would consider him a fool for going out into the daylight. They might even revolt against him.

Philosophically, Plato's analogy is an attack on our habits of thought. For the practice of public relations, the cave and its prisoners provides an analogy of the public relations practitioner's role of boundary spanner -- one whose task is to establish and maintain relationships with entities outside the boundaries of the organization that are essential to carrying out the major work of the organization.

Public relations practitioners serve as spokespeople and change agents when representing organizations to internal publics and external publics. Often they fare as poorly as the one who got away from Plato's cave, because they bring news and information back to the organization that does not match the organization's perception of the world outside. In the imagery of Plato's analogy, it is the role of the public relations practitioner to set free the organization with the truth of the reality outside the boundaries of the organization.

This scenario, with terms like "reality" and "truth," usually starts a lively discussion concerning definitions of the truth and reality for an organization. For example, for the tobacco industry it is their truth that cigarettes do not promote cancer or other lung conditions. Yet for the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society, their truth indicts cigarette smoking as a major contributor to cancer and lung disease.

Through public opinion research and relationship building programs, public relations practitioners can maintain positive relationships and modify the opinions and attitudes of internal and external publics when their "truths" do not match. But as shown in Plato's cave allegory, the public relations practitioner must first have the trust of the organization before the research of the world outside the organization's boundary will have merit.

Machiavelli's Prince
The Oxford American Dictionary defines Machiavellian as "elaborately cunning or deceitful." In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli provides guidance through the description of a system of relationships between a new prince and his principality. The essential argument of The Prince is that the welfare of the state justifies everything and there are different standards of morals in public life and private life for leaders. In this way, Machiavelli separated ethics from politics. In more modern terms, we may talk about situational ethics for professionals in all disciplines, including public relations. This may lead to discussions of public relations and situational ethics, the placement of the public relations practitioner within the organizational structure, or organizational behavior during times of change.

Through the course of the book, Machiavelli discusses leadership styles, employee types, employee loyalties, motivational styles, persuasive practices, management principles, and relationship strategies for a new leader. A classic evaluation of The Prince may lead to the analysis that "the end justifies the means." Machiavelli is not shy about advising a prince to be devious, if it is in the best interest of his principalities and his people. The guidelines that he outlines can be reversed and used as practice guidelines for the public relations practitioner who must deal with a new leader who practices strategies credited to Machiavelli.

Thoreau's Walden
In Walden , Henry David Thoreau offers a rich mix of descriptive and narrative detail, self examination and self-explanation, social commentary and criticism, and philosophical speculation. Through his prose, Thoreau reflects on what he observed around him, on his visitors, on his readings, and on the American mania for commerce, possessions and success.

There are many great lessons that may be taken from Thoreau's Walden: lessons of simplicity, civil disobedience, as well as environmentalism and responsible use of natural resources. The practice of environmental public relations or green communications may be best enhanced by Thoreau's commentary on living in balance with nature. Through case analyses concerning technology and environmental communications, students can examine nuclear power plants and community relations programming, among other scenarios, in light of the Thoreau's philosophy. Thoreau's doctrine of civil disobedience may be used to explain public reactions to socially irresponsible actions on the part of American corporations.

These and other "great books" have much to offer as innovative means of developing and defining public relations principles in action. (The Wizard of Oz may be used to raise some interesting questions concerning the merits and pitfalls of total quality management, and literary image of the step sisters bloodying their toes to gain entry into the royal family in The Brothers Grimm rendition of Cinderella is a fertile discussion tool for the topic of corporate social consciousness.) The great books approach also provides a bridge between liberal arts core curriculum programming and the pre-professional disciplines of public relations and communications.

Applications of the Great Books Approach
By reviewing these classics of literature -- great books, public relations students incorporate the lessons of the literature with current public relations practice literature and research to gain a greater understanding of the application and creativity skills needed to survive as a communicator in today's corporate (or non-profit) culture.

Two methods are suggested for introducing the great books during a public relations course: 1) incorporating the great books principles into the regular course units as lecture and discussion elements or 2) incorporating the great book texts as student-directed research projects that enhance each course unit.

Using the first method, the great book texts are used as additions to the lecture and discussion portions of the course. This requires familiarity with the literature on both the students' and the instructor's parts. The students must be familiar with all of the texts used during the course, and the instructor must be prepared with case examples or hypothetical scenarios of how the principles of the books play out in modern public relations cases.

For example, during a unit on employee-employer relations, the lessons of The Prince may be used to illustrate the power dynamics of new corporate leadership. Here is a hypothetical situation for discussion: A new CEO is hired; as the first order of business he "cleans house" of corporate legacy staff. Machiavelli warned of just such leadership strategies in The Prince. While giving instructions to leaders in the text, Machiavelli also gave instructions to those who would report to the leader. Much of that advice can be adapted into communications strategies for the public relations officer who wants to maintain his/her position with the new CEO (Gillis, 1995). The advice may also be interpreted for a new public relations officer who has just been hired by the new CEO. Through roleplaying and discussion, students may compare and contrast the possible behaviors of the two different public relations practitioners -- the new public relations officer or a practitioner maintaining their position in this situation. From these two positions the students may discuss the scenario in terms of Machiavelli's advice and current communications strategies presented in the course textbook and current practice literature.

Using the second method, the great books are introduced as student directed research projects that enhance specific course units. This too requires planning on both the part of the instructor and the students. One way of using this method may include the following process: During the first class meeting, each student chooses a great book for the semester. Along with the book title, the instructor includes a course unit for which the student should prepare their research paper and presentation. The student is then required to lead part of the discussion of that unit in light of what they have learned from the great book principles and public relations principles, which they researched for their term paper.

For example, a student chooses Thoreau's Walden with an accompanying course unit of environmental public relations. After reading Walden and considering the growing body of knowledge available concerning environmental public relations (companies taking a "green" approach to management strategies and environmental companies battling public debate over the merit of nuclear power, the lumber industry and the conservationists, and rain forest depletion), the student constructs a research-based analysis paper concerning the principles espoused by Thoreau and the current state of environmental issues and public relations practice in the United States. The student may choose to adhere to Thoreau's simplicity themes and environmental reverence or may choose to discuss the public's response strategies, to name only two possibilities. The student's curiosity and time management skills are the only limitations to the possibilities of such a research assignment.

The Liabilities and Benefits
The greatest liability to a great books approach for the instructor is that of preparation. The instructor must be familiar enough with the literature to create working scenarios and class simulations based on the themes and principles developed in the each of the texts. This can be a time consuming preparation for someone who has not read these works of literature since their own undergraduate experience.

There are a number of benefits to this approach. As many institutions consider jointly taught courses to demonstrate the connection between the traditional liberal arts divisions and pre-professional programs within the modern academic structure, this approach attempts to make a bridge between literature (American, European and Eastern) studies, philosophy studies, and public relations.

An asset to the second approach is the staggered deadline for the research projects. Instead of reading 20 great book research papers at once, the instructor is confronted with only one or two a week (depending on the size of the class and how the approach is used in combination with other assignment options). A liability of the second approach is that students will complain that because the deadlines are staggered those students who present later in the semester have a greater prep time than those who are "unlucky" and choose a book and course unit that will is addressed earlier in the semester. A small price to pay for the creative problem-solving skills developed from the use of these literary texts.

In conclusion, a great books approach to teaching public relations allows today's public relations educator to integrate the great books of the western tradition into courses primarily devoted to professional skills development. Through integrating these diverse subject matters, students develop critical thinking skills as well as an appreciation for the literary tradition and the practice of public relations. Especially helpful for educators at liberal arts institutions, this approach illustrates once more the importance of developing critical analysis skills in tomorrow's public relations practitioners.


  • Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Byerly, C.M. (1993). Toward a comprehensive history of public relations. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 361 812)
  • Center, A. H., & Jackson, P. (1995). Public relations practices: Managerial case studies and problems (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Gillis, T.L. (1995). Machiavelli for modern times: An interpretation of Machiavelli's "The Prince" for the college president and the public relations officer, unpublished manuscript.
  • Hamilton, E. & Cairns, H. eds. (1961). The collected dialogues of Plato, including the letters. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Hirsch, Jr., E.D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolo. (1952 ed.). The Prince. Chicago: The Great Books of the Western World Series, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
  • Thoreau, H.D. (1990). Walden. Philadelphia: Courage Books.

Copyright, 2000, Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D., ABC.

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