Answer: public relations made in heaven... From Britpop to the Church, there's no escaping the all-pervasive hand of PR, says Oliver Bennett why tthere is no escape from the all pervasive culture of PR he al
ophie Rhys-Jones, inamorata of Prince Edward, has had an up and down week. First, it was reported that she had secured a new part-time job as a public relations (PR) consultant for pounds 50,000 a year to Hollander Communications, in west London. The tabloids got their calculators out and reckoned that she was selling her name - on the back of a royal connection - for a touch less than pounds 1,000 a week. Nice work, if you can get it.

The company - which is ex-directory, oddly for a PR firm - quickly moved to quash the rumours, saying that it has "no intention" of trading on Sophie's name. Even her salary was downplayed to half the reported amount.

PR is seen as a suitable job for the upper crust, gels in particular. But why? "For every high-profile Sophie Rhys-Jones, there are a hundred PRs at the strategic end, beavering away. But any article about PR snipes away at the 'sloanes' and 'bimbos'," moans Quentin Bell of the Quentin Bell Organisation, chairman of the PR Consultants Association. "We suffer from the Alice band stereotype."

But does having a smart name help? "When I started in 1973 I bought a lord on board," says Bell, who used to employ Sophie Rhys-Jones. "Didn't help at all. People want the service. But having said that, it does help to have posh names in certain circumstances."

Today's PR people, however, do not wish to dwell upon such silly concerns. For them, PR is a skilled profession, which is too often trivialised. Bell is on a mission to "reposition" PR as a "boardroom philosophy" that is strategic rather than promotional, and he wishes to capture the media high-ground, whereby people associate PR not with the ra-ras and yahoos, but with opinion-forming power figures such as Tim Bell (no relation), who managed Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. "It's not just getting journalists pissed, though that does still happen," says Bell. "There are just under 10,000 media outlets in this country, and PR's influence is on the rise. Events increasingly have a PR perspective - look at Brent Spar, British Gas, BSE - all the big issues have a communications element. We're in the persuasion business." Bell adds that old anti-marketing tomes such as Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders have led to a view of PR as being sinister and manipulative. "I say bullshit to that."

There are signs that communication is being taken more seriously in the business world. "Look at the confusion around BSE and the Government, or the Yorkshire Water crisis," says Jeremy Weinberg of the Institute of Public Relations. "There is obvious benefit from communicating clearly and effectively." Esther Kaposi, an independent consultant who has advised on communications strategy for the BBC, the Metropolitan Police and the Prison Service, warns that "cosmetic reputation enhancement" doesn't work. "Every organisation should have a finger on the pulse of public opinion, and try to anticipate problems," she says. "It is now much more common for companies to delegate public speaking to a PR professional who is paid to understand these criteria, and the companies that are most successful are bold and unsecretive, like Virgin and the Body Shop."

The PR industry is about 100 years old, and its American founding father was Edward L Bernays, who called it a social science. Matthew Freud, of the hugely successful Freud Communications (a scion of the famous Freud family and, incidentally, also a great nephew of Bernays) says: "People get irate about editorial being tainted, but people have been using the media to change public opinion for a long time. When Sting draws attention to the rain forest in interviews: that's manipulating editorial."

Some PR practitioners are rather more harsh on themselves. One high-profile PR consultant, who "desperately" requests anonymity, says: "It's a horrible industry, divided into two types of people. Either you have power and leverage and can influence the outcome of editorial, or you're a good receptionist. If you're not frightened, you'll make a good PR. But the second cynicism starts to bite, you should get out: because then you're not going to be able to convince people effectively. It tends to be a young person's industry - and frankly, it is not rocket science." The same consultant does not approve of articles about PR, on the basis that "the less you reveal about the cracks to the public the better. Readers don't want to feel as if they've been manipulated."

There is no stopping the ever-flowing tide of PR, which now even encompasses religion. Rob Marshall of 33 rpm - a London Christian consultancy set up last November - is now expanding with clients that include the Archbishop of York, the Most Rev David Hope, and ARK2 Television. "The world of ecclesiastical spin doctors is growing. The church has something to say, and how it packages that is a massive task. For instance, at the moment the church could put some spin on Tony Blair's trip to America."

And rather like God, PR is invisible and ubiquitous. There is a current notion of "morphic resonance"; that people hook simultaneously on to subjects and fashions by some semi-psychic means. Alas, the truth is more prosaic: it is often PR that puts them in mind. For instance, in the 1980s both Barcelona and Glasgow became hip destinations as if by magic; in fact, there was considerable PR effort behind the scenes.

"The Filofax was another good example," says Esther Kaposi. "It has been around since well before World War Two, but it became an Eighties icon as if overnight. How did that get into our heads? It was shown to a few journalists, then it was planted in the public mind as an object of desire."

Even cultural events may be instigated by PR. "PR is all-pervasive these days, to the point of providing a cultural premise for a phenomenon," says John Best of Savage and Best, the PR consultancy which helped to freight the notion of Britpop into the public imagination. "We find bands we like, justify their existence and provide a conduit between the isolated artist and isolated journalist." It is more, he says, than being a hypester or publicity-stunt merchant. "We're influencing the influential," says Best.

The music business has long been a platform for skilful PR. There are suggestions that Sixties Beatlemania was more stage-managed than is commonly supposed, in order to give value to the band's stock. The public may not necessarily approve of the PR boom, but there is every indication that it will only increase. "People are taking any opportunity to promote anything, and more of what we read and see in future will be managed by PR people," says Kaposi. For there are large fortunes at stake, and in the information war, who persuades wins.

great pr hits

BRITPOP: PR-driven music phenomenon of Beatles'-like propotions. (Even their personality wars were orchestrated, reckon cynics.)

VIRGIN's handling of alleged "dirty tricks" campaign by BA.

WINDOWS 95: landmark PR campaign for Microsoft's run-of-the-mill computer upgrade.

McDONALD'S: lauded by PRs for swift its reaction to the BSE crisis. Sales have barely dipped.

SHELL's Brent Spar episode: now cited as a prime example of how to lose the PR war (in this case, to Greenpeace).

PERRIER's benzene scare in the Eighties - the company dithered, then recalled its bottles. Sales never recovered.

GERALD RATNER's comment that the jewellery sold in his shops was "crap" is regarded as the ultimate piece of PR self-destruction.