Persuasion as a profession has been raised to the level of art form in Washington as nowhere else.

But, for most of the city's history, it has been thousands of government public relations people and the politicians who made a real impact. Just as the area's advertising business generally has been weak, private sector public relations work here is not distinguished for the most part.

First, a definition of public relations, by Philip Lesly from his landmark handbook on the business: "All activities and attitudes intended to judge, adjust to, influence, and direct the opinion of any group or groups of persons in the interest of any individual, group, or institution."

As Lesly noted, PR work as a livelihood is a phenomenon mainly of the era following World War II. "It has been created by the forces that increased the tempo of the world, casting people into many diversified groups, all seeking different objectives yet all having to work together toward common advantages and progress," he said.

It is natural that Washington became a focus of such efforts at broad influence during the Depression and thereafter, because of a growing centralized government. And Franklin Roosevelt was a master at the art form, pushing government more and more into the business of explaining itself or trying to do so, because it was a necessary element in the art of politics.

When Jim Landis was in charge of civilian defense, he once wrote a letter under FDR's signature about the need to black out buildings. It stated: "Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all . . . buildings . . . from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by blackout construction or by termination of the illumination," and on and on and on.

Said FDR: "Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the window. In buildings where they can afford to let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights. Stop there."

Unfortunately, in the years after Roosevelt, government turned more to the language of Landis in its own operations as well as its communications with the public. And as government got bigger and bigger, the massive confusion about what's going on here helped spawn a huge growth in PR in all of its aspects--from lobbying to influencing legislation to old-fashioned press relations.

Still, PR as a Washington business remained pretty small potatoes. Trade associations and corporations have dominated the lobbying while local offices of New York companies have been the biggest in standard public relations activities. It also is true that biggest often is not best, and many small PR operations here have been creative and of value to their clients. To a large extent, however, public relations as practiced in Washington has been of the promotional variety and not necessarily informative or broadly representative of a client's needs.

In the view of Robert Keith Gray, a Washington PR practitioner for two decades, the weaknesses of local advertising and public relations reflects a "failure of agencies to recognize Washington is no longer a one-company town."

Too much PR thinking is focused on government rather than an "avalanche of associations, companies and an element of non-government business that is incredible to see . . . with all the world's press here today, you can touch every community of the world from here, it's a hub," he added in an interview.

To Gray, Washington has become a "CEO community"--a town that all important business chief executive officers must visit often. This change in Washington represents many new opportunities for the PR business here to expand its horizons, he said.

Gray is a key man to watch in this evolution, because he has set himself up in the PR business here in a big way. Gray & Co. opened its doors in plush Georgetown offices on March 2 and overnight it has shaken up its industry here and across the country with a degree of growth unmatched by virtually any other company in the era of Reaganomics.

Already, Gray's Washington company is within striking distance of becoming a major force in the PR business. After just six months in business, Gray's firm has built up more than $6 million in annual billings from a roster of several dozen clients that includes General Telephone & Electronics, Occidental Petroleum, Warner Communications, the American Iron and Steel Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

That makes Gray & Co. the largest in its business in Washington and one of the largest independent PR firms (not owned by another company) in the nation. Next month, Gray will open a Los Angeles branch office and other branches will follow shortly in Chicago and New York. For international work, Gray has signed up for a joint venture with Gerard Souham Group in Europe, which has offices in France, Switzerland and the Benelux countries.

Gray is quite firm about his goals: "To be the best and biggest PR firm in the United States." His interim goal is to be the largest independent firm, which means replacing Ruder & Finn, of New York, which had annual billings of $9 million for the year ended June 30, 1980. The bigger goal is to top Hill & Knowlton, the largest U.S. PR firm and Gray's old company, which has annual revenues of some $45 million.

Gray worked for H&K for two decades after he first came to Washington to work in the Eisenhower White House. He became the Central Casting model of the man about Washington, lobbying for his company's clients from breakfast through after-dinner party on most days. Ultimately, he became vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and a large stockholder (31,000 shares or 9 percent). The H&K office here became the largest in the business under his direction.

What made him leave? The turning point came last year, when H&K stockholders agreed to sell their company to the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm. He was the single board member to vote against the takeover bid and the only stockholder to speak out against the deal at a meeting called to vote on the proposal.

"We were selling something that wasn't ours to sell," Gray said last week. What made H&K tick was the "tremendous incentive" of stock ownership in the firm by employes and "I had no real feeling of proprietorship at J. Walter Thompson." So Gray took a leave of absence to work on President Reagan's election campaign and then was co-chairman of the inaugural committee. And he decided to go into business for himself, buying the aptly-named Power House on the C&O Canal for his headquarters (it formerly housed generating facilities for the old trolley system here). He invested more than $2 million in the building and ultra-modern offices that leap decades by featuring antique furniture.

Gray started out with 21 employes the first day because of a desire to be a complete business initially. As of last week, he had 64 employes. Growth has come so rapidly that he is leasing space in a nearby building and buying two condominiums next door, which he expects to occupy as offices.

Although the 57-year old Gray said he couldn't legally approach former clients or Hill & Knowlton workers about his new firm, many of both have moved to Gray & Co. and these developments helped him to hit the ground running in terms of having a successful business from Day One. Gray also emphasized that although he indeed is deeply committed to the philosophy and goals of the Reagan administration, this attachment and his previous GOP ties cannot add up to the long-term business volume he wants to build. He noted that under his leadership, Hill & Knowlton here grew every year whether Democrats or Republicans were in power.

He has hired prominent Democrats such as Gary Hymel, former top aide to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, and Bette Anderson, former Treasury undersecretary in the Carter administration. "Almost half the people here are Democrats," said Gray, who characterized himself as "a businessman who happens to think as these men in the administration do . . . profit is a decent and honorable thing."

Gray also noted that, in his view, a key to success in the type of lobbying his firm does is hiring young women in large numbers because so many top congressional staff members now are women and because the major lobbying work on details is now conducted at the staff level. About a third of Gray's employes specialize in lobbying, while the rest are engaged in broad PR.

Bob Gray also still thinks that employe ownership is important to success. He said he wanted to make the initial investment, so it would succeed or fail and affect only himself. Now he is getting ready to develop employe stock purchases. A company motto on the stock certificate is as good a definition of PR as there is: "Promise no more than we can deliver. Deliver more than we promise."

Gray believes this is accomplished by being very candid with clients that Gray & Co. can provide no rubber stamp for their goals. "I have never known a member of Congress or the executive branch who would vote for me on an issue regardless of the facts," he stated. "My real concern is that we be anticipatory, on top of the pulse of changes, and be ready with adaptations and services" that reflect changes in society and technology, such as the increasing impact of cable television (particularly inter-active systems that allow huge public opinion samplings), he added.

The real future role of much PR work will be at the grassroots level, because of the impact that such cable-opinion samplings will have on public policy, he predicted. Thus, as Washington gets its first big PR agency the future of that business appears to be broadly national in scope.