What happened to the backslapping, what happened to the big men's-grill laughs coming out of those cigar-smoking types in stingy-brim hats, guys who were always coming into the newspaper to feed jokes to the columnists in order to publicize their clients? Like, didja hear about the new drink at the KitKat Klub? It's called the Louis XVI -- after one of them you lose your head. And hey, howbouta coupla hockey tickets?

What happened to the old public relations hype-ola, those hot-weather pix of starlets in bathing suits perched on cakes of ice: Temperature's RISING -- IT ISN'T SURPRISING! Howbouta champagne breakfast, an all-expense paid tour of Alsace-Burundi (with handshake pix with the prime minister). . .

Here in the General Services auditorium, the audience has that rectangular, pin-striped look you associate with, say, a meeting of the Central Bankers in Zurich. The speakers, on the other hand, and a fountain of one-liners.

"He was so mean, his mother had to wrap him in pork chops so the dogs would play with him," says the speaker.

Porkchops.

The audience gives out a low grunt of a noise, not quite a laugh, more just an acknowledgment that joke has been uttered.

"He gets along fine with Nancy Reagan," says the speaker. "Except she's trying to get him to wear Jerry Zipkin's castoff suits."

Castoff suits. Grunt of acknowledgment.

The weird thing is that it's the PR people in the audience, a couple of hundred members of the Public Relations Society of America, here for their Washington meeting. They speak for corporate and establishment America. They speak a lot, enough that the Reagan White House would be happy if they were saying the same things that it is. And up on stage is the press, in the form of Bill Plante, CBS White House correspondent, introducing Lyn Nofziger, head of the White House political office.

It's Nofziger who has his tie pulled down and the cigar the size of a fire hydrant in his hand when he takes the stage to sell the Reagan economic package, the Reagan ledership and popularity; it's the White House aide, here, who has the flashy trademarks, PR stuff, sell the sizzle, not the steak. The air conditioning has conspicuously failed, so Nofziger pulls off his jacket. "It's just like my business, a lot of hot air in this place." o

Hot air. Grunt.

What's going on here? What about the hockey ticket? The Alsace- Burundi chorus girls?

The night before, at a cocktail party at the Hyatt Regency, James Little looks at a wise guy who is reminiscing about all the old PR schlockola.

"We hope we're just a tad away from that," he says, as if the very thought of it were something he'd found crawling through a salad.

Little is president of the PRSA, and head of Diversified Communications, in Findlay, Ohio. He also puts "APR" after his name, meaning Accredited Public Relations, a certification you only get after written and oral exams. He does not call himself a flack, a press agent or a publicist, N-C no. He is a "counselor."

"We have an identifiable body of knowledge," he says. "We have an enforceable code of ethics." These are two of the defining characteristics of a profession.

A profession. Okay, if it's a profession, who are the all-time great PR men? What are the great PR cases? Who's the PR version of Dr. De Bakey, what's the PR equivalent of the Scopes trial?

"We have our Silver Anvil awards," Little says, but he can't recall specific instances of the great cases offhand.

Isabel Parke can. Parke runs a newsletter called "PR Reporter" and is a PR counselor.

"Watergate," she says.

Watergate?

"Of course. Nixon fell down because he surrounded by lawyers. Lawyers tend not to talk to the public and see everything in terms of adversary relationships. If he'd been surrounded by public relations people, he never would have believed he could have bulled it through."

It's an interesting thought, especially in light of the generally amicable relations between the Reagan White House and the press -- Lyn Nofziger saying, for instance, that "Overall I cannot think of an administration which has been treated more fairly and objectively by the press."

Or President Reagan saying in Januray: "The public affairs profession is perhaps the one most acutely aware of the responsibility business and industry have to our society as a whole."

Or four, count 'em, four Cabinet officers who agree to jump through a hoop or two for a couple of hundered PR people: Richard Schweiker, secretary of health and human services, James Watt, secretary of the interior, Raymond J. Donovan, secretary of labor, and Malcolm Bladrige, secretary of commerce. Plus Richard V. Allen, the national security adviser to the president Richard Richards, chairman of the Republican National Committee, James Baker, White House chief of staff . . .

Who are these PR guys that they have the press and government dancing attention on them?

Lyn Nofziger kisses off the question of why he's taking time to speak to this crowd with "Because they're human." He thinks better of this after a while and comes back to say: "It's important to speak to groups of people who are involved in the dissemination of information. You have to stay in touch. They represent a lot of people."

At the very least, to judge from the preregistration list, they represent: General Motors, Westinghouse, Munsingwear, Reynolds Metals, Phillips Petroleum, Control Data, the National Society to Prevent Blindness, California State University, Dow Chemical, Children's Hospital in Boston, Coca-Cola, the U.S. Treasury, the American Red Cross, John Hancock Life Insurance, the City of Tucson. . .

"We're talking through you," Nofziger tells them. The programs, the image, the strategies, all of it trickling down to and through the boardrooms of America, the plants, the communities around them.

"We're into issue management and strategic planning," says Edie Fraser, who heads a PR firm here.

Issue management: Jack McGoldrick of the American Can Company is one of the men who starts managing whenever one of the states introduces a bill requiring that all cans and bottles be returnable. "We're opposed to that for obvious reasons. We coordinate with people like Coca-Cola , and contact local plant people in the states concerned to get them writing letters to the legislators to write the letters for them if we have to. We contact the legislators, packages, wholesalers, retailers. . ."

He talks with a lot of people, which is why Nofziger wants to talk to him about getting the budget passed, or why Secretary Schweiker will climb up on a stage with a slide projector. "Since you're PR people, you'll understand what this is," he says, and flashes a red, blue and yellow graph on the screen and campaigns for budget cuts.

He's followed by Frank Ursomarso, director of the White House Office of Communications, who mentions, in near conspiratorial tones, the existence of a budget booklet for "high-level executives" in the White House. Fortunately, he happens to have a couple of hundred of them with him to hand out to the PR folks.

Says Terry Mayer, of Terry Mayer Inc., a New York PR firm, to explain why this crowd id so staid and reserved: "These are the men who move the country. They're not allowed to have personalities."

That's why you don't hear a lot about great PR types.

And Isabel Parke, the one who suggested Watergate as a great PR case, comes up to a reporter and says she's been wondering for a whole day now why there are so few great moments in public relations. "I talked it over with some of the other people here and we decided that our job is enabling an institution to reach accommodation with its environment, so you don't get great stories."

Fitting in. Playing along. Managing issues.

It's a long way away from the days of backslapping and Alsace-Burundi chorus girls.