What Is Public Relations? Common Definitions and Resources on PR for Business
Communications has the power to contribute to reputational value when aligned with organizational actions. This is the domain of Public Relations—a discipline that engages publics using communications strategies to help build, promote and protect brands, organizations and individuals with the goal of helping them achieve measurable business goals.
Challenges of Defining Public Relations
There have been many efforts to define public relations as a practice, especially with the introduction of social media and an ongoing breakdown of silos between disciplines. None of these efforts has managed to capture the full scope of the discipline, and many have therefore received criticism for falling short in this. Among the most recent were a definition adopted by the Canadian Public Relations Society in 2009 and referenced in this PR Conversations blog post (full definition below), and the Public Relations Society of America’s much discussed crowd-sourced “PR Defined” initiative (more below).
The article “PRSA Defines 21st Century Practice through 20th Century Lens” by “Marketing Nightmares” author Steve Lundin offers a a critique that sums up common complaints about the PRSA’s effort in particular. Similarly, this PR Conversations blog post titled “Setting the Stage for a Defining Moment in Public Relations” spoke to the promise and problems behind the initiative at its inception, while simultaneously (re)affirming the Canadian Public Relations Society’s own definition and similar efforts.
As a result, we will not attempt to offer a perfect, all-encapsulation definition of PR. Instead, we offer a resource outlining various definitions and linking to the best posts on the topic we could find. We are open to adding others and to providing additional links. Simply email the editor at email@example.com.
Practical Definitions for Public Relations
At its most basic, public relations (PR) is the act of managing communications with various publics or stakeholder groups. More broadly, it is the practice of relating with audiences who influence or are influenced by an organization or individual. It is seen as being responsible for building, managing and protecting relationships with those audiences via communications strategies and tactics.
PR has been defined by as “the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics,” by James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt in “Managing Public Relations”, as referenced in Wikipedia here. That definition stayed with us for several decades.
Similarly, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) more obtusely defined public relations in 1982 as: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”
More recently, and perhaps an improvement, though widely criticized, the membership organization defined public relations via a crowd-sourced initiative as: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Compare this to the Canadian Public Relations Society definition adopted in 2009:
“Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest. ” (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)
These definitions aside, core to public relations is the responsibility for promoting and protecting a company or client’s brand, mission, values, news and major announcements with its key stakeholder groups via a variety of vehicles, including traditional and new media alike. These groups include the general public, the mainstream media, industry and geographic communities, investors, customers and employees alike. Various specialties within the broader field address each of these particular stakeholder groups. For example, media relations is a specialty that involves building relationships the press to secure positive earned media placement. Similarly, investor relations specialists work with investors, analysts and the financial press to build, promote and protect an organization’s valuation, while internal communications practitioners manage, among other things, communications with employees and other internal stakeholders.
What PR Is Not
Many discussions about what PR is start with what it is not. PR is not spin. PR is not hype. PR is not propaganda. PR is not a bad word, despite what you might have read at Gawker’s “PR Dummies” or elsewhere. And a PR pro is not merely a publicist. In fact, this is a battle taken up by “Spin Sucks” blog, which has set out “to fight (and change) the negative perception of the PR and marketing industries.” And, finally, PR certainly is not just publicity. It’s so much more …
Public Relations Activities
Public relations activities range from the strategic to the tactical falling under these roles and more:
- Public conduit/feedback loop: Communicating, interpreting and even recommending corporate action based on public perceptions of a brand, company or individual.
- Counselor: Serving in a strategic advisory capacity to management with regard to policies, corporate actions/behavior and all communications in the context of the organization’s corporate reputation and corporate citizenship.
- Researcher: Measuring and monitoring the corporate reputation and ramifications of corporate action and communications, while adjusting programs, campaigns and recommendations accordingly to help the organization achieve its goals.
- Communicator: Setting objectives, creating and executing communications plans, budgeting, recruiting and training staff to communicate the organization’s news, vision, actions and more to all stakeholder groups via traditional and new media communications channels. This includes, increasingly, engaging with publics via social media channels.
Public Relations Specialties
Public relations tactics are multitude and vary according to specialty. For example, media relations tactics include: Writing and drafting news alerts or press releases (including video news releases, social media releases and more), building media lists, pitching the press, tracking and monitoring media coverage, handling media queries, media training and more. Public relations activities can also include building exposure for executives or individuals via public speaking and media engagements (i.e., thought leadership programs), handling internal communications vehicles such as in-house newsletters and employee recognition programs, working on new product announcements and campaigns, rebranding, managing crisis communications and more.
Key areas of public relations specialty include:
- Media Relations
- Internal Communications
- Corporate Communications
- Community Relations
- Public Affairs
- Crisis Communications
- Government Relations
Public relations has grown to include other tactics and areas of focus with the rise of social media. In addition, the discipline has increasingly integrated with other marketing communications disciplines as social media and economic realities continue to break down the silos between them. Together, they have become known as Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC). That said, other related disciplines and sub disciplines can include:
History of PR
Edward Bernays (1891-1995) has long been considered the founding father of public relations. He was considered an expert in propaganda in the early 1900s, a term public relations practitioners have since tried to distance themselves from. In fact, Bernays helped U.S. President Woodrow Wilson “propagandize for allied war aims in World War I,” according to Sourcewatch. “He went on to design PR campaigns for politicians and companies such as General Motors, Procter & Gamble and American Tobacco.” He was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine.
Also considered a founding father of PR is Ivy Lee. Like other journalists of the time, he quit the press because of the low pay and long hours. He later founded an eponymous PR firm, considered to be the third of its kind in the nation.
Other pioneers of PR include Joseph Varney Baker, Leone Baxter and husband Clem Whitaker, Doris Fleischman, Denora “Denny” Griswold, who launched Public Relations News (the first publication about the practice). More recent pioneers of the practice include Harold Burson.
Bernays defined public relations as “a management function that tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization…followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” This definition isn’t too far afield from PRSA’s of the 1980s, or even more recent versions.
Certainly verbose, this definition conveyed a seminal concern that still resonates with public relations practitioners—namely that public relations NOT be relegated to a tactical function. Instead it is seen as a strategic, management function and one that drives results and ROI for companies and clients. Similarly, public relations professionals are seen (and like to be seen) as the guardians of corporate reputation, often billed as a company’s greatest asset. Even so, public relations often continues to be relegated further down the typical org chart than most practitioners would like—usually, but not always, answering to the marketing function under the CMO or the wider communications function under the CCO.
Future of PR
Practitioners, of course, expect the discipline to continue to climb the org chart and gradually assume equal status, responsibility and fiduciary resources as marketing. A host of developments and trends make this likely—ranging from increased consolidation of disciplines, to increased ability to report bottom line impacts and results due to improved monitoring and measurement tools, to increased PR “ownership” and mastery of the social media aspect of communications, to increased recognition by the C-suite that corporate reputation, trust and valuation are connected fall under or touch upon the domain of public relations. Finally, as silos break down across disciplines, public relations possibly stands the most to gain in terms of recognition and resources. As this happens, you can expect the “definition of PR” to continue to evolve.
Here are trends to watch that are likely to contribute to this moving forward:
- Convergence of disciplines continues
- C-Suite push for greater PR ROI accountability continues
- Measurement and monitoring improves
- Digital PR and marketing budgets grow
- Agency fragmentation sees the rise of solo and niche PR shops
- Content marketing, content curation, brand journalism grow in importance
- Web video and the trend to online “imaging” grows in importance
- Influx of digital natives to the PR practice
- Influx of practitioners from other disciplines into PR
PR Resources and Public Relations Organizations
The following resources can help provide a wider understanding of public relations and how it can help you grow your business:
- Arthur W. Page Society (AWPS): A professional association for senior public relations and corporate communications executives who seek to enrich and strengthen their profession.The membership consists primarily of chief communications officers of Fortune 500 corporations, the CEOs of the world’s largest public relations agencies, and leading academics from the nation’s top business and communications schools who have distinguished themselves teaching corporate communications.
- BIZ Finder Directory: The first customizable, social media-ready online directory of firms in PR, marketing, advertising, investor relations and other IMC disciplines. Over 2,000 firms listed already. Register and add your firm free here or search to find a PR firm here.
- Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms (CCRF): A national organization of leading public relations consulting firms operating in Canada. The CCPRF is dedicated to promoting the role of public relations in business strategy and organizational development and performance.
- Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS): An organization of men and women who practice public relations in Canada and abroad. Founded in 1948 from two original groups – the first in Montreal and the second in Toronto. In 1953, these became associated as the CPRSA, and the organization was incorporated as a national society in 1957. Today, CPRS is a federation of 14 Member Societies.
- Council of PR Firms: More than 100 of America’s leading public relations firms are currently members of the Council. Mission: Advocate for and advance the business of public relations firms by building the market and the value of firms as strategic business partners.
- Institute for Public Relations (IPR): An independent nonprofit foundation dedicated to the science beneath the art of public relations™.
- International Association of Business Communicators (IABC): Founded in 1970, IABC provides a professional network of about 15,000 business communication professionals in over 80 countries. Our members hold positions in:
- International Public Relations Association (IPRA): Formally established in London in 1955, it is now an active virtual network of global community of public relations practitioners communicating online and coming together to exchange knowledge, experience and expertise in regional and national conferences and workshops and the prestigious IPRA World Public Relations Congress.
- Public Relations Society of America (PRSA): Founded in 1947, PRSA is a community of more than 21,000 public relations and communications professionals across the United States, from recent college graduates to the leaders of the world’s largest multinational firms.
- LinkedIn Groups related to PR: Public Relations Agency Owners Association; Public Relations Subfocus Group of Marketing, PR and Sales; Public Relations Professionals; Solo PR Pros
Published: May 1, 2012 By: