What Does Public Relations Mean?

Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

That quote is often attributed to P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the late 1800’s and recognized by some as one of our country’s first public relations professionals. In addition to the circus, Barnum also owned a newspaper and museum, the latter of which he was said to display hoaxes and human oddities. It’s no wonder then that some people refer to PR people as flacks and spin doctors.

Groups like the American Council on Public Relations and the National Association of Public Relations Councils recognition of the value of ethical and effective public relations. The two merged in 1947 and formed the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) which today numbers more than 30,000 members working in every industry in the U.S.

When practiced correctly, PR utilizes a strategic plan to build reciprocal, credible and valuable relationships between the public and its company or client. This could mean everything from convincing customers to patronize a merchant to supporting a cause and a thousand other things. Where PR ran afoul is becoming equated with something akin to the stereotypical used car salesman.

In recognition of this, PRSA adopted a code of ethics in 1950 that applies to every member. Failure to adhere to the code can lead to expulsion from the professional organization. The code has been amended several times since then. Within this code is a statement of professional values that include such attributes as honesty, fairness, advocacy and objective counsel to those they represent, and expertise through continuing education.

PRSA has an accreditation program that certifies professional knowledge of public relations and also recognizes PR professionals who have made monumental contributions to the field of public relations by inducting them into their prestigious College of Fellows. There are presently about 350 Fellows.

Despite its efforts, PRSA still struggles with changing the stigma some people still have about PR and is seeking to redefine the profession. The association amended this definition of public relations in 1982 and again in 2012. The latest definition says: “Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

In fulfilling that definition, PR professionals today fill many responsibilities. These range from managing messaging on social media, writing for a variety of audiences and on different platforms, being responsible for corporate risk management and crisis communications, strategic planning in communications, acting as corporate spokespersons, training and coaching senior executives on communicating effectively to the media and other audiences, and recommending different community groups and nonprofits to collaborate with and possibly fund or sponsor.

Wise CEOs recognize the value of good PR people and give them a seat at the table. PR professionals don’t just put out information or respond to questions. They also are the eyes and ears of a company and often serve as an early warning system to potential threats and issues.


Uber’s Crisis Communications are Far From Uber - Ronn TorossianAbout the Author: Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR firm.

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