What is public relations?

What is public relations?

On my first day in my public relations program, the prof said something along the lines of: “If you’re taking this program because you like people, you’re here for the wrong reason.” 

I was shocked.

After all, I like(d) people.

What he meant, I’ve come to understand, is that real PR isn’t the PR of Samantha Jones. It isn’t about drinks and parties and reclining with your feet on your desk. It is about people and relationships and continuous learning.

There is likely no term more fraught than public relations. You’ve probably heard something along the lines of: “That was just smoke and mirrors; it was just PR.”

Historically, there is a lot of truth in that statement. PR is an ancient practice. From the Caesar planning his grand return to Rome to Freud’s nephew using psychology to encourage women to smoke (Yikes to those “torches of freedom!), public relations hasn’t always been used with the purest of intentions.

As PR practitioners worked to create a profession of the field, some distance from the term “public relations” was desired. That’s why you will often hear the term “communication” used interchangeably with PR — and why so much confusion about the definition of PR exists.
There are numerous academic definitions of public relations but they all have main principles in common.

“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).

Public relations is, as its name suggests, focused on relationships. You may have also noticed other key phrases of that definition: “achieve mutual understanding” and “serve the public interest.”

Are these a surprise?

I have no doubt that they would be to the snake-oil salespersons of old.

Public relations or communication is the overarching umbrella that has a very wide range of specialities sitting within it.

  • Media relations
  • Social media
  • Employee or internal communication
  • Marketing-communication
  • International relations
  • Investor relations
  • Customer relations
  • Special event management
  • Fundraising
  • Research
  • Planning
  • Crisis communication
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Writing and editing

  • Although this is a long list, it isn’t exhaustive. It does, I hope, demonstrate that there is a lot more to public relations than publicity.

    Still have questions? Please post in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

    Colleen Gareau - Principal, Lakeview PR



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