What Is PR?

15 Public Relations Components

What is PR? Talking to your publicsPR (Public Relations) continues to evolve as a business art and science. The objective of PR is to craft messages about a product, brand, individual, business, or organization targeted at a variety of one or more chosen publics.

PR defined

PR can be defined formally, as has been done by the PRSA, the PR professionals’ organization:

Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other. Public Relations broadly applies to organizations as a collective group, not just a business; and publics encompass the variety of different stakeholders. – PRSA (Public Relations Society of America)

It can also be defined less formally through cute stories:

“If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying ‘Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday’, that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed, that’s publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it, that’s public relations.” – Shared by Davina K. Brewer who attributed it to Reader’s Digest.

Analysis of what PR means to 31 professionals

Based on a search of the 31 definitions of PR collected in my recent post, here are some interesting statistics in terms of the words used to describe public relations.

  1. Marketing – 10 mentions
  2. Media (not social) – 8 (Note: I didn’t check for other related terms such as third party or press.)
  3. Relationship – 7 mentions
  4. Communications – 7 mentions
  5. Social media – 6 mentions (Note: Additional 2 others used similar terms)
  6. Reputation – 4 mentions
  7. Search – 3 mentions (Note: Additional 1 mentioned Google not search)
  8. Crisis management – 3 mentions
  9. Community – 3 mentions
  10. Engagement – 2 mentions
  11. Human – 1 mention
  12. Strategy – 1 mention
  13. Tactic – 0 mentions

What’s most striking is that, while PR professionals believe that public relations is a strategic corporate function that deserves a seat at the management table, only one person mentioned the word strategy and no one mentioned tactics. Although many PR practitioners would cringe at the notion that PR is a part of marketing, marketing received the most mentions (ten or roughly one third of the total). Interestingly, despite the recent blurring of the line between social media and PR, only six people mentioned social media (or eight if you consider those who used different but related terms), less than one in three. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, only four respondents mentioned reputation and only three cited crisis management, traditional PR specialties. Lastly, only one person mentioned the word human and seven used the word relationship.

What is PR in 15 Points

Based on the input from 31 public relations and marketing professionals along with the conversation that continued in the comments section, here is a summary of the main and diverse elements of PR. (Here’s the full 31 PR Definitions post if you what a refresher.) Public Relations has the following characteristics:

  1. Is an organization’s communication hub in Lisa Buyer’s words. PR communicates your organization’s messages. Sue R.E. Geramian emphasized that these must be key corporate messages. Understand that PR is best when integrated with other communications according to B.L. Ochman. Beth Harte mentioned that PR and marcom (marketing communications) should be integrated or, at least, work together.
  2. Is a strategic function incorporating on-going research, analysis, planning and evaluation to understand, develop and nurture strategic relationships according to Beth HarteJane Crofts cited James Grunig by stating that PR is a strategic function in its own right not necessarily part of marketing.
  3. Targets diverse publics encompassing customers, prospects, investors, employees, suppliers, distributors, media/journalists, social media networks, the government and the general public in Heidi Cohen’s words. Stakeholders can be internal and external noted Barbara Kowalski.
  4. Communicates a company’s narrative in Nancy Tamosaitis’ words. Think company “story” to make your message memorable. Public relations requires a creative, compelling, and concise approach, with a deep sense of the art of story-telling through emotions and humanity in Susan Young’s definition. Stories are critical since they have the ability to move and influence people.
  5. 5. Communicates one-to-many, one-to-one and/or many-to-many across owned media, third party media and/or social media via online and offline vehicles noted Heidi Cohen. Cece Salomon-Lee discussed one-to-one and one-to-many conversations that shape public perception. Antoine Didienne agreed that PR is about a flow of communications that goes both ways. Tom Adkinson, APR, noted that “mutual benefit” is critical to PR. According to the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations definition , as contributed by Mike Holland, public relations establishes and maintains goodwill and mutual understanding. In Mike Holland’s opinion, PR is a two way process.
  6. Influences and shapes a company’s image, reputation, brand perception and culture according to Lisa Buyer. Specifically, Cece Salomon-Lee stated, At its essence, Public Relations is about managing and shaping public perception. In Toby Bloomberg’s opinion, PR influences opinion to expand the reach of your message. Lee Greenhouse and Deepika Gunasekera emphasized that the exposure must be positive.
  7. Participates in conversations about your industry and business to build relationships with relevant stakeholders and supportive community of influencers and interested parties in Sally Falkow’s view. Lucy Siegel also discussed PR as a dialogue between an organization and its stakeholders.
  8. Is about genuine human connections according to Renee Blodgett. PR is the process of making a heartfelt connection between a person or organization and the people who can truly benefit from and care about their message in Shennandoah Diaz’s opinion. Lucy Siegel talked about achieving mutual understanding. Ari Herzog called PR: People Relations. Public relations builds relationships with people who can convey third party endorsement.
  9. Uses social media according to Mark Burgess. For Lisa Buyer, PR is an orchestra of voices.
  10. Responds to the news in Lisa Buyer’s definition. Heidi Cohen expanded this to include emerging news 24/7 that requires having a crisis management plan ready.
  11. Incorporates reputation management. Specifically, PR protects the brand in Deb Weinstein’s words.
  12. Captures higher search ranking for Toby Bloomberg. Although only mentioned by three people, PR supports search optimization by getting brand, product and company mentions in third party media. (Note: PR is always part of Search Engine Strategies.)
  13. Measure value of PR efforts recommends Marla Aaron. Deb Weinstein is more specific; Public Relations creates measurable, fact-based conversations, events and activities conceived to generate positive, third party endorsements and target audience buy-in. As with any metrics, it’s critical to consider your starting goals. For Lee Odden, PR has the goal of credibility, thought leadership and influence. PR provides a third party channel to give an air of authenticity and credibility to a firm’s message.
  14. Consists of a wide range of public-facing and communications functions. For Beth Harte, PR includes Investor Relations, Lobbying, Public Affairs (Government & Community), Publicity & Media/Blogger Relations, Employee Relations, International Relations and Crisis Management. Jayme Soulati added social media, thought leadership, industry analyst relations, investor relations and/or special events. Social technologies and content creation are also important elements, as noted by Lee Odden. Steve Stratz mentioned speaking engagements.
  15. Is part of marketing in Richard Reavey’s words. The relationship between marketing and PR is a thorny issue (and I expect discussion to appear in the comments below.) For Jayme Soulati, PR is a strategic discipline integrated into marketing. Public relations is part of the larger marketing function in Steve Stratz’s view. By contrast, Beth Harte made the case that PR deserved its own seat at the management table.

What’s consistent across the many characteristics listed is the fact that PR is about building relationships. But what varies tremendously, depending on the perspective of whom you ask, is “To what end?” Who the PR professional is trying to build those relationships with and what kind of relationship they’re trying to build should have a dramatic impact on what the function is within their organization.

What do you think of this list of PR’s core characteristics? What would you add or subtract from the list and why?

Happy marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Big tip of my hat to those who contributed their definition of Public Relations and to those who participated in the conversation.

Another tip of my hat to Paul Flannigan for his idea of using a word search across the 31 PR definitions.

Here are some related articles you might find of interest:

Photo credit: DavidMartynHunt via Flickr

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