What is PR?

It’s come to my attention with the recent and ongoing anti-PR sentiment criss-crossing the country that people are confused about the definition of public relations. In fact, there are people who purposely define themselves as other than public relations when in fact they are in our discipline.

I’d like to begin to rectify this situation with the launch of a “What is PR?” blog series. I’m seeking public relations practitioners of any number of years in the profession and with all skill sets to help me sink in and define the very crux of what we do every day.

I was jolted into this idea based on the highly emotional blogs I’ve been reading about the Hamptons restaurateur, the TechCrunch debacle via Shonali Burke’s blog Waxing Unlyrical, and numerous other rants against me and my peers indirectly and generally (many on Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks blog).

To join me on this regular feature I’ll unfold over time, please watch for tweets, an email invite, or please send me a note right here, below. I’m highly accessible; it’s part of being in public relations.

Let me share my broad definition of public relations and begin to shed light. It’s not the only definition, I’m sure, and it can be enhanced with your help; here goes:

There are so many descriptions and titles of what people do in public relations it has become confusing. I’ve heard mass communications, marketing communications, corporate communications, marketing public relations, and other descriptors. In fact, a recent Ohio State University graduate insisted he was not in public relations, but everything down to the press release he was doing was exactly PR.

You can be an agency person (my background), work in a corporate setting, get a job at a not-for-profit, in the government sector, or with a non-governmental organization, for example.

Stepping in deeper, a public relations practitioner can become a specialist in a vertical market which defines expertise as health care, medical, pharmaceuticals, financial, publishing, fashion, food/hospitality, manufacturing, utilities, professional services, academia, and the like. Or, he or she can remain a generalist and tap many verticals and industries.

Within these specialties represented by boutique agencies or in-house teams, there are skill sets and competencies defined by editorial/publications, employee relations/ internal communications, financial/investor relations, media relations, industry analyst relations, special events, and more.

Not everyone in the profession has skill sets across the board. The biggest area for argument is media relations; people think just because they don’t know how to pitch media and don’t like it it means they’re not in public relations. I’ve heard folks tell me because they’re in a corporate setting working with internal communications they are not in public relations. This couldn’t be farther from the truth; on both accounts.

As said, public relations as a discipline (in addition to marketing and advertising as disciplines) is broad; many competencies exist within public relations, and I’ve just touched the tip of the berg for you. Where I wish to set the record straight is for the people who don’t realize they are smack in public relations, and for the people who are happy to label themselves something other than PR when in fact they’re delivering this service every day and thinking they’re not. (Why is that, by the way?)

Is anyone else game to help further define public relations and help educate just about everyone? I’ve been told we’re the best-kept secret and our sisters don’t even understand what we do or how we integrate with their disciplines. Heck, it took my parents 20 years to understand I wasn’t doing free advertising. It’s time to alter negative perception right now because there’s a professional crisis of education right now.

(Image: toughsledding.wordpress.com)

34 comments
iPad Stylus
iPad Stylus

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Lea Werthman, APR
Lea Werthman, APR

As an accredited member of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), I respectfully submit the PR definition recently developed by Dr. Terry Flynn, APR, FCPR, Jean Valin, APR, FCPR, and others:
"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."
What I particularly like about this difinition is the emphasis on the following elements: "relationships", "mutual understanding" and "public interest".
Up here in Canada's capital, we also are keen to join the cause to promote a better understanding of the value of our profession. Please keep this conversation going and we look forward to seeing this evolve - because in my humble opinion, the world has never needed good "relationship managers" more than it does now!
- Lea Werthman, APR

Jayme Soulati
Jayme Soulati

Always a pleasure to have you the first time and any other time you get the time, Shonali! Thank you! Agency of one; I may need to borrow that. Before all this, I had no idea we truly are having an identity crisis around the globe! It's depressing; I've always loved my work, yet I'm no longer a pure PRist; have integrated more marketing, less media relations which is what more clients need, actually.

Am hoping what comes is a definition we can all adapt to our own work, that drives others to understand. Forget about what the "governing" bodies will do; I think those of us on the frontlines need to get better about defining, educating.

I'm thinking.

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

I'm so sorry it took me so long to come over and comment; you know I was traveling, yada yada. Thank you, belatedly, for starting this discussion!

So... Gini pretty much said what I would have said. IMHO most people are stuck with the PT Barnum definition of PR. It's easy to relate to, and who on earth wants to think of "publics" when "press" is so much easier? . It also doesn't help that "PR" is a nice and easy acronym for "press release," or that, when it comes to talking about PR, many MANY pros will only talk/write about what gets "ink." And then, when it comes to measuring PR, folks get fixated on measuring merely outputs, when what they should be looking at are the outtakes and outcomes as well, because that's really where the impact of any communication discipline can be felt... and what is most important to a business (or any organization).

I think we all struggle with this on a personal level too. For example, I bill my business as "an agency of one," because it's an easy-to-remember phrase and, I believe, is easier for potential clients to visualize. But I've lost count of the times people approach me for "PR" and I have to tell them that while media/blogger relations is part of what I do, it's not ALL that I do... and it's not all I want to do either. More recently, I've been using the story-telling analogy, but I don't know if that's perfect either.

Craig Hayes
Craig Hayes

I don't have a definitive answer but I certainly do like what Fraser P. Seitel says in his book, The Practice of Public Relations. Definition of PR: A planned process to influence public(s) opinion, through sound character and proper performance, based on mutually satisfactory two way communication.
*I included the (s) because, like what has been mentioned, a public is more than just the population. They are broken down into categories. Every business must acknowledge some of the public(s) they are involved with. I.e. publics can be: employees, investors, families of employees, consumers, media, bloggers, etc.
Lastly, I say yes to having a more balanced idea of what PR really is.

Sara
Sara

For me it is so simple and so very difficult at the same time but "what PR is" says in the denomination - Public Relations are Relations with the Public. "The public" can be staff, shareholders, public etc...

As practitioners have a set of tools to communicate with the public (however it is defined.) And now finally thanks to Social Media we have the tools to engage in an instant two-way conversation with the public.

Granted there are bad apples everywhere, but doesn't have to be more complicated... does it?

Christine Esposito
Christine Esposito

What a great and thought-provoking string of posts. When I give workshops for small-business owners on DIY PR, my boiled-down definition of PR is that it builds visibility and creates favorable impressions of your organization. That entails the tools already mentioned here, and more, with strategy as a driver throughout.

The reason I'm in PR is to use it as a means for effecting positive change, specifically in the green/sustainability arena. I came to PR as a trained landscape architect. My first understanding was that media relations is PR. As you can imagine, my perspective is much broader now. And I agree with you, Jayme, that the PR/marketing line becomes hazier and hazier, and more of what we do is overall marketing strategy.

But I will say, perhaps because I am so much more about the mission than the means, I am a practitioner who has downplayed the fact that I am in PR. In the end, I believe it is the less-strategic, short-term-oriented among us who have tainted the waters for other PR professionals. And yes, you do indeed see subpar practitioners in all professions. But there is a professional bigotry that can rear its head when it comes to PR, certainly from some people in the media. The hope is that by continuing to be valuable resources and excelling at what we do, we can break through that.

Jayme Soulati
Jayme Soulati

I'm honored to write a post for you, Sharon! Thanks for that invite, and I'm passionate about this topic. I love what you said, as I see so many of my peers doing what you nicely call "ostrich" behavior re social media/multi-media. Isn't it astonishing? The other nail you hit is "internal relations." I'm debating consistently with people who don't believe they're in PR because they do employee communications, or some such. Thanks for your input here and spot-on insight!

Sharon Cain
Sharon Cain

Great timing for such a discussion Soulati - key to the explanation is the word 'relations' - managing/facilitating relationships internally, externally, online and offline. The dramatic web and media changes have undoubtedly forced many PRs to adapt their practices. However, it's still worrying that many are being 'ostriches' and failing to embrace the new multi media channels instead of championing a 'joined up' approach with their marketing, digital and traditional PR and social media campaigns. Many companies likewide lose sight of the importance of internal PR which is even more critical in the upturn (see our latest blog on getting your internal PR right http://ow.ly/47Psy). We'd love you to do a guest blog post for us and thanks forthe fantastic engagement and conversation. DM me @sharoncain

davinabrewer
davinabrewer

PR is like porn, you know it when you see it.

I've used that joke before - for social media - because I suck at definitions. I've got a PR background, trying to "get into" social media as that's where the market is going. And I don't mean the money.. well that too, but the programs, the integration across the board. To me social media is a natural extension, evolution of PR. I am also of the mindset that everyone is "in PR" whether they know it or not. A customer service rep who is totally unhelpful, doesn't know their own products is bad PR. A tech support agent who goes the extra mile, good PR. A CPA working well with vendors, the mid-level manager working with the distribution team.. all have publics to serve. An event is about communicating a message, building relationships- that's PR. The HR team and employee relations, PR. And yes media relations is a part but not the end all of PR.

An example which read somewhere, can't find it but this link: http://managementhelp.org/ad_prmot/defntion.htm

"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." If the town's citizens go the circus, you show them the many entertainment booths, explain how much fun they'll have spending money at the booths, answer their questions and ultimately, they spend a lot at the circus, that's SALES."

To which we can add; if someone tapes puts it on YT, tweets it, blogs it and builds relationships.. FWIW.

Beatriz Alemar
Beatriz Alemar

I love this idea - I had never considered myself "in PR." But, the more I learn and study - the more I realize I kinda am! Social Media is a part of PR whether we choose to realize it or not. I am totally on board with this!

Rebecca Neufeld
Rebecca Neufeld

Ever since I graduated with a degree in PR, people have been asking me exactly what it is that I do. One reaction verbatim: "Oh, so YOU'RE one of those annoying people on the street handing out samples!" NoNoNo.
Just as I wouldn't want others to criticize the profession as a whole, I don't think I can defend it as a whole. Of course there will be PR people who make the rest of us look bad, but can't the same be said for hmmm let's see: real estate agents, bankers, actors, even doctors!? Pretty much any profession, if we're being honest.
So here I will only define my profession in regards to how I practice it, without the assumption that this is true across the board: My profession is strategic. I know what a SWAT analysis is. I learn my clients' business, industry, stakeholders. I align communications strategy with my clients' business goals. I develop strategies that engage audiences from media to employees to clients to investors to consumers, depending on how they impact my clients' businesses. I try to anticipate how these stakeholders might be able to influence, positively or negatively, my clients' ability to achieve their goals.
That's certainly not all I do, but when you boil it down, that's how I try to practice PR every day I show up to the office.

Patty Swisher
Patty Swisher

Hi Jayme,
I'm in. IMO, most communications professionals at some point or another are 'doing PR.' What I think folks not in the business don't understand as public relations is the definition of "public." We were all trained in PR101 that public doesn't just mean the local newspaper, it is ALL stakeholders as Gini also points out.

Arthur Yann, APR
Arthur Yann, APR

Hi Jayme,

Interesting post, although I can’t help but feeling we've been down this road too many times to count already. And while I like where Gini’s definition is headed in making a distinction between public relations and publicity, I think it's also important to say what we *are, instead of just saying what we aren't. And do do this, we need to measure the impact of the services we provide and tie them to strategic business results in ways that CEOs, CMOs and brand managers can understand. We also need to start acting more ethically. And — to Gini’s point — we need to stop talking about earned media like it's the end when it's simply the means, and only one arrow in the public-relations practitioner’s quiver.

Also, a request, if I might … before calling out the accrediting bodies, like PRSA, for not doing more to clarify what our profession does, please do at least a bit of checking around. The resources offered in PRSA's "The Business Case for Public Relations (shameful plug #1: http://ow.ly/47bUt) are intended to do exactly what it is you're suggesting. We also offer our own take on a definition of public relations (shameful plug #2: http://ow.ly/47cJO), which one might argue could use some updating and perhaps rightfully so.

Arthur Yann is vice president of public relations for PRSA.

Jarett Quintana
Jarett Quintana

PR vs Publicity is the difference between calling yourself a carpenter or a woodworker. Similar but different. Depending what 'side' you're on the perspective, opinion and definition sways. Nice Post

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews

PR is your Mom. Even though she may not know exactly what you do, or how you do it, she knows you're great at it, and she wants to let everyone else know you're great at it. Like you're mom when you start doing something stupid, or getting stuck up, or ignoring your friends, she should be there to smack you upside the head. When you do, inevitably, do something stupid, mom's there to say "yeah he did something stupid, he knows that, please give him another chance".

Angelica
Angelica

What a great idea! Like Gini said, I think most people confuse the tactics and tools with what the profession is really about. Sometimes it's a lack of knowledge or sometimes it's because it sounds much cooler and smarter than saying they are in PR!

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

I'm game! So many people think PR is publicity when, in fact, publicity is NOT PR. The difference is that most PR campaigns include publicity as a tool (just like they include social media and crisis and events and reputation management and messaging and research and employee communication and content development, etc.), but publicity never includes PR. Publicists sole jobs are to get their clients in the news...no matter what it takes (i.e. no PR is bad PR). PR pros work hard to communicate with ALL stakeholders, not just the media.

Jayme Soulati
Jayme Soulati

Lea, it's a pleasure to have you come by, and I'm honored; thank you. I believe you may've just made my job intensely simplified. I love this. Tomorrow on the blog, you'll see your name referenced. I'll be doing somewhat of a blog roll (for peeps) so that everyone can be acknowledged at the same time. This will allow me to commence with the discussion and not have to worry about recognizing whose idea something was.

Thanks for tuning in; let's see where this journey goes.

Soulati
Soulati

Thanks, Craig! I'm eager to cull through all these responses and begin to present a 21st Century definition of PR. I suggested to PRSA, who stopped in here a few times, it needed to update the definition of PR to broaden its reach and make it more easily understood. I like where you're going with what you've said and will share it in a future post, if you don't mind. Thanks!

Soulati
Soulati

I knew the exact reason I wanted your insight; this is it and thank you. Especially of interest is "downplayed the fact I'm in PR." So do you describe yourself as marketing to prospects? Just curious as I am no longer pure PR, either; have broadened well beyond, but my emphasis and teachings stem from that discipline. Thanks, Christine!

Soulati
Soulati

Realized this morning I had not responded HERE to this yet did on Twitter. Does that count? You caught me during mommy time and didn't get back to blog. Thanks, Davina. I can always count on your humor and analogy to stir up the pot; I love it.

Soulati
Soulati

I am THRILLED you've taken a moment to share how you define your professional role. If this post, comments and thoughts around it have helped you in any way, that was the intention. Thanks, Beatriz!

Soulati
Soulati

Excellent. Exactly. I cannot begin to describe what I do each day and I'm blending more into marketing and less pure PR. Now, the social media component further skins the cat, but there's no doubt I'm highly strategic, regardless. Thanks for sharing here, Rebecca!

Soulati
Soulati

You're right -- the word public is all encompassing and also "public relations" is older vernacular to describe broadly what our profession is all about. And yet, "marketing communications" just doesn't cut it for me, either.

Soulati
Soulati

I appreciate you stopping by to share in this discourse. I also, shamefully, accept your shameful plugs as corrections, as well. I'll pull these out in a future post and share.

Meanwhile, "measure the impact of services and tie to strategic business results" is absolutely where the field's leaders need to be. Where I am trying to go with this discussion is among the junior future leaders of the profession and the newer clients/businesses who may or may not understand how public relations benefits, represents, adds value, etc.

What has been slightly disturbing to me is a pattern of "I'm NOT in PR" when in fact people truly are.

Soulati
Soulati

Hi, Jarett! Great to see you here, and thanks for this relevant analogy, too.

Soulati
Soulati

Ray, you always give me a new perspective; I appreciate that. Thanks!

Soulati
Soulati

My big "beef" (and I don't eat it) is that people trying to distance from the profession. Have we got lice? What's up? Are schools re-defining public relations into these sectored descriptors?

Jon Buscall
Jon Buscall

That's an awesome definition, Gini. I think PR has changed fundamentally with the advent of digital. PR seems to be at the intersection of communication and marketing praxis.

Soulati
Soulati

More than perfect; thanks, Gini. All answers will be repurposed with credit in this blog series. Not sure if/why the leaders and accrediting bodies in the profession aren't doing more of this to clarify what we do.

Christine Esposito
Christine Esposito

No, to prospects, I say that I am in PR. But I also emphasize the need for overall marketing strategy and that Terracom can help them with that, too.

Christine Esposito
Christine Esposito

It definitely varies by situation ... tailoring message to audience.

Soulati
Soulati

Thanks for clarification; understand and agree and it varies by situation, right?

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