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What is Public Relations? I Thought I Knew… June 9, 2006

Posted by The PR Cassandra in Posts.

What is public relations?  Unbelievably (to me) there appears to be no consenus of what the definition of public relations is!

My definition for PR is "the art of persuading third party information gatekeepers to communicate for free, client news or information that is beneficial to the client." 

This covers all media: print, online or broadcast.  And, the "client" can be external (as with an agency), internal (as with a company PR department) and either for profit or non-profit. 

The "information gatekeeper" can be a news editor, reporter, blogger, investor or "tell a friend" viral marketing campaign target.  The common thread is that someone independent of your organization, to whom people listen, will tell people something beneficial about your enterprise or organization based on the efforts of a public relations intermediary. 

Although the PR agent is paid for her/his time and expertise, the interaction that leads to a beneficial result — either a news story, blog post or wildly popular "tell a friend" campaign — has to be without payment between the client and third party, otherwise it is advertising and not public relations.

Since entities have many "publics" with whom to relate, some PR practitioners and agencies specialize in areas from investor relations to business-to-business communications.  Some are more practiced in inbound (ie, employee communications) than outbound (ie, partners, investors or consumers).  Some companies separate corporate communications from product promotion.  And some of us have experience communicating successfully to various classes of people or stakeholders.

Yet, when I do a Google search on "define public relations," I find all sorts of explanations, many of which seemed to me to be unecessarily obtuse.  First of all the search returned over seventy million records.  Gosh, it can't be THAT complex.  So, here are a few for your reading pleasure.  I can't decide whether to laugh, sigh or cry.  I suspect that it is one of those fairly straightforward things that people feel compelled to make inexplicably complex in order to either confuse the heck out of people or to create a priesthood of those in-the-know.

From the PRSA or Public Relations Society of America: "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."  Well, when I try and get editors to write about my clients' new products, I don't expect them to "adapt" to my request – I expect that they will pursue it if it meets their needs to provide relevant copy for their readers, and may even gain them some points with editorial management because of the resultant reader response.  I can just imagine the reaction I'd get if I asked an editor to "adapt" his/her professional responsibilities to my client's needs.  Ugly.  Although, on second thought, I guess that does obtain in countries where the media is censored or state controlled.  Yes, in that case editors DO adapt – or end up in jail.

From "Learn That": "PUBLIC RELATIONS is a form of communication primarily directed tiward gaining public understanding and acceptance. Public relations usually deals with issues rather than products or services, and is used to build goodwill with public or employeess. Examples of public relations are employee training, support of charitable events, or a news release about some positive community participation."  Hmmm, that's news to about 90% of my clients who put employee training under Human Resources not the PR or Communications Department and would shudder at the thought of promoting 'negative community participation'.  Not to mention that I personally find it unconscionable that Silicon Valley companies have a reputation for stinginess when it comes to supporting charities with dollars – instead they provide "in kind" products, but non-profits need CASH to operate.  And, for those who do – take a look at the "small change" they throw out and crow about.  For example, a public technology company with $15 billion or more in CASH reserves on its balance sheet giving around $700,000 to more than 20 groups one year would be better off NOT putting out a news release extolling their virture as a great corporate citizen in my opinion. 

This is cute, although to my mind publicity, promotion and public relations are not that differentiated: "… 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.

Then, there are firms and other sites that refer back to the PRSA's definition (without or with attribution), having appeared to, as the Brits might say, "lost the will to live" when it comes to giving a definition for the profession they profess to provide! 

You've read my definition and seen a bit of others' – how do YOU define it?  Because how you define it will impact your strategies, initiatives and management of a function that every company seems to have, but which no one can agree on what it is.  That means one can either be creative in one's definition or just come up with the PRSA's and let everyone think they know what the heck you actually do!



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