What is Public Relations?


Have you ever observed a situation where there are so much controversy and discussion over a company or the marketing of a product and you hear someone comment, “this is such great PR for them.” When Ghostbusters (2016) came out in theaters, I scratched my head as YouTuber Comic Book Girl 19 described how Sony had “spun” the culture clash between misogynists and feminists into “great PR for themselves” then adds “this is brilliant marketing.” Was she talking about PR or marketing? Which was it?

People often use “PR,” “advertising,” and “marketing” interchangeably, but they each have different definitions and functions. Marketing is a mix of product, price, promotion, and place. Advertising refers to paid messages sent to a target audience. PR, however, draws on many practices and disciplines, including management, media, communication, and psychology (Theaker, 2008). It is not marketing or advertising at all.  It is a complex function used by higher level management to bridge relationships.

Learn about the history of public relations in the 20th century.

In The Public Relations Handbook, Johanna Fawkes referred to PR Week’s April 2007 article about Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and its mass guerrilla PR stunt against British American Tobacco and story about Julia Simpson, who was starting her new corporate media relations position at British Airways. Fawkes described the contrast between the activities and campaigns of pressure groups (ASH) and corporations (BAT) and advising senior level leaders on communicating (BA). While all three situations were different, they’re all relevant to the field of public relations. A PR agency can cause hostility to another company, seek maximum publicity, or choose appropriate communication tools to connect with a niche audience. I’ve reviewed several definitions of public relations mentioned in The Public Relations Handbook and the internet today.

A Google search of “what is public relations?” returns about 219 million results, with this definition ranked at the very top:

pub·lic re·la·tions

noun; plural noun: public relations

  1. the professional maintenance of a favorable public image by a company or other organization or a famous person.
  2. the state of the relationship between the public and a company or other organization or a famous person.

But I know that according to PR experts this definition isn’t the whole truth. PR is more than just maintaining a favorable image and isn’t just the state of a relationship between the public and an organization. There are many types of publics– consumers, employees, public officials, stakeholders, customers, and investors. I looked further. Public Relations, Strategies, and Tactics revealed that Rex Harlow collected over 400 definitions of public relations in 1976 to decide on the following definition:

Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools. 

Johanna Fawkes concluded that while this definition is useful, it describes what PR does and fails to explain what exactly PR is about.

Philip Kitchen (1997) adds that PR:

  • Is a Management function
  • Covers broad range of activities and purposes in practice
  • Is regarded as two-way or interactive
  • That publics facing companies are not singular but plural
  • That relationships are long term rather than short term

I think “two-way” is a big keyword in this definition, especially when companies are building relationships with target publics through web 2.0 technologies today. Social media and the internet makes it easier for organizations to monitor responses and have real time conversations with target publics. Wilcox et al. (2003) suggest the following:

  • Deliberate
  • Planned
  • Performance
  • Public Interest

Performance and public interest are also excellent keywords, reflecting how public relations is most effective when organizations follow through their promises to the publics with action. They say what they mean and do what they say. Intentionally demonstrating goodwill to the public ultimately builds trust.

When comparing public relations with diplomacy, L’Etang (2006) factored:

  • Representational (rhetoric, oratory, advocacy)
  • Dialogic (negotiation, peacemaking)
  • Advisory (counseling)

PR professionals represent and counsel the organization while facilitating the viewpoints of different publics. An ethical PR team will find a balance between advocating the public and advocating their organization. Proactive PR involves campaign planning while reactive PR involves dealing with a crisis.

Fawkes proceeded to share the Chartered Institute of PR’s definition, the UK’s leading organization for PR practitioners, framed in 1987:

Public Relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and understanding between an organization and its publics.

This definition suggests that the relationships are not “automatic or effortless” and that PR work “exists in time” (Theaker, 2008). PR practitioners have the ethical responsibility to serve the public and share an accurate view of the organization it serves (whether or not the organization itself is favorable to some publics). Fawkes (Theaker, 2008) shared a much simpler definition: “Public relations is about reputation- the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.” As of this date, a modified definition can be found on the CIPR website:

 Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and understanding between an organization and its publics.

The Public Relations Society of America led a global effort to modernize the definition of PR:

“Public Relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and its publics.”

I find it interesting that “process” is being used instead of “management function” simply because the latter suggests top-down, one-way communication.

Rent or buy Alison Theaker's 5th edition (2016) of The Public Relations Handbook today!
Rent or buy Alison Theaker’s 5th edition (2016) of The Public Relations Handbook today!

Critics of PR, such as PRWatch and Spinwatch, stress that PR is “synonymous with propaganda,” and that there’s too much abuse of public trust by corporate PR (Theaker, 2008). I disagree. If a PR practitioner exercised goodwill and responsibility to the public, then they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. You cannot disregard ethics and call it public relations. It severs the relationship. The absence of ethics in a public relations message IS just propaganda. This is why ethics is so crucial in the study and discussions of public relations.

Fawkes mentioned how some critics such as Hutton believe that PR has “lost the battle for supremacy with marketing” because of its failure to find a definition. She even suggests that some practitioners are rebranding themselves as “perception managers” or “corporate communicators” (Theaker, 2008). While I agree that having a consistent message or “one true voice” for public relations is essential, I disagree that it is failing. I believe that the reason why no one can agree on an exact definition is because it is constantly evolving and some messages and activities for one organization will differ for another. The relationship between the public and higher management will always be there, and that certain key responsibilities and expressions will change over time to match the concurrent social and technological climate.

Even though there are many versions of the definition, PR definitely has its foundations in being the two-way relationship between an organization and its target publics. Successful PR is based on building trust, performing in the public interest, and giving voice to all sides. Which definition do you agree with the most? How would you define public relations?


CIPR (2016). What is PR? Retrieved August 21, 2016 from https://www.cipr.co.uk/content/careers-advice/what-pr

Fuse, K. (2015). Personal Communication.

Kitchen, P. (ed.) (1997). Public Relations, Principles and Practice. International Thomson Business Press. Retrieved August 21, 2016.

L’Etang, J. and Pieczka, M. (eds) (2006). Public Relations, Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum. Retrieved August 21, 2016.

PRSA (2016). About Public Relations. Retrieved August 21, 2016 from https://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/publicrelationsdefined/

Theaker, A. (2008). The Public Relations Handbook (3rd ed.) Chapter 1: What is Public Relations? (Fawkes, J., contributor). London: Routledge. Retrieved August 21, 2016.

Wilcox, D.L., Cameron, G.T., Ault, P.H. and Agee, W.K. (2003) Public Relations, Strategies and Tactics (7th edition). Allyn and Bacon. Retrieved August 21, 2016.

Published by Crystal J. Hollis

Crystal Hollis is a North Texas area artist, video/photographer, multimedia producer, digital marketer, and writer. She holds an M.A. degree in Interactive, Virtual, and Digital Communication and B.A. in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of North Texas. She has five years of experience shooting and editing videos and photography. Her interests include film, television, American and Japanese animation and graphic novels, video games, race and gender issues in media, digital media, online marketing, and the art of transmedia storytelling. You may reach her at crystaljhollis@gmail.com.

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