Public Relations Definitions

Public relations definitions


Public relations (PR) is the art of managing communication between an organization and its key publics to build, manage and sustain a positive image.


One of the earliest definitions of PR was coined by Edward Bernays. According to him, "Public Relations is a management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interest of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance. "

Public relations is the art and science of managing communication between an organization and its key public constituents to build, manage, and sustain its positive image. It may also be used to support political agendas and social change social justice.

Public relations involves:

1. Evaluation of public attitudes and opinions.
2. Formulation and implementation of an organization's procedures and policy regarding communication with its publics.
3. Coordination of communications programs.
4. Developing rapport and good-will through a two way communication process.
5. Fostering a positive relationship between an organization and its public constituents.

Examples include:

* Corporations use marketing public relations (MPR) to convey information about the products they manufacture or services they provide to potential customers to support their direct sales efforts. Typically, they support sales in the short and long term, establishing and burnishing the corporation's branding for a strong, ongoing market.

* Corporations also use public relations as a vehicle to reach legislators and other politicians, seeking favorable tax, regulatory, and other treatment, and they may use public relations to portray themselves as enlightened employers, in support of human-resources recruiting programs.

* Non-profit organizations, including schools and universities, hospitals, and human and social service agencies, use public relations in support of awareness programs, fund-raising programs, staff recruiting, and to increase patronage of their services.

* Politicians use public relations to attract votes and raise money, and, when successful at the ballot box, to promote and defend their service in office, with an eye to the next election or, at career's end, to their legacy.


Precursors to public relations are found in publicists who specialized in promoting circuses, theatrical performances, and other public spectacles. In the United States, where public relations has its origins, many early PR practices were developed in support of the expansive power of the railroads. In fact, many scholars believe that the first appearance of the term "public relations" appeared in the 1897 Year Book of Railway Literature.

Later, PR practitioners were-and are still often-recruited from the ranks of journalism. Some journalists, concerned with ethics, criticize former colleagues for using their inside understanding of news media to help clients receive favorable media coverage.

Despite many journalists' discomfort with the field of public relations, well-paid PR positions remain a popular choice for reporters and editors forced into a career change by the instability of the print and electronic media industry. PR historians say the first PR firm, the Publicity Bureau, was established in 1900 by former newspapermen, with Harvard University as its first client. [1]

The First World War also helped stimulate the development of public relations as a profession. Many of the first PR professionals, including Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and Carl Byoir, got their start with the Committee on Public Information (also known as the Creel Commission), which organized getting publicity on behalf of U.S. objectives during World War I. Some historians regard Ivy Lee as the first real practitioner of public relations, but Edward Bernays is generally regarded today as the profession's founder. In describing the origin of the term Public Relations, Bernays commented, "When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans.. using it. So what I did was to try to find some other words, so we found the words Council on Public Relations".

Ivy Lee, who has been credited with developing the modern news release (also called a "press release"), espoused a philosophy consistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, in which PR consists of helping clients listen as well as communicate messages to their publics. In the words of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." In practice, however, Lee often engaged in one-way propagandizing on behalf of clients despised by the public, including Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. Shortly before his death, the US Congress had been investigating his work on behalf of the controversial Nazi German company IG Farben.

Bernays was the profession's first theorist. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays drew many of his ideas from Freud's theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that shape human behaviour. Bernays authored several books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), and The Engineering of Consent (1947). Bernays saw public relations as an "applied social science" that uses insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and "herdlike" public. "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society," he wrote in Propaganda. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

One of Bernays' early clients was the tobacco industry. In 1929, he orchestrated a legendary publicity stunt aimed at persuading women to take up cigarette smoking, which was then considered unfeminine and inappropriate for women with any social standing. To counter this image, Bernays arranged for New York City débutantes to march in that year's Easter Day Parade, defiantly smoking cigarettes as a statement of rebellion against the norms of a male-dominated society. Photographs of what Bernays dubbed the "Torches of Liberty Brigade" were sent to newspapers, getting media exposure convincing many women to equate smoking with women's rights. Some women went so far as to demand membership in all-male smoking clubs, a highly controversial act at the time.

In 1950 PRSA enacts the first "Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations," a forerunner to the current Code of Ethics, last revised in 2000 to include six core values and six code provisions. The six core values are "Advocacy, Honesty, Expertise, Independence, Loyalty, and Fairness." The six code provisions are "Free Flow of Information, Competition, Disclosure of Information, Safeguarding Confidences, Conflicts of Interest, and Enhancing the Profession."

The industry today

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 122,000 public relations specialists in the United States in 1998, while there were approximately 485,000 advertising, marketing, and public relations managers working in all industries, with roughly proportionate numbers in Canada. Public relations practitioners deliver information through the media to target audiences or, with the advent of the Internet, directly to specific stakeholder groups. Because similar opinions tend to be shared by a group of people rather than an entire society, research may be conducted to determine a range of things such as target audiences, appeal, as well as strategies for coordinated message presentation. PR may target different audiences with different messages to achieve an overall goal. Public Relations sets out to effect widespread opinion and behavior changes.

Modern public relations uses a variety of techniques including opinion polling and focus groups to evaluate public opinion, combined with a variety of high-tech techniques for distributing information on behalf of their clients, including satellite feeds, the Internet, broadcast faxes, and database-driven phone banks to recruit supporters for a client's cause. According to the PRSA,

"Examples of the knowledge that may be required in the professional practice of public relations include communication arts, psychology, social psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and the principles of management and ethics. Technical knowledge and skills are required for opinion research, public issues analysis, media relations, direct mail, institutional advertising, publications, film/video productions, special events, speeches, and presentations."

Although public relations professionals are stereotypically seen as corporate servants, the reality is that almost any organization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the public arena employs at least one PR manager. Large organizations may even have dedicated communications departments. Government agencies, trade associations, and other non-profit organizations commonly carry out PR activities.

Public relations should be seen as a management function in any organization. An effective communication, or public relations, plan for an organization is developed to communicate to an audience (whether internal or external publics) in such a way the message coincides with organizational goals and seeks to benefit mutual interests whenever possible.



* property development PR
* real estate PR
* retail sector PR
* agricultural PR
* food service PR
* health care PR
* technology/IT PR
* public affairs PR
* on-line PR
* financial/investor relations
* employee/member communications
* community PR
* not-for-profit PR
* crisis communications PR

As industry consolidation becomes more prevalent, many organizations and individuals are choosing to retain "boutique" firms as opposed to so-called "global" communications firms. These smaller firms typically specialize in only a couple of practice areas and thus, often have a greater understanding of their client's business. And because they deal with certain journalists with greater frequency, specialty firms often have stronger media contacts in the areas that matter most to their clients. Added benefits of smaller, specialty firms include more personal attention and accountability and as well, cost savings. This is not to say that smaller is always better, but there is a growing consensus that specialty firms offer more than once considered.

A number of specialties exist within the field of public relations, including:

* crisis management
* reputation management
* issue management
* investor relations and labor relations
* grassroots PR (sometimes referred to as astroturf PR)

Methods, tools and tactics

Public relations and publicity are not synonyms. Publicity is the spreading of information to gain public awareness in a product, service, candidate, etc. It is just one technique of public relations as listed here.

Audience targeting

A fundamental technique used in public relations is to identify the target audience, and to tailor every message to appeal to that audience. It can be a general, nationwide or worldwide audience, but it is more often a segment of a population. Marketers often refer to economy-driven "demographics," such as "white males 18-49," but in public relations an audience is more fluid, being whoever someone wants to reach. For example, recent political audiences include "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads."

In addition to audiences, there are usually stakeholders, literally people who have a "stake" in a given issue. All audiences are stakeholders (or presumptive stakeholders), but not all stakeholders are audiences. For example, a charity commissions a PR agency to create an advertising campaign to raise money to find a cure for a disease. The charity and the people with the disease are stakeholders, but the audience is anyone who is likely to donate money.

Sometimes the interests of differing audiences and stakeholders common to a PR effort necessitate the creation of several distinct but still complementary messages. This is not always easy to do, and sometimes - especially in politics - a spokesperson or client says something to one audience that angers another audience or group of stakeholders.

Press conferences
(also called a "news conference")

A press conference consists of someone speaking to the media at a predetermined time and place. Press conferences usually take place in a public or quasi-public place. Press conferences provide an opportunity for speakers to control information and who gets it; depending on the circumstances, speakers may hand-pick the journalists they invite to the conference instead of making themselves available to any journalist who wishes to attend.

It is also assumed that the speaker will answer journalists' questions at a press conference, although they are not obliged to. However, someone who holds several press conferences on a topic (especially a scandal) will be asked questions by the press, regardless of whether they indicate they will entertain them, and the more conferences the person holds, the more aggressive the questioning may become. Therefore, it is in a speaker's interest to answer journalists' questions at a press conference to avoid appearing as if they have something to hide.

But questions from reporters - especially hostile reporters - detracts from the control a speaker has over the information they give out. For even more control, but less interactivity, a person may choose to issue a press release.

Press releases
(also called a "news releases or media releases")

Press release format The typical press release announces that the statement is "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" across the top (some may instead be embargoed until a certain date), and lists the issuing organization's media contacts directly below. The media contacts are the people that the release's issuer wants to make available to the media; for example, a press release about new scientific study will typically list the study's lead scientist as its media contact. The bottom of each release is usually marked with ### or -30- to signify the end of the text.

Five "W"s and an "H" There are 6 vital facts to convey in the first paragraph of a release to ensure that it doesn't end up in the bin.

* Who
* What
* When
* Where
* Why
* How

A press release is a written statement distributed to the media using media lists. It is a fundamental tool of public relations. Press releases are usually communicated by a newswire service to various news media and journalists may use them as they see fit. Very often the information in a press release finds its way verbatim, or minimally altered, to print and broadcast reports. If a media outlet reports that "John Doe said in a statement today that...", the "statement" usually originated in a press release, or a direct quote from an interview with a John Doe.

The text of a release is usually (but not always) written in the style of a news story, with an eye-catching headline and text written standard journalistic inverted pyramid style. This style of news writing makes it easier for reporters to quickly grasp the message. Journalists are free to use the information verbatim, or alter it as they see fit. PR practitioners research and write releases that encourage as much "lifting" as possible.

Many journalists believe it is unethical to copy from a press release-they believe it is a lapse of good judgement (for instance, a direct quote, as in: Senator Smith said, "This is the most fiscally irresponsible bill that the Congress has passed since the Buy Everyone A Mercedes Act." In this case, a journalist may copy the quote verbatim into the story, although ethical reporters prefer to try soliciting an individual quote from the speaker before filing their story). Public relations professionals believe that press releases and other collateral material aid a journalist's job, and it is the job of the journalist to decide whether or not reprinting material verbatim tells the real story.

Since press releases reflect their issuer's preferred interpretation or positive packaging of a story, journalists are often skeptical of their contents. The level of skepticism depends on what the story is and who's telling it. Newsrooms receive so many press releases that, unless it is a story that the media are already paying attention to, a press release alone often isn't enough to catch a journalist's attention.

With the advent of modern electronic media and new technology, press releases now have equivalents in these media_video news releases and audio news releases. However, many television stations are hesitant to use VNR's that appear canned and are not newsworthy.

Lobby groups

Lobby groups are established to influence government policy, corporate policy, or public opinion. These groups purport to represent a particular interest. When a lobby group hides its true purpose and support base it is known as a front group.


Creating an artificial "grassroots" movement is known as astroturfing. A typical example would be the writing of letters to multiple newspaper editors under different names to express an opinion on an issue, creating the impression of widespread public feeling but being controlled by one central entity.


In public relations, spin is a, sometimes pejorative, term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position. Media spokespeople often undergo media training to prepare them for their contacts with the media.

The term is borrowed from ball sports such as cricket, where a spin bowler may impart spin on the ball during a delivery so that it will curve through the air or bounce in an advantageous manner.

The techniques of "spin" include:

* Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position (cherry picking)
* Non-denial denial
* Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths
* Euphemisms to disguise or promote one's agenda

Another spin technique involves careful choice of timing in the release of certain news so it can take advantage of prominent events in the news. A famous reference to this practice occurred when UK government press officer Jo Moore used the phrase It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury, (widely paraphrased or misquoted as "It's a good day to bury bad news"), in an email sent on September 11, 2001. The furor caused when this email was reported in the press eventually caused her to resign.


* Publicity events or publicity stunts
* The talk show circuit. A PR spokesperson (or his/her client) "does the circuit" by being interviewed on television and radio talk shows with audiences that the client wishes to reach.
* Books and other writings
* After a PR practitioner has been working in the field for a while, he or she accumulates a list of contacts in the media and elsewhere in the public affairs sphere. This "Rolodex" becomes a prized asset, and job announcements sometimes even ask for candidates with an existing Rolodex, especially those in the media relations area of PR.
* Direct communication (carrying messages directly to constituents, rather than through the mass media) with, e.g., newsletters - in print and e-letters.
* Collateral literature, traditionally in print and now predominantly as web sites.
* Speeches to constituent groups and professional organizations; receptions; seminars, and other events; personal appearances.
* The slang term for a PR practitioner or publicist is a "flack."

Politics and civil society

Defining the opponent

A tactic used in political campaigns is known as "defining one's opponent". Opponents can be candidates, organizations and other groups of people.

In the debate over abortion, pro-abortion rights groups defined their opponents by defining themselves instead: "pro-choice." Anti-abortion rights groups responded in kind, branding themselves "pro-life." Extrapolating their respective rhetoric, pro-choice groups refer to their opponents as "anti-choice," and pro-life groups refer to their opponents as "anti-life." Issues related to Israel Palestine are similarily contested, as are issues related to private health care vs. public health care.

More recently, opponents of same-sex marriage in the U.S. have declared that their opponents are not the gay couples suing for the right to marry in various state courts, but rather the judges who rule in their favor. They are now calling them "activist judges," implying that they impose their personal beliefs instead of objectively interpreting the law. This sidesteps the thorny issue of making millions of gay people an "enemy," and instead focuses attention on the much smaller judiciary, who all Americans can ostensibly agree should be prevented from being "activists" on the bench.

Managing language

If a politician or organization can use an apt phrase in relation to an issue, such as in interviews or news releases, the news media will often repeat it verbatim, thus furthering the message. (This may be considered an example of a meme.)

"New Deal" became a description of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's anti-Depression economic plans, and "states' rights/state sovereignty" became near-code words for anti-civil rights legislation.

Recent examples include: "death tax" for estate tax, "racial preferences" for affirmative action, "faith-based" instead of religious, "climate change" for global warming, and "partial-birth abortion" for pro-choice.

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