Public Relations: An Overview

What Public Relations Is

The formal practice of what today is called public relations is less than 100 years old. Yet during its relatively brief history, public relations has been defined in many widely differing ways.

Not unsurprisingly, the earliest definitions emphasized the roles of press agentry and publicity since these were major elements from which modern public relations grew.

Later as public relations was recognized and employed by more organizations, definitions began to include:

Many of these definitions were quite lengthy, so much so that they tended more to describe what public relations does than what it is. In 1988, in an attempt to solve this dilemma the governing body of the Public Relations Society of America -- its Assembly -- formally adopted a definition of public relations which has become most accepted and widely used.

"Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."

In this definition, the essential functions of research, planning, communications dialogue and evaluation are implied. Key words are "organization" rather than the limiting implication of "company" or "business"; and "publics" which recognizes that all organizations have multiple publics from which they must earn consent and support.

Elements of Public Relations

Counseling -- Providing advice to the management of an organization concerning policies, relationships and communications; in effect, "what to do."

Research -- Determining attitudes and behaviors of publics and their causes in order to plan, implement and measure activities to influence or change the attitudes and behavior.

Media Relations -- Relating with communications media in seeking publicity or responding to their interest in an organization.

Publicity -- Disseminating planned messages through selected media without payment to further an organization's interest.

Employee/Member Relations -- Responding to concerns and informing and motivating an organization's employees or members, its retirees and their families.

Community Relations -- Continuing, planned and active participation with and within a community to maintain and enhance its environment to the benefit of both an organization and the community.

Public Affairs -- Developing effective involvement in public policy, and helping an organization adapt to public expectations; also, term used by military services and some government agencies to describe their public relations activities.

Government Affairs -- Relating directly with legislatures and regulatory agencies on behalf of an organization, usually by military services and some government agencies to describe their public relations activities.

Issues Management -- Identifying and addressing issues of public concern in which an organization is, or should be, concerned.

Financial Relations -- Creating and maintaining investor confidence and building positive relationships with the financial community; also, sometimes known as Investor Relations or Shareholder Relations.

Industry Relations -- Relating with other firms in the industry of an organization and with trade associations.

Development/Fund Raising -- Demonstrating the need for and encouraging an organization's members, friends, supporters and others to voluntarily contribute to support it.

Minority Relations/Multicultural Affairs -- Relating with individuals and groups in minorities.

Special Events and Public Participation -- Stimulating an interest in a person, product or organization by means of a focused "happening;" also, activities designed to enable an organization to listen to and interact with publics.

Marketing Communications -- Combination of activities designed to sell a product, service or idea, including advertising, collateral materials, publicity, promotion, packaging, point-of-sale display, trade shows and special events.

What Public Relations Does

Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring private and public policies into harmony.

Public relations serves a wide variety of institutions in society such as businesses, trade unions, government agencies, voluntary associations, foundations, hospitals, schools, colleges, and religious institutions. To achieve their goals, these institutions must develop effective relationships with many different audiences or publics such as employees, members, customers, local communities, shareholders, and other institutions, and with society at large.

The managements of institutions need to understand the attitudes and values of their publics in order to achieve institutional goals. The goals themselves are shaped by external environment. The public relations practitioner acts as a counselor to management and as a mediator, helping translate private aims into reasonable, publicly acceptable policy and action.

As a management function, public relations encompasses the following:

In helping to define and implement policy, the public relations practitioner uses a variety of professional communications skills and plays an integrative role both within the organization and between the organization and the external environment.


public, n.-3: a group of people having common interests or characteristics; specific: the group at which a particular activity of enterprise aims.
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.


While the term "the public" is often used, there are, in fact, many publics or specific audiences within the general public. These publics respond in different ways so they must be considered separately and, often, communicated to differently and through differing media. Publics often overlap, and they can be identified and sub-divided in many different ways.

How Public Relations Helps Management

  1. The publicity and promotional aspect paves the way for the sale of products or services, so much so that some companies have placed sales quotas on their product publicity people.

  2. Internal motivation is a vital factor which affects the bottom line by building morale, enhancing productivity and creating team spirit. It also helps recruit qualified people and retain them.

  3. Public relations provides an early warning system by avoiding disruptions which may occur when a single surprise issue or unplanned-for social/political change arises.

  4. Public relations provides an organization with new opportunities because the people involved in public relations interact with more internal and external audiences than anyone else in the organization. Public relations people have a conning tower from which to identify new markets, new products, new methods.

  5. Public relations helps to protect the present position when an organization is under attack. For instance, Proctor and Gamble did not suffer declining sales, morale or stock values during the tampon debacle largely because of their expert public relations handling of the problem -- communicating the company's position.

  6. Public relations helps to overcome executive isolation, something that can affect every organization sooner or later. An inescapable assignment of every public relations practitioner is opening the eyes and ears of management to what's really happening "out there."

  7. Public relations help organizations manage change, something they must do to stay competitive and efficient. But since change is threatening and often resisted, smooth transition through a necessary change guided by public relations professionals is a real dollar-saver.

  8. The phrase "double bottom line" was coined to explain the relationship between an organization and its social responsibility. It's now well understood and accepted that social responsibility does have a traceable effect on economic success for every type organization. The leading role in "social accountancy" is usually played by public relations staff.

How Public Relations Benefits Society

Ethical Considerations

From its earliest beginnings, public relations has had to confront the problem of ethical practices. In the heyday of press agentry, its practitioners could get away with almost anything. Many followed the dictum of circus promoter, Phineas Taylor Barnum, who proclaimed "Let the public be fooled." At the same time, businesses operated secretly and often fraudulently, and newspapers engaged in muckraking.

It fell to public relations pioneer Ivy Lee (1877-1914) to bring about the first major change leading to the establishment of ethical practices in public relations. Employed to represent the anthracite coal industry in 1906, Lee declined to be merely the industry press agent. Instead, he promised to help the industry change policies which were objectionable to the public and, then, provide newspapers with material that was favorable to their position.

His famous "Declaration of Principles" which was sent to newspaper editors and publishers said in part:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about."

With this statement -- revolutionary for its day -- Lee effectively moved public relations away from the "anything goes" type of press agentry which had prevailed to that time.


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