The ultimate definition of public relations

How would you define public relations? Someone once tried to count the number of suggested definitions of public relations, but he or she allegedly gave up after finding over 2,000+ different attempts. Obviously, as a self-respecting public relations blogger, I feel compelled to add to this already long list:

PR (public relations) = the strategic use of communication to develop and maintain relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

  • strategic use — to be used by a brand with purpose; i.e. to fulfil business objectives.
  • stakeholders — people or organisations affected by the brand’s business objectives.
  • influencers — people or organisations who affect the brand’s business objectives.
  • publics — groupings of communicative behaviours who affect the brand’s business objectives.

In this post, I’ll take a stab at explaining how organizations structure their PR function, explain why public relations has such a bad reputation, and discuss the origins of our profession.

Simply put: I’ll answer the question, what is public relations?

The organisational function of public relations

Large companies often have a marketing department and a communications department. Is there a difference?

Marketing and communications.
Like brothers and sisters.

Some argue that communications are a form of marketing. Not that many argue that marketing should be subordinate to communications — even though marketing arguably is a form of communication1. So what’s the actual difference between these departments?

The marketing department is creating and distributing messages about the brand and its products and services via paid channels, such as advertising. The department is focused on reaching buyers and potential buyers, i.e. target groups.

The communications department is talking to journalists, customers, social followers, investors, politicians, and employees via earned and owned channels, such as publicity and branded accounts. The department is focused on establishing dialogue with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

In short:

Marketing is about promoting brands, products, and services to consumer target groups.

Communications is about developing and maintaining relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

The departments are very closely related; they’re like brothers and sisters, and that’s why they sometimes play very well together. And why, sometimes, they don’t.

The difference between marketing and public relations.
Means to an end.

“Well, what about the IT department?”

As the media landscape became all about digital first, both marketing and communications have been forced to work more closely with IT. After all, they are the ones who are experts on technology. But the gap between marketing/communications and IT is often huge. Marketing/communications aren’t often that great at “speaking IT” — and vice versa. To tackle this confusion, organizations are now creating whole new departments and job titles to fill this gap.

Marketing, communications and it.
If marketing and communications are brothers and sisters, then IT is a distant cousin.

In the meantime, marketing departments are hiring communications- and IT-specialists, communications are hiring marketing- and IT-specialists and IT is hiring marketing- and communications specialists.

The neverending “Big Bang” of marcom agencies

Since the digital transformation leads to organisational challenges on the client side, agencies find it difficult to develop their services to fit their customers’ needs. Agencies today are often not quite sure exactly which departmental budgets to aim for. As a result, agencies grow smaller and we see a plethora of specialisations on the agency side.

This dilution of marketing- and communications disciplines has consequences:

  • It becomes more difficult for agencies to scale and grow.
  • It becomes more difficult for agencies to recruit.
  • It pushes agencies to take on projects that they shouldn’t be taking on.

It also has consequences for educational institutions:

  • It becomes almost impossible to educate students academically.
  • It becomes increasingly difficult for academics to keep up with research.
  • It becomes difficult to recruit teachers and instructors.

And, it has consequences on the client side:

  • It becomes insanely expensive and time-consuming to add a full agency spectrum; especially across multiple markets. And opting for one of the few remaining “one-stop-shops” to get that precious single-point-of-contact only results in mediocrity — at best.

The embarrassing irony of public relations

PR professionals are experts on corporate communication, but we can’t manage our own professional reputation. Oh, the irony.

Okay, so this might come off as a little bit strange: Communications and public relations is actually the same thing. Why are we sometimes treating it as two different things? Well, the term “public relations” has something of a negative connotation, to put it mildly. With such a bad reputation, I certainly hope that you’re able to appreciate the irony. On the client side, many organizations have simply opted to name it a communications department instead of a public relations department. However, most PR agencies stuck with “PR agencies” instead of “communication agencies” (although the latter is becoming increasingly common).

Public relations, media relations, and publicity

There’s one aspect of public relations that’s a little bit more uncomfortable than other areas:

Media relations.

Journalists aren’t always nice to deal with. I’ve had approximately 2,000+ direct media contacts, and I know. It’s a tough job, for sure, but someone has to do it. (At least, someone had to do it before the internet gave us the opportunity to connect with audiences directly.) Since many communications departments have been eager to outsource this not-so-appealing part of the job, many PR agencies have specialised on securing publicity for their clients. And this has literally been going on for so long that public relations have begun to become synonymous with media relations.

How to pitch a reporter.
The subtle art of media relations.

Did you know? In many English-speaking countries, there’s an actual job title for media relations: Publicist. In Swedish, ‘publicist’ means publisher; we don’t have a word for a media relations specialist.

The classic public relations model

The specialisations within PR are historically grouped according to the principle, “which stakeholders, influencers, or publics are we trying to influence?”The classic model looks like this:

Old Model of Public Relations
The classic model of public relations.

The new public relations model

The model illustrates what a full-service agency offering used to look like. But today, I would argue that we need to develop this old model, simply because we have two “new” and important groups to manage. The new model would look like this:

New Model of Public Relations
The new model of public relations.

Community management, because companies today have social audiences. These audiences are crucial and brands must nurture these relationships well.

Inbound communications, because people today often go directly to branded websites or apps when looking for information and knowledge.

Edward Bernays: The father of public relations

Edward Bernays
“I got people to smoke more cigarettes. So?”

To better understand public relations, let’s revisit the father of public relations, Edward Bernays. His uncle was the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and Bernays, too, was interested in human behavior.

He helped companies not only to get publicity but to analyze the market and then surgically inject new perceptions. (In a way, public relations is all about perception management2). Bernays certainly was somewhat of a character: His most famous book was titled Propaganda — in which he outlined how to manage the perceptions of crowds, much like a post-modern Niccolo Machiavelli. And it gets worse.

The two most prominent examples of his pioneering work are somewhat disturbing:

Case study #1: Lucky Strike

When helping Lucky Strike, Bernays realized that cigarette smoking was mostly a male habit. From a business standpoint, this means that there’s a chance to add half the population to your list of potential customers. No-one had done this successfully, not because no-one ever had that idea, but more likely because it was quite a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays did.

He did it by tapping into another prevailing trend in society at the time and that was the emancipation of women. Bernays planted the public perception of women smoking, not because it was enjoyable, but rather as a symbol of female independence. He did so partially by placing the idea in articles and newspapers, but also through celebrities and events.

Case study #2: Eggs and Bacon

Another PR legend is how Bernays helped the farming industry to convince people to eat more eggs and bacon. To facilitate this, he wanted to change people’s perception of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon. So he cooperated with food scientists to establish the idea that eggs and bacon should be part of a healthy breakfast for every American. And to manifest this, he also collaborated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for breakfast. People simply hadn’t thought of the idea of eating eggs and breakfast or that practice would be good for you. Have you ever had eggs and bacon for breakfast at a hotel?

Persuading people to smoke cigarettes and consume more meat isn’t exactly making Bernays into the perfect poster boy for public relations. An inherent bad reputation is, unfortunately, something that the public relations industry has struggled with ever since.

What are the publics of public relations?

Public relations is, as you know by now, public relations. However, what most people don’t know, is that public is a very specific group classification. It refers to the idea of publics. Publics are grouped based on their communication behaviours. (You can compare this with ‘target groups’ defined on demographic similarities, not similarities in the way they communicate.) Publics are situational3; formed in given situations when external factors push them to communicate. For instance, if a municipality announces the building of a new bridge, several publics are likely to be created:

  • “The supporters” who loves the idea of a bridge.
  • “The environmentalists” who thinks that the bridge will disturb the wildlife.
  • “The conservatives” who argue that change isn’t a real solution in this case.
  • “The opponents” who reacts negatively to any political suggestion.

So, there you have it: My run-down of exactly what public relations is, why the profession exists, and why there is so much confusion all around. But despite it all:

Public relations is the most fascinating, ever-changing, complex, and creative job anyone who loves communication can wish for.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.


  1. The latter probably correlates with the fact that marketing historically has had much larger budgets on average.
  2. Perception management is an old Burson-Marsteller term.
  3. See also The Publics in Public Relations.