What is public relations?

What is public relations?

I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that someone once tried to count the number of academic definitions of public relations, but he or she allegedly gave up after finding over 2,000+ versions.

Admittedly, this might just be an urban PR legend.

A story we tell ourselves to feel better about the fact that so many people don’t have a single clue about what we do.

Or maybe we tell us this story to feel better about the fact that we often fail to explain exactly what we do for a living. As PR professionals, we ought to be good at explaining things, right?

So far, Hollywood hasn’t exactly done us many favours.

Samantha Jones in Sex and the City is a PR professional, but her job seems to be more about living in the right place, knowing the right people, and having lots of sex.

I’ve lived on Manhattan and worked with PR and I can assure you — my life looked nothing like hers.

I was too busy working, I guess. Working with PR.

And that was okay, albeit not nearly as flashy as Samantha’s life.

Working with the news- and lifestyle media

Most people who have heard about PR knows that it has something to do with managing the media. We call this media relations.

Yes, some PR professionals deal with the media quite a lot.

A few, but far from all, is managing the media full-time. These PR professionals are often called media relations specialist (if they’re working at an agency, press secretary (if they’re working in an organisation), or press agent (if they’re working on behalf of individuals).

These types of PR professionals only make up for a small percentage of our profession, but they are the ones who are most often portrayed in television shows and movies.

Like Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. Or, like Stu in Phone Booth. Or, like Eli Wurman in People I Know. Or, like CJ Cregg in The West Wing.

As they work closely with people in possession of power and reach, it’s often interesting to portray them as slick and weasley middle-men working behind the scenes of the media industrial complex.

But, no. That’s not really what we do.

We’re into politics, too

There are also lots of PR professionals who work with politics. In PR, we separate between lobbying and public affairs. These people are also sometimes referred to as spin doctors.

In fact, Hollywood has had a sweet spot for these characters, too.

Some of you might have seen the lobbyist Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking. His job? To lobby for Big Tobacco.

Public affairs is also geared towards politics. However, where lobbyists target legislators, PA professionals are mainly focused on influencing voters.

These lines between different specialisations are rarely set in stone. A lobbyist could easily be recruited to run someone’s political campaign. If the politician is then elected, the campaign manager often transition into becoming a press secretary.

From lobbying, to public affairs, to media relations — all in a few months time. There’s nothing strange about this. And it happens all the time.

But media relations and political communication still only makes up for a small percentage of everyone working with PR.

What is the rest doing?

Where are all the PR professionals?

The majority of all PR professionals are working mostly with corporate communications, marketing PR, and business-to-business communication.

Corporate communications is huge.
Marketing PR is huge.
Business-to-business communication is huge.

In a company or an organisation, some people need to take care of all the communication activities that needs to be done. Just think about all the ways a company or an organisation press releases, writing web copy, update the website, drink coffee.

These jobs are done by communication professionals.

And that’s not all. Some people need to be in charge of what the company or the organisation should say. And when they should say it. And where they should say it. And to whom.

When a communication professional is involved in the overall decision-making like this, they simply add ‘strategic’ to the type of job that they do— like strategic communication professional.

The vast majority of all PR professionals are working with corporate communications (facilitating communication activities with key stakeholders), marketing PR (facilitating communication activities with the consumer market), and business-to-business communication (facilitating communication activities with other businesses).

It might sound a bit dull, but I can assure you that it’s great fun. My personal favourite here is business-to-business communication. It’s often extremely rewarding work.

Although — I do understand if this isn’t fodder for Hollywood scriptwriters.

But, don’t worry, there’s plenty more to explore.

We manage crisis communications

There are quite a few specialisations worth mentioning.

A few PR professionals are specialised in crisis communications.

They help out (for a fee) when your company or organisation finds themselves in the midst of a crisis. This is very much an invisible role, but the excitement and the seriousness can be extremely exciting for the right kind of PR professional.

Crisis communications sounds pretty cool, but working in the midst of personal tragedies can be demanding. I remember each and every detail of every crisis project I ever managed. More often than not, there are extremely sad stories underlying it all.

In Wag the Dog, a brilliant comedy, the crisis expert and spin doctor Conrad Brean is called in to help the US president manage — and when possible also avoid — a series of crisis situations.

Wag the Dog - What is public relations
There’s (almost) nothing these two can’t handle.

There are glimpses of truth in Wag the Dog, but it’s mostly exaggerated for comedic effect.

Still, I recommend watching it!

What else?

Beauty comes from within

We mustn’t forget about the unsung heroes of our profession — all those who specialise in internal communications.

How a company or an organisation is communicating internally is obviously massively important. You need leaders who can communicate and you need coworkers who can communicate. But many companies and organisations have internal communication problems.

Almost all of them, in fact.

Unfortunately, internal communicators rarely get the resources they need. And they rarely get the attention they deserve. It’s easier to allocate resources to external communications, unfortunately.

Still, these PR professionals are often amongst the most passionate specialists you’ll find in our profession.

Now you know more about who we are, where we are, and a little bit about the types of jobs that we do.

But we haven’t yet answered the fundamental question yet — what is public relations?

So, what is public relations?

One way to think about public relations is to understand how it’s different from marketing.

This meme is meant to be funny, but while this isn’t my type of humor personally, it does illustrate a key point.

A popular way to highlight the actual difference between public relations and marketing is to use the PESO model.

PESO stands for Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned media. Before the advent of social media, there were mostly paid- and earned type of channels. Paid could be various forms of advertising. Earned could be favourable publicity in editorials.

So, for a long time, this was how public relations and marketing draw a line between them. Marketing focused on paid media channels and public relations focused on earned media channels.

Remember those internal communicators? They were actually way ahead of the curve since they often focused on owned media channels, like intranets, mailing lists, and “newspapers” for customers and coworkers.

Obviously, social media exploded the options when it comes to what you can actually do in paid, earned, shared, and owned media.

Each type of channel literally grew so fast that marketing and public relations were able to handle it all. And with this growth emerged new types of boundary-spanning specialists.

For instance, content marketing lands somewhere in-between traditional marketing and public relations. You often publish in owned channels using paid channels to get the word out, but you have to rely on earned and shared channels to punch through the noise.

Yes, there’s many new specialisations, but still:

The baseline is still the fundamental difference between public relations (the communications department) and advertising (the marketing department).

So, how does PR work?

How to actually do public relations

In many ways, it’s easier to explain marketing.

You decide what, when and where you need to say something in order to sell more products and services (planning). You then create your messages in a compelling manner that works psychologically with the chosen format (copywriting and art direction).

Then, you pay someone to show your messages (media buying).

Done. Rinse and repeat.

Now, there’s of course so much more to marketing than that, but you get the idea. And I wish I could describe public relations just as easily.

We do, however, write a whole lot. In a way, I guess you could describe PR professionals as a bunch of writers on staff. Because good writers are always useful to have around.

And since we know how to write a whole bunch of different stuff, from speeches and press releases to mission statements to social media updates. And we as a consequence, we also get asked about how to communicate efficiently.

Between all that writing we talk with journalists, we fix internal communication problems, we monitor what is being said about the brand in different channels. We prepare for worst-case-scenarios and we plan big launches. And we make plans. Lots of plans.

We’re often quite busy, to say the least.

Need an event planned? Talk to your communication department. There are even PR professionals who are specialised in creating professional events, event planners.

Communication departments and PR agencies

Now, I should also point out that most PR professionals works with communication within a company or organisation. In-house PR professionals are typically referred to as communicators.

Some are for hire as freelancers or via a PR agency.

There are both generalist PR agencies (“one-stop-shops”) alongside plenty of specialist agencies.

There are some typical differences between working in-house or at an agency. However, these differences are so small that a PR professional could move back and forth several times during a long career.

By now, maybe you’ve noticed that I use ‘public relations’ and ‘communications’ interchangeably?

Some prefer to be called communication professional (or just communicator) instead of PR professional. ‘Communication’ just encapsulates almost everything and communication is, unlike ‘information’, a two-way process.

Personally, I prefer public relations. It’s an academic field of relevant research, it has a rich and interesting history, and it’s what I’m used to.

But both works just fine by me.

The history of public relations

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) is known as the father of public relations.

His uncle was the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and Bernays, too, was interested in human behavior.

Bernays certainly was something of a character: His most famous book is titled Propaganda — in which he outlined how to manage the perceptions of crowds, much like modern Niccolo Machiavelli or Sun Tzu.

Let’s look at two famous case studies to give you an idea.

Case study 1: Lucky Strike

When helping Lucky Strike, Bernays realized that cigarette smoking was mostly a male habit. From a business perspective, this means that there were a golden opportunity to add half the population to Lucky Strike’s list of potential customers.

No-one had done this successfully, not because no-one ever had that idea, but because it was a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays succeeded.

He succeeded by tapping into another prevailing trend in society at the time: 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 celebrity endorsements and events.

Cigarettes was framed as ‘Torches of Freedom’.

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 make this happen, Bernays wanted to change people’s perception of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon.

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 collaborated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for breakfast.

Have you ever had eggs and bacon for breakfast at a hotel?

Well, you can thank Bernays for that idea.

Why PR has such bad PR

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 the start.

With a little help from Hollywood, of course.

Also, there’s a natural tension between journalists and PR professionals.

Journalists protect the general interest.
PR professionals protect special interests.

Journalists have been known to add negativity to the general reputation of PR professionals. This is only natural given our different roles.

To add to the general suspiciousness of PR professionals, we often operate behind the scenes. We might write the speech, but we don’t deliver it. We might pitch the story idea, but we don’t write the article. We might be suggesting eggs and bacon, but we don’t serve it.

Also, most of us typically dress in black.

Personally, I’m hopeful that our reputation will improve over time. The importance of strategic communication is only increasing and I think that more and more journalists are coming around to better understand why we are a much needed organisational function.

Speaking of organisational functions, let’s explore the academic route as well.

How to accurately define public relations

Remember that urban PR legend about 2,000+ definitions?

Obviously, as any self-respecting PR blogger would, I feel obliged to threw my hat into the ring and suggest my definition of PR.

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

The key components of my PR definition:

stakeholders — organisations who are important.

influencers — people who are important.

publics — groups who are important.

Learn more: In The publics in public relations, I describe how groups of people can be segmented by how they communicate.

As follows:

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

Compared to:

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

The specialisations within PR are historically grouped according to the principle, “which stakeholders, influencers, or publics are we trying to influence?”

As for these PR specialisations, I find the classic PR model to be useful:

So, there you have it:

My answer to what is public relations, why the profession exists, and why there is so much confusion all around.

In closing:

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.