In two words: what is public relations?

28 Dec

Meaning pr More than half of the readers to this blog come here as a result of a search. 

Someone arrived having typed meaning pr into Google. An archived post at PR Studies came second to Wikipedia for this cryptic search string.

Who were they and what were they thinking? I can imagine it was a student attempting some last-minute 'research' before an essay deadline.

Well, let me disappoint you. Google isn't yet a complete library containing all the wisdom of the world. I suggest you view a search as the start of your research, not the end.

In that spirit, here are some helpful pointers. I can't write your essays because that wouldn't be right, and I don't know what your essay question is. But I can provide some straightforward two-word explanations of public relations and some sources for further reading (yes, that conventional activity that still mostly involves printed books). What follows may help explain [the] meaning [of] PR (or rather several competing meanings).

(This is a blog entry, so the referencing is not comprehensive, but you'll be able to find the sources at my PR Books site.)

Communication management: This is the 'classic' two-word perspective on public relations, which Grunig and Hunt defined as the 'management of communication between an organization and its publics'.

This appears to be self-evident, but there are some issues with it. Public relations is not the only discipline involved in communicating, so you need to explain the relationship between PR and marketing / marcoms (Kitchen, Kotler et al) and between public relations and corporate communication (van Riel, Cornelissen).

Then there's no hint in this definition of why communication is important to organisations. Hence another two-word description of PR:

Relationship management: Cutlip, Center and Broom's famous definition adds in the purpose of PR:

'Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.'

The main scholars of PR as relationship management are Ledingham and Bruning, though Phillips and Young recently conceptualised public relations as 'relationship optimisation'. I view stakeholder management approaches to be consistent with the relationship management approach.

One debate surrounds whether this theoretical approach is compatible with – or opposed to Grunig's theories. For the record, Ledingham has written that 'the notion of relationship management is consistent with major concepts such as systems theory and the two-way symmetrical model of Grunig and Hunt'.

It's easy to conceptualise public relations as relationship management, but my questions surround how this works in practice. What does a relationship optimiser do, and what tools and techniques do they use to achieve their goals?

Reputation management: The UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) defines PR as 'about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.'

They're not quite on their own, but this view is outside the academic mainstream, with the main champions of reputation research being Fombrun and van Riel.

Reputation is a flexible concept that works for individuals, websites, corporations and public sector bodies. But critics have challenged this approach since public relations is not the sole contributing factor in corporate reputations. So once again, there are some definitional and domains issues with this concept.

Ideas management: Not a peer-approved academic concept, but merely my lecture theatre attempt to distinguish public relations from event management for first year students. Event management is a separate discipline: PR people view it as a subset of their craft, while event managers view PR as a small part of their job (publicising the event).

Ideas management works as a concept because it explains the role of PR-as-publicity (the best job in the world was a brilliant idea to promote Queensland Tourism that achieved global resonance). Most academics dismiss or even ignore publicity (Grunig and Hunt linked it to propaganda).

Ideas management also suggests what happens at the more exalted level of 'issues management' (the discipline that is often linked to crisis management and to public affairs). It works with internal communication too since the role of the practitioner is to provide a coherent narrative to explain an organisation's strategy and the role of employees in helping to achieve organisational objectives.

Other concepts: Postmodernists and critical theorists dismiss any attempt to provide a single definition of public relations, so their theories are excluded from this brief review.

I have summarised the main managerial approaches to public relations, but there are others that don't fit the managerial perspective so well. For example, the rhetorical enactment (Heath) and communitarian (Kruckeberg and Stark) approaches. These can wait for another post.

10 Responses to “In two words: what is public relations?”

  1. Alex Barnett 29/12/2009 at 9:28 pm #

    Thought you said you couldn’t write their essay for them 🙂 No, seriously, a good starter for ten on some useful background reading.
    When I started in PR I always hated the question what do you do for a living… explaining in concise terms what we do for a living is harder than it might first seem. Programmes like Ab-Fab (sorry, showing my age now) didn’t help. Everyone had images of champagne swigging loveys…
    Then a colleague put it to me that it was about 3rd party endorsement… and to some extent they were right. It fits with the third part of the CIPR definition ‘what others say about you’ but some how doesn’t capture it all. I prefer to think of it as common sense junction… Ironically, although PRs often suffer from a bad reputation often they are responsible for making the complex simple, ensuring the useful is given recognition and often giving the quiet a voice…
    No matter how you look at it, no one definition will ever be correct. The PR and communication function in one organisation will be very different from another, in-house different from agency, not-for-profit different from plc… and frankly, that’s what makes it so interesting.

  2. Richard Bailey 30/12/2009 at 9:53 am #

    I think you’re referring to Lord Bell’s distinction between advertising (‘the use of paid-for media to inform and persuade’) and public relations (‘the use of third party endorsement to inform and persuade’.)

  3. Alex Barnett 01/01/2010 at 10:32 am #

    Yes, that’s the one… but do think it is still to narrow to encompass PR in its entirety (although I acknowledge it is more about distinguishing between PR and advertising). In an ideal world, PR and communications should be an integral part of the business decision-making process.
    The PR function in its purest form should be involved long before ‘the use of third party endorsement to inform and persuade’ becomes a factor. It should be there to help inform a decision on a product, an action or a change, allowing managers to assess how it should progress (if at all). Advertising, in my opinion, can’t command the same position.
    As napoleon once said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” …not sure I completely agree but shows how important communications is.

  4. Paul Seaman 03/01/2010 at 5:47 pm #

    If your readers want an alternative definition of PR, they can find it here:
    Definitions of PR: keeping it honest

  5. Richard Bailey 04/01/2010 at 9:29 am #

    Thanks for reminding me of this discussion, Paul. I agree that the committee definitions are unsatisfactory. Academics love to cite the classic example of the genre, the ‘Mexican statement’ – but I defy anyone to remember it word for word.
    That’s why my starting point above are two word descriptions. It’s smarter to keep it simple.

    • John Ledingham, Ph.d. 15/01/2013 at 5:27 pm #

      John Ledingham15/01/2013 at 4:41 pm #
      The question was asked, with regard to managing relationships, what does a relationship manager do, and how does one do it? I think that often, relationship management is not unlike an organizational leader taking a group of managers away for a week-end where the team members play tug rope, figure ways to cross streams without getting a dunking, and climb ropes together, and so on. Great fun, no doubt, and unquestionably the experience may bring some closer together (and mishaps may create “enemies” as well). The problem (an opportunity for trainers, perhaps) is back at the desk on Monday morning, a team member is likely to ask oneself: “No what was I supposed to do? What did all that have to do with solving the problems (yes, “opportunities,” I know) that I’m dealing with on a daily basis?
      Clearly, those of us in academe need to do a better job of specifying what a “relationship manager” does and how that manager does “it.”
      The answer(s) are not so complex as they may appear at first:
      1. The obvious answer to the first question: Manage organization-public relationships (OPR). But, why?
      Research has shown that organizations that enjoy a positive relationship with their stakeholders have an advantage over their competitors, that stakeholders exhibit greater loyalty to organizations with which they share a positive OPR, that consumers (continued below).

    • John Ledingham, Ph.d. 15/01/2013 at 5:30 pm #

      First, thanks to you, Richard Bailey, for the excellent summary you provided. It prompted me to ruminate a bit on the matter of relationship management, as you will see below,

    • John Ledingham, Ph.d. 15/01/2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Please notify me of follow-up comments via email

  6. John Ledingham, Ph.d. 15/01/2013 at 5:22 pm #

    are willing to pay more for the products of organizations with which they have a positive OPR, and that OPRs provide a means of documenting accountability for the time and budget involved in carrying out PR initiatives. As well, an OPR-centered organization recognizes communication as a strategic tool in managing relationships, but also realizes that PR is more than simply communication alone. And, perhaps most importantly, relationship management is a perspective that realizes the practical advantages of mutual benefit for both an organization and its publics.

    As to how? This question is where the academics writing about relationship management (RM) have fallen down the most. As with most academic writing, the central question is “why” rather than “how”. Relationships must be tracked, analyzed and corrected. In doing so, the PR practitioner can easily see which parts of an OPR is working best, and which need more attention. With that “intel” in hand, the PR manager can make the adjustments necessary to maintain a positive OPR. Moreover, “doing” RM requires that the manager focus all initiatives — from Open Houses, to Development and including all supportive communication — on the behavior elements of an OPR. Different scholars have identified differing OPR factors, but there seems to be general agreement as to the following, the meaning(s) of which are seen below:

    Trust: That the organization will do what it says it will do.
    Openness: The organization shares its plans for the future.
    Commitment: The organization is committed to the welfare of its stakeholders (this
    most often is manifested through support for the communities in which
    the organization is located, or serves.
    Mutual Control: To a practical degree, both the organizations and stakeholders have
    input into critical decisions.
    Cultural Drivers: Additional factors consistent with the prevailing culture, such as “face”
    and “favor”, operating in some non-Western societies.

    In assessing programmatic initiatives, OPR managers are able to determine the relative contribution of each of these factors. That, in turn, allows them to easily see which factors may need more attention, and to adjust their initiatives — both in language and in behaviors — accordingly. A special note here: research clearly indicates that merely communicating a thought, , and idea, or a notion — and particularly a promise — can do more harm than good if not supported by appropriate behaviors. In other words: You can’t just “talk the talk,” you must also “walk the walk.”


  1. Top Five Things I Learned in PR Strategies | darlanvasquez - 04/09/2015

    […] favorite definition of PR is, “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships […]

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