Searching for the meaning of PR

3 Nov

Meaning of PR The most popular search term for those arriving at this blog has been, for some time, a variant on 'the meaning of PR'.

This always makes me smile. Google may be the wonder of the age (Bing's good too) – but why put so much trust in a search engine? Are people typing in 'the meaning of life' and expecting the answer to their problems?

More prosaically, I imagine a student somewhere faced with a deadline for an essay or a presentation, making a desperate bid for enlightenment. Well, you've come to the wrong place.

But in a spirit of sharing, here are some thoughts on 'the meaning of PR'.


First, this is linguistically specific. In France, the same search would focus on 'RP' (which in the UK some take to mean 'received pronounciation').

Then there are cultural and political contexts. PR, in the UK, is more widely understood as 'proportional representation' (a fair voting system) than 'public relations'. In the US, PR is often used to refer to Puerto Rico.

But let's focus on public relations. What does it mean? You can answer this in several ways: by looking at definitions of PR, by asking questions about PR practice and the role of PR in organisations.

There are numerous definitions of PR (there's no monopoly here), and new ones emerge all the time. Here's a recent one from admired academics Coombs and Holladay from PR: Strategy and Application published this year:

Public relations is the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constitutuency relationships.

Relations, relationships, relationships. Get the message? The next way to understand the meaning of PR is to consider the paradigm (or world view) proposed in the major definitions. This one is clearly proposing public relations as relationship management.

Other well-known paradigms of PR include symmetry/excellence (Grunig et al); reputation management (see the CIPR definition and works by Fombrun and van Riel). Less well-known paradigms include PR as community building (Kruckeberg and Stark). That's before we start on the critics of PR who view it as spin and propaganda.

Then there are practitioner perspectives. What name is given to the public relations function? It could be corporate communication(s), marketing communications, public affairs, corporate affairs as well as public relations. So there are definitional issues from a practice perspective, too.

What value do practitioners add to organisations? This is a big question, addressed here in this post about the Stockholm Accords.

There are many ways to answer a question about the meaning of PR.

2 Responses to “Searching for the meaning of PR”

  1. lhrabushka@crimson.ua.edu 15/11/2010 at 8:44 pm #

    As a student majoring in PR, it scares me to think people are typing “the meaning of PR” in an online search engine. I can only imagine the variety of results they receive. I, personally, envision my parents researching public relations online by typing that very phrase. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all your questions about PR answered by typing a simple phrase into a search bar? I agree reiterating the word “relationships” is accurate in describing PR in one word. I have always struggled with explaining public relations to my parents and peers, without responding in a boring, 30-minute spiel. So, I’ve come to alternatively memorize a one-sentence definition: A profession dedicated to building relationships, promoting ideas, and creating a positive image of one’s company, brand or organization. Of course, I understand public relations is much deeper than that, but for people who want a quick answer, that definition seems to suffice. I’m sure people in the field have come to memorize a similar definition of their own. They know more than anyone that the questions “What is PR?” and “What do PR professionals do?” are asked often. It’s nice to be prepared with an answer people will understand before you lose them.
    -Platform Online Magazine Student Editor

  2. Richard Bailey 15/11/2010 at 8:56 pm #

    Thank you Platform Online. I like your simple definition of PR:
    ‘A profession dedicated to building relationships, promoting ideas, and creating a positive image of one’s company, brand or organization.’

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