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Defining Public Relations

People often define public relations by some of its most visible techniques and tactics, such as publicity in a newspaper, a television interview with an organization's spokesperson, or the appearance of a celebrity at a special event What people fail to understand is that public relations is a process involving many sub­tle and far-reaching aspects. It includes research and analysis, policy formation, program­ming, communication, and feedback from numerous publics.

Until recently, public relations was an occupation defined more by its techniques than by its theory. Recently, however, scholars of public re­lations have developed a body of knowledge that puts public relations on par with other recognized professions. Public relations professionals do not write and design brochures because they think it would be nice for the organization to have one, or strive for publicity because the boss likes to see his or her name in the media. Instead they use such a technique because they decide that it is the most effective way to communicate with the public that is strategic to the success of their organization.

The idea is that public relations is more than a technique. Public rela­tions is also a theory: of why organizations must communicate with pub­lics, of the nature of publics, of the effects of the techniques employed, and of the ethics of using the techniques.

Thus, public relations practitioners occupy two major roles—technicians and man­agers. Communication managers plan and direct public relations pro­grams. Communication technicians provide technical services such as writing, editing, photography, media contacts, or production of publi­cations. Both are essential to a public relations program.

Any number of definitions have been formulated over the years. Rex Harlow, a pio­neer public relations educator, once compiled more than 500 definitions from almost as many sources. He found definitions ranging from the simple to the complex.

The simplest are:

• Good performance, publicly appreciated.

• PR stands for Performance and then Recognition.

• Doing good and getting credit for it

More formal definitions are provided by dictionaries and textbook authors. The American Heritage College Dictionary defines public relations as: The art or science of establishing and promoting a favorable relationship with the public; the methods and activities used to establish and promote such a relationship.

National and international public relations organizations, including the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), also have formulated definitions. Here is a sampling from around the world:

• "Public relations is the deliberate, planned, and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics." (British Institute of Public Opinion, whose definition has also been adopted in a number c Commonwealth nations)

• "Public relations is the conscious and legitimate effort to achieve understanding & the establishment and maintenance of trust among the public on the basis of systematic research." (Deutschc Public Relations Gesellschaft of the Federal Republ of Germany—note that mere is no term equivalent to public relations in the German language)

• "Public relations is the sustained and systematic managerial effort through which private and public organizations seek to establish understanding, sympathy, and support in those public circles with which they have or expect to obtain contact (Dansk Public Relations Klub of Denmark, which also uses the English term)

• "Public relations practice is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which serve born the organization's and the public interest" (A definition approved at the Worid Assembly of Public Relations Mexico City in 1978 and endorsed by 34 national public relations organization)

Careful study of these explanations should enable anyone to formulate a definition of public relations; committing any single one to memory is unnecessary. The key words to remember in defining public relations follow:

Deliberate. Public relations activity is intentional. It is designed to influence understanding, provide information, and obtain feedback (reaction from those affect by the activity).

Planned. Public relations activity is organized. Solutions to problems are discovered, and logistics are thought out with the activity taking place over a period of time. It’s systematic, requiring research and analysis.

Performance. Effective public relations is based on actual policies and performance. No amount of public relations will generate goodwill and support if the organization is unresponsive to community concerns. A Pacific Northwest limber company, despite an advertising campaign with the theme "For Us, Every Day Is Earth Day," became known as the villain of Washington State because of its insistence on logging old-growth forests and bulldozing a logging road into a prime elk habitat.

Most definitions of public relations—many of which are long and com­plicated—contain two elements: communication and management. Pub­lic relations is the formal way in which organizations communicate with their publics. Public relations, however, is planned—or managed communication. Although much communication by an organization hap­pens by chance, public relations is communication that is planned and coordinated by professional communication managers.

Thus, we define public relations as the management of communication between an organization and its publics. We define communication as a be­havior—of people, groups, or organizations—that consists of moving symbols to and from other people, groups, or organizations. Thus, we can say that public relations is the managed communication behavior of an or­ganization with its publics.

Public relations professionals plan and execute communication for the organization as a whole or help parts of the organization to commu­nicate. They manage the movement of messages into the organization, for example, when conducting research on the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of publics. Then using the information, they counsel managers throughout the organization on how to make the policies or actions of the organization acceptable to publics. They may manage the movement of messages out of the organization when they help manage­ment decide how to explain a policy or action to a public and then write a news story or fact sheet to explain it.

The science of PR has developed from various other sciences, and it is still closely connected with them and sometimes even confused with them:


Political science

Image making





Presentation and promotion

Media relations