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The 1.2 Million Definitions of PR: What’s your take?

August 12, 2009

We all hear it. We go to Happy Hour, meet up with friends and connect with new people. It varies, but it’s always something along the lines of:

New Compadre: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a public relations professional.
NC: What’s that?

confusedDo you ever pause or go into a long-winded explanation? I do, even with my parents. The first time I told my mom what I wanted to do, she got a really confused look on her face and asked me to explain further. When I got my first job, my grandmother called me and said “Your mom told me you got a new job, but has no idea what you’re doing.”

Here’s my thing. How do YOU as a professional define public relations? I hear different terms and definitions. Why is that? Is our profession that multi-dimensional? Do people lump other job responsibilities under PR because it’s easier?

I think we have a lot of different definitions or explanations because public relations, as a whole, is dependent on client or brand needs. Our basic principles are the same – we write press releases, garner positive publicity, handle media relations, etc. But the needs, and how much a client or org wants to be out there, is very dependent on how we execute our job. I think this will play an even bigger role in the social media realm.

You tell me. How do you define it? Why do you think there are multiple explanations?

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51 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2009 8:11 am

    I find Edward Bernay’s definiton is always the best: “Public relations is the management of the relationship between the organization and the publics that affect its success.” This shows that the profession is actually relationship based and we’re not just a bunch of spin doctors.

    • August 12, 2009 8:12 am

      K – I like it! I’ve been trying to find a standard definition for the longest time – one that isn’t in a textbook or really encompasses what the field is. So why do you think people always say something different?

  2. Keith Trivitt permalink
    August 12, 2009 8:18 am

    Wow. You have opened up a whole can of worms here, Lauren! But certainly a question worth asking and one which I will take a stab at answering from my own point of view.

    For me, public relations is the art, science and personal and professional lifestyle choice of finding a way to connect the key messages, products or points of view of a person, organization or a brand to its target audiences, and from there, help to build bigger, more grounded and more passionate audiences and stakeholders. It’s a dialogue with the people that a brand or organization want to reach, and it’s so much more than just putting together a snazzy press kit or a message grid with a few key points you want to get across.

    That, I think, is really why there are multiple explanations for what we as PR professionals do: the fact that all along, even before the Internet and social media and a realization that we can’t just “spray and pray” to effectively do our jobs, the fact that there is so much more to our work than what meets the eye. Clients and the public often only see the physical aspects of what we produce in our work: either the “deliverables” (press kit, bios, message points, etc.) or actual hits. For me at least, there is a great deal more that goes into it, and frankly, the more that goes into the job that others often do not see is really the gratifying part of our work.

    It’s about finding the right people, the right influencers, who will take say your company’s CEO who may be well known in your trade circle, but isn’t really known throughout the country, or beyond his industry, and working with that blogger, reporter, community engager, whomever it may be, to begin to build a movement and a body of trust and following behind that CEO so that he is better able to reach his company’s targeted consumers or constituents and really connect with them on the messages that they feel strongly about.

    That, to me, is public relations. The more I write this, the more excited and passionate I am getting about this business. Honestly, your question was one that, as you said, has been asked a million times before, but honestly, it probably needs to be asked every day by all of us, just so we all realize how much we enjoy the work we do.

    Keith Trivitt (@KeithTrivitt)

    • August 12, 2009 8:21 am

      I wouldn’t really consider it a can of worms. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I wonder, though, if the long winded explanations come from the passion we feel and the multiple projects we are always working on.

      We interact much more than most professions, which is exciting in itself. As a society, we thrive on it.

      Good points, K.

  3. August 12, 2009 8:19 am

    I would define PR as follows:

    Systematically promote a mutual understanding between an organisation and its audiences.

    Systematically implies that there is a plan with a certain continuity.
    Mutual means that there is a two way stream of communication
    Promote understanding is an activity which strives to trust and sympathy.

  4. August 12, 2009 8:38 am

    Very interesting topic, one that I’ve thought about for quite some time. I don’t think there could be a single definition of PR, as it is a fluid industry. An operational definition depends on something being static, and as you look at your client roster (if you’re at an agency) or the many hats you wear (in-house), you can immediately see that what you do for one client, you may not do for another. Here are a few posts I wrote about what I believe PR is and what it should be:

    What is public relations? http://thesternbergeffect.blogspot.com/2008/11/what-is-public-relations.html

    What should public relations be? http://thesternbergeffect.blogspot.com/2009/06/what-should-public-relations-be.html

    Josh
    @josh_sternberg

  5. prcog permalink
    August 12, 2009 8:50 am

    It took me a long time (literally years in some cases) to explain to family what I did. The most common misconceptions was that I wrote news articles myself. I’m not quite sure what my family thought journalists did in that case.

    Frequently I use the phrase ‘publicist.’ 1) It sounds glamorous and 2) It’s pretty much true (but limited) — we help publicize our client’s work (or minimize publicity around it depending on the situation).

    All of that being said — Yes, I do think it’s hard to pin us down to a precise definition or job list. Even among the #prbreakfastclub our duties vary greatly. Some spearhead events while others work purely on the press side. With 20 of us in a room you’d like get 25 definitions/bullet lists of what we do in our day jobs.

    But really the simplest solution, when asked “What do you do?” Just take a deep breath, look them straight in the eye and answer honestly — “Astronaut.” Then, for the next half-hour, have fun doing improv.

    • August 12, 2009 8:52 am

      Being from Houston, Cog…. not sure if that would fly. ๐Ÿ™‚ I know lots of rocket scientists and astronauts, so they would call my bluff.

      It’s hard for me to use the phrase publicist – because I interned for one. Publicity is different from PR, in my opinion. It’s more on the advertising side than you think. I could write a novel on the topic – will probably be another blog post.

  6. August 12, 2009 8:50 am

    I always tell people who are curious but confused, “I connect people with the things they care about.”

    I guess because I’m more on the social media end of things, that’s how I think of it, but my traditional PR colleagues could (or should!) claim the same thing, albeit in a more roundabout way.

    • August 12, 2009 8:52 am

      TJ – I like it! As our industry shifts and evolves, I think that your definition will definitely come more into play.

  7. August 12, 2009 8:51 am

    This is quite a doozy!

    I like the definition that Katie posted above.

    I think, though, that very few PR people do EXACTLY the same thing. At least in my experience, the industry includes:
    – PR 101 (releases, pitches, follow-ups)
    – Networking
    – Media Buying
    – Graphic Design
    – Mass Marketing
    – Grassroots Marketing
    – Event Management
    – Video Production and Editing
    – Social Media
    – Website Design
    – On-Site Media Relations
    – Market Research
    – and more…

    To keep it simple, though, I break it down by saying I get my clients on TV, radio and newspapers…and that’s generally enough to get a “Wow…cool job!” from most people.

    • August 12, 2009 8:56 am

      Mike – I like your categories. I think that’s a great breakdown of our industry and what people are doing.

      • August 12, 2009 9:08 am

        Thanks! My neighbor definitely thinks I’m a TV reporter, though. Forgot to include that in there. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. August 12, 2009 8:58 am

    I can’t tell you how many times friends or cousins have asked me to explain PR. And when I see them a week, a month, 3 months later, I always get the same questions – “What do you do again?” or “How’s the advertising business these days?” AHHH!

    As such, I’ve come up with a simple one liner that seems to satisfy, though disillusions these inquisitive minds:

    IMHO PR Is:

    “Feeding Biased or Branded Information and Content Through an Unbiased Medium, Like A Blog, Newspaper, TV Show, or Social Network, By Providing Added Value to the Broadcaster and their Audience; As Opposed To Advertising or Marketing – In Which The Public Understands That The Message Is Coming Directly From The Brand & Thus Carries With It Bias and Is Perceived With Greater Skepticism “

  9. August 12, 2009 8:58 am

    Good topic, Lauren! I’ve always liked the Bernay definition Katie cites because it shows its really all about *Building Relationships.* As clients now tend to need/want less media relations and more partnership development, social media etc. it is important for we PR peeps to remember than.

    I was recently talking to a client about integrating social media into his marcomm strategy and he asked me if I was considering a career change (from PR to social media). I looked at him quizzically and then explained that my job is to help him build relationships that help him grow his business. Things like media relations, tradeshow support, social media etc. are all just the tools to make that happen.

    I think we constantly have to remind clients (and potential clients) of that.

    • August 12, 2009 9:54 am

      Karrie – It’s amazing, isn’t it, how much people don’t realize that SM is an integrated approach? It’s a part of the brand – whether professional or personal. It’s about engaging and building relationships – something we should all be good at.

  10. Rich Pulvino permalink
    August 12, 2009 9:01 am

    Hi Lauren,

    At Syracuse University it was always stressed that PR should be defined in the business sense as a management function.

    My personal definition of PR would be:

    The strategic management of communication between an organization and its stakeholders that seeks to build mutually beneficial relationships.

    That’s the definition that first popped into my mind. It will probably morph and evolve over the years as I gain more experience in the profession, but that’s the basic definition for me now.

    -Rich (@rpulvino)

    • August 12, 2009 9:55 am

      Rich – I really like your definition, but I wonder how many people would agree with the business part. For some reason, until many are in senior level positions, they don’t have access to the more biz side of PR, especially in agency. They might understand it, but they aren’t privvy to that information. Why is that?

      • Rich Pulvino permalink
        August 12, 2009 10:33 am

        I suppose the business side of PR is traditionally something that is not usually trusted to junior level positions, although it should be. It’s important for entry-level practitioners to understand how PR works in the biz sense, because understanding it will add more clarity and reasoning to the tasks and projects that are usually handled by junior-level positions. While junior-level employees may not be formulating, analyzing and evaluating budgets, they should at least have the opportunity to shadow and sit in on budget meetings in order to learn for future reference.

        Most importantly, understanding the biz side to PR will help develop a cohesive strategic model that ties a PR budget to the PR goals and objectives, which should then always be tied to the organizations goals and objectives. This is an essential part of the PR profession and to deny junior-level employees access to this information deprives them of excellent learning opportunities and potential projects that could enhance their skills.

        • August 12, 2009 11:16 am

          Rich – how do you think senior level can bring junior level to the table? Obviously, they have concerns with sharing the business side and tactics. How can they mentor without destroying client trust? I think it comes down to that a lot of the time.

          • Rich Pulvino permalink
            August 12, 2009 11:29 am

            I think it may be best to treat like it the internship/learning experience. Have junior staff sit in on meetings, take notes, ask questions, and explain to clients that the junior staffers are learning how the business side relates to the projects that they work on. The mentor should be monitoring and once the junior staffers are at a level of understanding as to how everything is tied together, little by little they should be included in the brainstorming/decision making process.

  11. August 12, 2009 9:06 am

    I’m glad others find it difficult to explain too! I especially have a hard time with older generations; they really don’t seem to understand the concept.

    My biggest pet peeve is when people ask, “Oh, you’re in PR. So you’re a schmoozer, right? And plan parties?” That’s the worst!

    • August 12, 2009 9:56 am

      A – I think for older generations, it’s because jobs are always defined, and the definition has stayed the same. In PR, it’s always evolving, always changing, and always different. So how do we combat that?

  12. August 12, 2009 9:11 am

    Great post, Lauren!

    It’s so frustrating to be asked ALL THE TIME…”what is public relations?” lol…but I really like Katie’s comment and Edward Bernayโ€™s definition…because I usually like to keep it simple and tell people it’s about building and maintaining relationships between a company and its publics. And then when they’re still confused, sometimes I just say “well, I write press releases and stuff.” Haha…sometimes its too much work to truly describe everything we do as PR pros…

    • August 12, 2009 9:57 am

      That’s what I was trying to figure out: how to keep it simple. I say that as well – well, I write releases to go to newspapers…. especially when they are confused!

  13. August 12, 2009 9:12 am

    In May, I made a presentation to a group of 4th graders at Career Day at my husband’s school. This really forced me to think things through. It is easier for me to define my role since, after moving over from journalism, I have worked inhouse doing pr for nonprofits. I explained that my job was to create a positive image for my agency and develop relationships with the media to accomplish that. I also explained that in the nonprofit world, public relations helps the agency in their fund-raising efforts. I was somewhat surprised that the kids were enthusiastic – I wasn’t as glamorous as some of the other presenters. They asked good questions, and we had to stop because of lunch.

    • August 12, 2009 11:10 am

      Nadine – do you see a lot of fund raising tied into PR? I work as well in the non-profit/association world, and have noticed a big difference in association v. non profit. I think kids are enthusiastic when they see the passion you obviously have for the field, and for your job.

      • August 13, 2009 5:08 pm

        Hi Lauren,

        Just back from mini-vacation. Yes, I see a lot of connection between fund-raising and pr. We would like to think that philanthropists donate out of the goodness of their hearts, but they love to see their smiling faces in the newspapers – even community weeklies. And they also feel validated when they read about the agency or see it on TV. Also you never know what part of your agency’s story will touch someone’s heart and trigger a major donation. I don’t know how social media will feed into this, especially since the donors I work with are older. It will be a challenge.

        Thanks for a great discussion.
        Nadine

  14. Kristen Turley, APR permalink
    August 12, 2009 9:13 am

    This is one of the questions asked during the accreditation process, and so I’ve given it a great deal of thought. The definition that I think best suits is one that includes keywords such as “strategic”, “management”, “relationships”, “dialogue creating”, and “ability to listen”. There are many ways to put these words together for a concise definition, but the point is that the good PR professional realizes that our job is to be at the front of the pack. Lead the communication strategy for the business while aligning with the business’ objectives while creating relationships and opportunities for sharing with and listening to our customers.

    • August 12, 2009 11:11 am

      I’m glad you brought up the APR process, K. I think it’s something we should all strive for – I’m a big fan of professional accreditation. As professionals, we need to be able to define what we do with key words that also shine back on the basic PR foundation. Great comment.

  15. August 12, 2009 9:21 am

    A common definition quoted among my peers is Hazelton and Long’s definition on pr. It states that “public relations is a communication function of management through which organizations adapt to, alter or maintain their environment for the purpose of achieving organizational goals.”

    There are many different functions with the public relations industry. One person can do many things or just focus on one. The way you define public relations personally depends on your public relations role.

    No matter what role you do in public relations, it is important that we remember that the end result is to achieve organizational goals. Keeping that in mind, it is not just about what you write or where you publish, but why you do it.

    • August 12, 2009 11:13 am

      Cherisse – I think thats a great definition, but I somewhat cringed at the word ‘alter.’ I don’t want to alter my environment – it sounds like I’m playing with fire. We can define PR personally, but that should be our definition publicly too. We shouldn’t have to adapt to any one definition – but that definition should be based off basic functions.

  16. August 12, 2009 9:28 am

    I asked my sons that question (ages 12 and 10) and they responded that I eat candy and ride scooters. That’s PR to them.

  17. August 12, 2009 9:42 am

    Great post. As PR pros, we can spend all day trying to define what PR is. Judging by all the comments there isn’t one clear cut definition. Years ago, when dudeling was about 8, she was asked by her teacher ‘what does your dad do?’ She simply replied, ‘he gets people in the news.’ I know that’s a part of what we do, but the simplest definition usually resonates best to those outside PR. Usually though, I just point them to movies that includes a PR pro as a prominent character like Ray Embrey, Jason Bateman’s character in Hancock, Phonebooth and Wag the Dog. Oh and what dudeling meant was I create the news. Don’t we all?

    • August 12, 2009 11:15 am

      You’re exactly right. In our field, and to other pros, we can define it one way – but to the outside world, they get it in the simplest terms. I actually used the same definition with my mom – and she finally gets what I do. I once had a news editor tell me that 90% of his story ideas were from PR pros – so in essence, we do create the news. ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. August 12, 2009 2:05 pm

    The beauty of PR is there is no set “definition”. There are some common characteristics that every PR role entails, but overall, there’s no common definition.

    If people want a definition, I give them “PR is creating and fostering mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its public”. Then proceed to explain what that entails.

    @kmskala

  19. Mary Barber permalink
    August 12, 2009 6:43 pm

    Always asking the good questions aren’t you Lauren and generating even better discussions. The field of public relations is evolving fairly quickly, whether some of my fellow senior professionals like it or not.

    At the same time, I believe we’re still all about building and maintaining relationships between a company and its publics to create mutual understanding and a stronger community. We just use different tools to build those relationships and generate the understanding than public relations pioneers used.

    Let’s keep this discussion going and see how many variations on the theme we can find. Maybe we’ll answer the question once and for all…until tomorrow.

    Mary

  20. Erika Jarvis permalink
    August 13, 2009 9:16 am

    Lauren,
    I think this is a great post! While I’m not in Public Relations,I am in Internal Communications and explaining that to people is BEYOND difficult. Often times people say “So…internal communications? Is that like connecting phone calls?” The only answer I can think of then? “No.” As I’m completely dumbfound by their questions! It is insane to me to think that people don’t understand Communication and what it can do for them! So no worries PR people…Internal Communications feels your pain!

  21. August 13, 2009 11:34 am

    My definition for public relations is:

    Good performance, well communicated.

  22. August 13, 2009 11:44 am

    I am still a PR student, about to enter my final semester. Woohoo! But every student in the PR sequence at my school (Florida A&M) knows to use the definition that we learned in Intro to PR.

    Public Relations is the ART & SCIENCE of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action that can better serve and organization and its public.

    And for the rest of my life and PR career that will be the definition that I will use. I think this is a great definition because it basically covers every aspect of PR that we have been taught. Even though what you do as a PR professional may vary, you can always go back to this definition and find exactly what youโ€™re doing in how itโ€™s defined.

  23. August 13, 2009 1:23 pm

    As Katie White pointed out, Bernays’ definition is encompassing and, Lauren, it is all over textbooks. It does concern me that in the original post the industry appears defined by tactics and not strategy, which is an unfortunate approach that hurts the understanding of the industry and, in too many organizations, keeps PR people out of the C-suite.

    • August 13, 2009 1:27 pm

      Starr – I apologize, but my original post is more about tactics? I said etc. for a reason – I could go on and on about defining this industry. In many of my posts, I talk a lot about strategy because I know how important it is. Sometimes, PR people have no business in the C-suite, especially when it comes to financial decisions. Should they be at the table? Absolutely, when it comes to communications and messaging.

    • prcog permalink
      August 13, 2009 2:27 pm

      While I adore disagreeing with people in their stomping grounds I’m going to have to side with Lauren on this one…for a few related reasons….

      Any professional job requires strategy – using that to define our profession just won’t cut it as a starting point. Doctors strategize on treatment plans, attorneys on how to approach litigation or a deal, even sales guy consider how to frame an offer. We can’t use “strategy” as a differentiating factor to define a job, or at the very least can’t lead with that.

      Since the post originated with defining PR to non-pros action items (and actions themselves) speak louder than words. Explaining what we do by the actions we take will cement in the listener’s mind what we actually do. To say ‘first we think about what we do then we do it’ just isn’t a great opener.

      For better or worse (particularly w/ my clients) the PR strategy is frequently pre-planned (and not in the C-Suite but in the Marketing Department’s lunchroom) and we don’t always get to play along [This is mostly a joke, check my feed if you need my background]. This is, of course, frequently notwithstanding any PPTs or plans we’ve sent over addressing all of the relevant issues.

      I don’t think it’s a lack of strategy/thought keeping PR out of the C-Suite. Everyone in the C-Suite can define their job by what they do (run the company, finances, tech, marketing, etc.) and wouldn’t start with ‘strategize’ about (for example) tech operations.

  24. August 13, 2009 2:23 pm

    I like Bernay’s definition because it relates, not only to the old traditional PR, but PR as it is today affected by social media, the building of community through interaction and relationships, and communicating on a global scale ~ all with the same goal in mind ~ getting the message out there honestly and to the appropriate media.
    And, honestly, in more than 25 yrs. in the field, I’ve never been asked what I do as a Public Relations professional. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones!

  25. Cynthia Floyd Manley permalink
    August 14, 2009 12:18 pm

    This is not entirely my own original thought but I can’t remember where saw it recently, so first generic apologies for stealing this. “The art/science involved in a series of conversations that build and nurture relationships in order to influence a desired outcome.” I also do a lot of work with fund-raising colleagues so I’ve been playing with some of their natural language to describe what I do, as in “cultivating and stewarding relationships” with media, with customers, with lawmakers, with whatever stakeholder group or “public” you want to identify.

  26. the voyager permalink
    August 18, 2009 8:50 am

    Great post Lauren. You are lucky – after more than 6 years, my family is still asking me what do I do for work! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I quite like the definition provided by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations – “Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”

    It is smart and clear, especially for those who are not PR profs.

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