What is public relations? Read on…

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Musing on measurement and evaluation led me to some recent conversations around public relations and its purpose.

Silly of me not to have revisited the topic in a while but I truly forget that people still paddle around in the tactical shallows and miss the ocean of opportunity right in front of them.There is still a propensity in western public relations practice to equate PR with mainstream media relations. It’s a historical hangover from the time when media coverage was the only visible output and also because of the many journalists who wandered over from newspapers to work in the field – years ago, I made just that journey. Trouble is, those who move into public relations often never move on from journalism and fail to recognise that public relations is a different job entirely.

The other problem is that many organisations don’t understand (or, quite frankly, have no idea) as to the purpose and value of public relations. It has been variously defined – there’s a bit of last century research that is generally trotted out which found hundreds of definitions – but life’s moved on and there is plenty of current research that identifies quite correctly that public relations is concerned with relationships. Hardly a surprise when you consider the name of our profession. 

The definition I’ve developed and advised after many years working in the field is this: public relations builds and sustains the relationships needed to maintain a licence to operate. Simple, straightforward and does what it says on the tin. But then you get arguments around communication v. public relations and all points in between. ‘No, I do reputation’, says one. ‘No, I do corporate comms’ says another. ‘Wait’, yells someone from the back, ‘it’s internal relations we should be highlighting’. The secret is there is no secret – everyone is right. What isn’t right is their context – they are only seeing one part of the whole – which is why I developed the PR Atom pictured above to help visualise how it all fits together. 

Relationships are at the heart of what we do. Without good relationships, with their components of trust, mutuality, commitment, loyalty, satisfaction and – my addition – reputation, organisations of all types will lose their licence to operate. Additionally, we function (for the moment at least) in a relationship economy. However, good relationships don’t just happen, which is where our work is supported by the essential elements of communication, behaviour and understanding.

All relationships need good communication, a clear understanding of each party involved plus good and appropriate behaviour from everyone. As relationships have their components, so too do the other elements. Practitioners – and their organisations – have to be adept at written, oral, visual and experiential communication, across channels and cultures. Our organisation or client behaviour must be ethical, fair, contribute value to society and be considerate of our stakeholders – which includes employees, internal relations and the employee experience.

All these elements work together, constantly in motion to help fulfil our purpose. Practitioners may specialise in one or more areas of activity, indeed they may focus entirely on a single aspect or channel but if they lose sight of the whole, ignore the bigger picture and don’t understand the purpose then they end up bogged down in the tactical, becoming order takers stuck on the hamster wheel of sending stuff out. Critically, working in the shallows leaves practitioners at seriously disadvantaged when crisis strikes or issues evolve as they’ll be isolated from the rest of the organisation. 

If you’ve recently joined our profession, a very warm welcome to you. I hope you enjoy this world of work where issues collide and there is something new to learn every day. My advice would be don’t get stuck in the past, when practice was (in western countries at least) confined to publicity, media relations or lesser activities. Be curious. Be an evolved practitioner. See the whole. There are all sorts of places to find out more – there’s a ‘What is PR’ page on this site for your reference and, last year, the Global Alliance published the Global Capabilities Framework which identifies the competencies we should seek to develop. Check it out and see the real scope of your work, escape the shallows and make a real difference to the communities and societies we serve.