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Defining Public Relations

Published on August 22, 2017, at 12:56 p.m.
by Elizabeth Broussard.

What exactly is public relations? That seems to be the million-dollar question for insiders and outsiders alike. Practitioners know what they do but have a difficult time defining it, while observers often place superficial titles on quite complex tasks.

The official “PR Definition” from the Public Relations Society of America states, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Um, what? Not too helpful, PRSA.

Perhaps a single statement will never fully encompass what practitioners do on a daily basis, but there are definitely some common misconceptions about PR that we can clear up.

1. Public relations, marketing and advertising are the same thing.

If you’ve talked to anyone in the public relations world, you already know this isn’t true. In fact, it was probably one of the first things they told you. While all fields of communication are often grouped together, there’s one primary reason why public relations will never be marketing or advertising: earned media. In other words, instead of always paying for message placement, we thrive on word-of-mouth and shared content.

At times, this can be tricky. After all, it’s called “earned” for a reason. These campaigns only succeed if the target public gets behind them. You have to reach your audience, inspire them and encourage them to take action. But hey, Coke and Dove did it!

Coke logo Dove logo

2. Public relations practitioners are just spokespeople.

Say it isn’t so! There’s so much more to public relations. Yes, there are times when PR professionals are asked to represent a company or brand, but far more goes on behind the scenes. From research to planning, public relations practitioners are the ones defining brands and saving them from crisis management nightmares. I mean, don’t you remember when Taco Bell was sued by a customer for not including as much taco meat as advertised? Exactly. Thank you, PR.

3. Public relations is easy and something anyone can do.

Oh, I’m sorry. I think I just passed out for a second there. Public relations is anything but a walk in the park. It’s a constant balance between creative and strategic thinking. Writing and research are at the heart of what practitioners do, so if you don’t love learning, this career path may not be for you. PR changes as quickly as technology evolves, so certain skills must be abandoned and others picked up regularly.

Defining Public Relations

The truth is, so much of the excitement in public relations lies in the fact that no single definition will ever really do it justice. Sure, there’s undoubtedly a necessary skill set, but try as we may to place a label on the industry, it will continue evolving before our very eyes. Who said that’s a bad thing, though? The work is fascinating, and the opportunities to incite change, endless.

So here’s to the undefinable, powerful force that is public relations. Now, let’s go change the world one comm plan at a time.

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