What is public relations?

What is public relations?

A description of modern public relations practice and a vision for the future.


Ask six practitioners for a definition of public relations and the only guarantee is that you’ll get six different responses. The discipline is a work in progress.

'What is public relations?' is one of the most frequently asked questions of Google about public relations. There’s almost 100,000 searches a month worldwide.

This is my view. It’s a description of modern public relations practice and a vision for the future.

I developed this deck for the 'PR the Future' student conference at Birmingham City University. Let me know what you think. You’ll almost certainly have an opinion of your own.

Formal definition

Public relations is the practice of understanding the purpose of an organisation and its relationships within society.

It is a management discipline that relates to planned and sustained engagement designed to influence behaviour change, and build mutual understanding and trust.

Engagement between an organisation and its publics is the core of public relations practice. It is a two-way process by which an organisation communicates with its publics, and vice versa.

Helping organisations get to grips with this as media changes is my day job.

Dr Jon White describes the role of modern public relations in his book How to Understand Public Relations, published in 1991.

  • Provides an broader stakeholder perspective on the management plan
  • Involves the management of relationships
  • Identifies, anticipates issues likely to have an impact on key relationships
  • Contributes to planning, cohesion and effectiveness
  • Involves managed communication

History lesson: two-way street

In my view the public relations industry took a wrong turn in the 1950s or early 1960s. The leadership and vision – and opportunity - provided by early professionals throughout the first half of the twentieth century was squandered.

In Two-Way Street, published in 1948, early public relations practitioner Eric Goldman describes the three stages of the development of corporate communication during the period from 1900 to the publication of his book.

Goldman’s contention is that communication between an organisation and its audiences developed through three stages during the first half of the twentieth century:

  1. Initially, spin aimed at duping the audience;
  2. Secondly, publicity that aimed to build awareness through hype, and;
  3. Thirdly, two-way communication aimed at building engagement.

1948 was also the year the Institute of Public Relations, now Chartered Institute of Public Relations, was founded in the UK.

Five years later in 1953, Neil Borden, President, American Marketing Association used the phrase marketing mix to describe the four elements of marketing, namely price, product, promotion, and place.

As we’ll see the debate about public relations being a form of promotion, and a subset of marketing, rumbles on.

It’s uncanny how these same stages can just as easily be applied to public relations in the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century: spin, publicity or media relations, and most recently direct public engagement.

Shortly after the publication of Goldman’s book, the public relations industry became obsessed about communicating with the public via the proxy of mainstream media rather than direct public engagement.

The rise of mass media, radio, television and print in the 1950s, and its ability to provide a shortcut to mass audiences, brought about a fundamental change in the style of organisational communication.

Only now, almost 70 years on, are changes in citizen and consumer behaviour, enabled by the internet and fragmentation of mainstream media, forcing organisations back to Goldman’s so-called two-way street.

The traditional brand and media gatekeepers exist but their role is much diminished. We find content via social media or seek it out via search.

Grunig and excellence

Public relations theorists such as James Grunig celebrate the ideal of two-way symmetrical communication between an organisation and its publics.

The Excellence model is taught as best practice in the US and much of Europe.

I have yet to work with an organisation that truly engages with its publics in a two-way dialogue. It’s an issue that is explored in a paper in 2012 to achieve Chartered PR Practitioner status.

That notwithstanding we are shifting beyond the use of traditional media, to also influence publics through third-party earned influence, by using a variety of media and networks to engage with publics on behalf of organisations.

Sheldrake and the influence business

Philip Sheldrake sets out a new model of organisational communication as a result of the internet and online networks based on six primary influence flows in his book The Business of Influence.

Sheldrake’s influence model plots six flows of communication between an organisation and its various publics.

  1. The influence of stakeholders on each other with respect of an organisation
  2. The influence of stakeholders on the organisation
  3. An organisation's competitors influence its stakeholders
  4. The influence of stakeholders on each other with respect to an organisation’s competitors
  5. The influence of stakeholders on the organisation’s competitors

Sheldrake's contention is that the first flow, an organisation's influence on its stakeholders, and the corresponding third flow, the influence of stakeholders on an organisation, are well understood.

This is symmetrical communication between an organisation and its publics and it overlays neatly onto Grunig’s Excellence model. But the internet has made the second flow critical to the management of the reputation of an organisation and a market.

Furthermore, stakeholders are using the internet to find each other and thanks to search and social technology are able to communicate about an organisation online.

These conversations are likely to be a rich source of insight for an organisation if it chooses to listen and are an opportunity for engagement.

Modern technology also makes it easy for an organisation to track its competitors and their influence on its stakeholders and vice versa - influence flows 4, 5 and 6.

Back to the future

A decade after the publication of Goldman’s book, public relations reverted to spin and publicity. It grabbed the opportunity created by the explosion of broadcast and print. Media relations and public relations became synonymous.

The journey back to the future is a work in progress but the way ahead is clearly marked.

#1 Modern media relations

There is no barrier to entry for media relations. Sloppy practice is commonplace as a result. Journalists frequently complain about being spammed.

Much of the business has more in common with direct mail than public relations, based around databases and wire services.

But denying the relationship between media relations and public relations is intellectual snobbery.

Media relations is modernising as media fragments from print and broadcast. In 2016 all media must be social.

This doesn’t require radical change to the workflow, systems or processes within an agency or communication team. Instead technology is used to enable practitioners to work smarter and offer new services.

Organisations need to breakdown media relations workflow and consider how each area can be modernised.

Use search tools for basic research, Twitter for journalist research, optimise press releases for search and social sharing, use new forms of media such as images, infographics and video, and networks to create content and pitch journalists, and analytics to track results.

#2 Branded media

Organisations have always created their own media as a way of engaging with publics.

In the past these might have been posters for employees, leaflets for prospects, newsletters for partners, or letters for customers.

Now all brands have access to the same internet-fuelled media armoury as everyone else, meaning they too can be broadcasters and publishers of their own content.

Modern corporate communications has shifted to private and public areas of the web in the form of corporate apps, intranets and websites.

Brands can become influencers by aligning their core values, authenticity and by generating content which answers questions and generates curiosity about the brand.

#3 Influencer relations

Media relations is a form of influencer relations whereby we persuade journalists to write favourable articles about our clients and organisations.

The output is third party validation via the journalist’s media outlet. The intended outcome is to reach and influence a far greater audience or public than we are able to alone.

Influencers aren’t just journalists. They can be anyone with a blog, network or community of their own on platforms from Instagram to YouTube, and from SnapChat to Twitter.

The market is complicated by the fact that some influencers require payment while are others are prepared to work on an earned basis. Disclosure and good governance is critical.

Organisations seek to engage with these new influencers and secure their third-party endorsement and the reach of their network.

The content and channel may be new but an influencer relations campaign is effectively media relations for the modern age.

#4 Community

In my view the development of communities around an organisation in a two-way form of engagement is the most significant opportunity for modern public relations practice that we’ve had in more than a generation.

In this way an organisation seeks to build reputation and engagement not only through third-party influence but also directly via its own media and social forms of media.

This shift to participating in a community is the biggest communication change that organisations face.

An added complication is the need for an element of paid media. News feed algorithms from Google to Facebook, and from Instagram to Twitter, require investment to optimize the reach of content.

It’s an issue that will be played out in the coming decade as organisations seek to modernise their communication teams and engagement with public relations agencies. These in turn need to be able to turn their hand to each of these areas, from web content and search, to paid promotion.

It requires teams to be reorganised and aligned with planning efforts, and demands new skills are added to existing teams.

#5 Social business

Whenever an organisation creates a new channel it will very quickly be discovered by publics or audiences as a means to engage with the organisation.

Social channels used solely for broadcast purposes can very quickly become hijacked by unhappy customers with complaints. Any gap between the expectation of a product or service, and the reality, will generate a conversation on the social web.

Organisations are shifting beyond the promotional use of social media to embed it into every area, from customer service through to and improving operations from the data captured.

This is open business and it is impacting every area of organisational design. It’s the future of public relations.

It requires communication, collaboration and in depth insight into customer, employee, supplier and partner behaviour.

Blurred lines between disciplines: marketing versus public relations

As digital technologies and social forms of media rampage through organisations, the lines between functional areas of an organisation are turning grey, if they haven’t faded completely.

This will be a macro trend for years to come until all organisations are social. This issue is most acute in areas that lack a professional framework. Finance and legal have no such insecurities.

The issue is most acute in the supply-side market amongst agencies. Interdisciplinary pitches are commonplace. Advertising, creative, digital, internal communications specialists and public relations agencies compete and partner.

Communities, content, paid promotion, search and social media are the battle grounds in this turf war.

In my view the debate over who owns which area is irrelevant. Practice is owned by whoever delivers the service.

Human resources has been slow to recognise the potential of social media for employee engagement. Public relations missed out on search engine optimisation and is crying shy on paid. Marketing has turned its back on two-way engagement through social media.

As new areas of practice emerge, human resources, marketing and public relations are encroaching on each other’s space. All seek to secure loyalty.

Like public relations, human resources is concerned with people. It seeks to optimise the performance of an organisation through a motivated workforce.

Marketing seeks to match a product or service with a customer, at the right price, in the right place, at the right time.

Public relations has always been and will always be about people. It seeks to build trust and reputation through conversation and mutual understanding.

Working in these disciplines at the moment is both scary and exciting because of the lack of formal frameworks and the pace of change. However the opportunities are great if you capitalise on them.

You’ll get ahead by being open to innovation and willing to fail. A positive attitude to learning also goes a long way.

Fit for future purpose: learning and development

In their book Strategic Public Relations Leadership published in 2014, Anne Gregory and Paul Willis propose a four level model to describe the four attributes of the public relations function within an organisation.

  • Orienter – ensuring that the organisation has licence to operate and its societal mandate by maintaining stakeholder support.
  • Navigator – ensuring that stakeholder perspectives are brought into resource decision making, ensuring that relation and reputational capital is aligned.
  • Catalyst – embedding stakeholder perspective in the design, creation and delivery of products and services.
  • Implementer – technical role of the public relations function designs and delivers, or commissions, appropriate communication activity.

There are very few standards in public relations. It’s surprising for a business that is tasked with the critical role of managing the reputation of an organisation.

Time served is the typical measure of competence. But not all experience is equal and when media and technology are evolving so quickly it’s a lousy metric.

Without a competency framework it’s difficult to benchmark one practitioner against another or apply a strategic approach to building educational, training or continuous professional development programmes.

A project by the Global Alliance, the international umbrella organisation for public relations professional bodies, is making amends.

It has analysed more than 30 competency, education and accreditation frameworks, or credentialing schemes, from public relations associations from around the world.

The result is the Global Body of Knowledge Project. The project describes two levels of practitioner, namely entry-level and mid-career or senior level. A series of competencies have been attributed to each role.

The project published openly for consultation and will be presented at the World PR Forum in Toronto in May.

Public relations: work in progress

The threat to public relations is its previous failure to adapt to new forms of media as quickly as other disciplines.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 a company called Google launched with the purpose of enabling internet users to find the most relevant content online.

Its vision of organising the world’s information and making it universally accessibly and useful has remained consistent for more than 18 years. The rest as they say is history.

Google created an opportunity for a new industry to help organisations create content and build relationships online.

It’s called search engine optimisation and is a growing segment of the burgeoning digital industry. Public relations currently has the opportunity to take back some of this market as Google tweaks its algorithms.

The marketing industry isn’t waiting for permission to become the adviser to brands as its experts seek to start and engage in conversations with their audiences or publics.

Advertisers have been quick to recognise how their discipline’s strengths in planning, creativity and production can be used in the new media environment.

The public relations industry for its part has the most potent proposition for organisations.

Public relations has always worked in the editorial environment, listening to different stakeholders and crafting a narrative to enable organisations to build their reputation by earning attention. Increasingly we’re integrating paid where appropriate.

The industry needs to be brave enough to align its business model from the hierarchical structures of old to the new challenges that organisations face.

An army of practitioners are adopting agile techniques and adding new skills.

They are rooting campaigns in objectives aligned to the organisation.

They are using data and analytics to plan and evaluate, in real time.

They aren’t scared of integrating earned, paid and social media.

They are addressing professionalism through qualifications, standards and continuous professional development.

We must drive home our value through action. These characteristics will be a sure sign of a confident profession and one that is fit for the future.

Knowing when you’re done

Knowing when you’re done

21 public relations planning insights from Ofcom Media Use and Attitudes report

21 public relations planning insights from Ofcom Media Use and Attitudes report