What the Heck Is Public Relations?

February 26, 2013

How would you define public relations?

Do your clients know what it is you do or are supposed to do?

Considering we’re supposed to be communications professionals, those of us in the public industry have done a miserable job defining what we do.

Most people know that public relations practitioners and agencies write press releases and try to get their clients exposure in various media.  Some even know that public relations firms hold lots of parties that they like to call "special events."

But there is a general lack of understanding about what public relations is and how it can help a company, and promote a product or even an industry.

Part of the problem is that “public relations” is difficult to define.

Public Relations News once defined public relations as “the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance."

That’s a pretty stuffy definition that fails to communicate the role of public relations clearly.  And you’d think a trade publication for the public relations industry would know when to use “that,” instead of “which.”  At least it makes the point of linking public relations with corporate strategy.

Then there’s this definition from the Public Relations Society of America: Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

It’s shorter, but too warm and fuzzy for me.  The client that hires Kowal Communications doesn’t really care how “mutually beneficial” relationships are unless another party is splitting my bill.  Then there’s that word “publics.”  Most of us think of the collective public as a single group.  If I asked a client which “publics” the company was trying to reach, it might be the last question I asked.

Given the lack of clarity about what we do, many potential clients still think we spend our time writing and sending out press releases, which is a very small part of what I do and a small part of what most public relations practitioners do.

So how would you define public relations?

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