Solving the Public Relations Puzzle

You often hear people refer to public relations or PR as something positive or negative that a company received in response to an action. “Wow, they got good PR out of that!” But, what exactly does that mean?

The confusion about what public relations is or what it encompasses is not surprising given that the field is so multi-faceted. Research will show that the term public relations is often grouped under marketing and used synonymously with others such as community relations, media relations, public affairs, image enhancement, publicity, and promotion.

In fact, leading experts in the PR field often disagree, offering numerous definitions for clarification. Rex Harlow, a pioneer in public relations education, complied over 500 definitions from a variety of sources ranging from complex essays to simple descriptions. One of my favorites is, “PR stands for Performance and then Recognition.”

In 1981, the Public Relations Society of America attempted to end the confusion, by forming a task force with the mission of defining public relations once and for all. They landed on this concise definition, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to one another. It is an organizations efforts to win the cooperation of groups of people.”

But the real question is, why does this matter? Why should I understand and have a need for public relations in my business? Authors Cutlip, Center, & Broom offer some help to these questions. In the sixth edition of their reference book, Effective Public Relations, They state that public relations is, “the management function that identifies, establishes, and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics on whom it’s success or failure depend.”

This definition is great in that it, first, identifies that public relations does not just happen. It is truly a function that must be created. Second, this definition contains the key phrase, “success or failure.” This is why public relations efforts are so essential. How your company interacts with and represents itself to the world will determine the fate of your company.

We know that the definition of public relations is ever evolving and often disputed. However, there is one clear and common thread that is woven throughout these definitions. They all involve relationships and interactions. Simply put, public relations is all about communication. It is working to produce effective communication designed to influence, provide information, and gain understanding.

Perhaps the most understood public relations action is use of the media to communicate with and promote to target markets. Submitting press releases, gaining exposure, and developing promotional campaigns is something we can sink our teeth into. However, it is important not to confuse advertising and public relations. Advertising is a paid tool that can be used to support public relations efforts. When used effectively together, the two can make a powerful team.

Keep in mind that media relations and publicity are just a few of the many areas of public relations. Effective communications need to occur with all of your “publics” both internal and external. For example, your business cannot function without clear understanding and communication with your bankers, investors, and/or board members. You depend on a relationship with your local community to support your efforts. And, you rely upon your employees to support your image. Public relations involves developing and implementing a successful communication plan to work with and among these groups for the benefit of all.

And, what happens when things don’t turn out as planned? Enter public relations again! Public relations efforts must be pro-active in order to protect the image and reputation of the company. From crisis planning to the simple development of clear responses to community questions, it is in the best interest of the company and their publics to be prepared.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about public relations is that the field itself has a poor image. For some, the term PR tends to conjure up thoughts of deceptive and self-serving rhetoric. They picture obnoxious, celebrity press agents of today who believe that any press is good press. Some picture historical event promoters such as P.T. Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus, who use exaggeration and hype to entertain.

Unfortunately, it is true that not everyone engaging in public relations activities is acting in the best public interest. But it is also important to understand there are wonderful, ethical, and positive public relations actions taking place all around us. In fact, without them, we would be a lost society.

The art of public relations is one that has deep and historical roots. In a sense, it’s as old

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