Most of us in public relations have been asked many times by family and friends, “So what do you do for a living?” This can be tough to answer in under a few minutes, as PR is a multi-faceted profession, constantly evolving, and admittedly not always easy to nail down. Many people believe it is “like advertising” or “a way to get good press.” One of my kids once said, “My dad goes to lunch for a living.” And one former boss likened PR to “walking behind the animals in a parade and shoveling up their mess.”
True, PR is vital to establishing and/or maintaining the good reputation of a person or a company. Most people get that to some degree. Increasingly, it’s an important part of the marketing mix for most brands (more on that later). Still, people in business differ in their understanding of public relations, much less agree upon a common definition.
What our industry says
“The formal practice of what is now commonly referred to as ‘public relations’ dates to the early twentieth century. In the relatively brief period leading up to today, public relations has been defined in many different ways, the definition often evolving alongside public relations’ changing rules and technical advances. The earliest definitions of public relations incorporate the concepts of engagement and relationship building between an organization or person and its interested publics.”
In 2011, PRSA attempted to solidify a working definition for PR for the modern world, even going so far as to partially “crowdsource” the definition. It arrived at the following:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.“
What industry pros say
Years ago at my company, John Bailey & Associates Public Relations, I gave my staff the following definition of my own design: “Public relations is the profession of communicating the right messages to the right audience(s) at the right time.“
It was a “family-friendly” answer that satisfied many a curious colleague and client. While I favor this simple view, I fully support PRSA’s modern definition, and suggest you do, as well.
For the record, public relations is not advertising. Nor is it marketing. There are some similarities, but when you really study it, these fields are vastly different. Prof. Bill Sledzik from Kent State University famously defined what is and isn’t PR in a 2008 blog post that holds up well to this very day.
As for the rest of us
Ultimately, you want people to understand what PR is and what it can do. PRSA’s answer is scholarly and exact; mine is for the lay person. Some people may never be fully satisfied with either answer, instead demanding something very simplistic. In that case, say, “We solve complex communications problems with simple strategic solutions.”
And if that doesn’t work, just take them to lunch.
UPDATE #1, Mon., Oct. 7, 2013 @ 10:46 am ET: Prof. Sledzik also blogged about a ‘sort-of-unified’ definition of PR around the same time as his other post I referenced above. Definitely worth a read, even today.