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Can there be a unifying definition of PR? This is the story about the difficulties of finding that definition.

by JERRY SILVER // Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
Digital PR specialist and CEO at Spin Factory

Someone once tried to count all definitions of PR:

They allegedly gave up after obtaining over 2,000+ different ones.

My vanity forces me to add to this already long list, so I had to create a PR definition of my own:

PR (public relations) = using communication strategically to develop and sustain mutually beneficial relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

In this post, I’ll explain in-depth how organisations structure their PR work, what PR does and where it comes from:

I’ll answer the question, what is PR?

Here goes:

Marketing vs. Communications

Large companies often have a Marketing Department and a Communications Department1.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 13.07.56

So what’s the actual difference between marketing and communications? Simply put, the Marketing Department is creating and pushing messages through paid channels, like advertising, about the brand and its products and its services. They frequently focus on reaching buyers and potential buyers, i.e. target groups.

Communication is about two-way communication. It can be about talking to journalists, customer service, conversations in social media, dialogues with investors, politicians and employees and so on.

But instead of talking with what marketers classify as target groups, in communications, we talk to stakeholders and publics.

Simply put, marketing is mainly about selling to target groups, and communications is mainly about relationships with stakeholders.

It’s understandable if this gets a bit confusing sometimes. Especially since great communications also results in great marketing, and vice versa. The Marketing- and Communications Departments are very closely related, like brothers and sisters, and that’s why they sometimes play very well together. And why sometimes they don’t.

In some organisations, they’ve merged the two departments into a single Marketing Department. Smaller organisations might not even have departments, of course. They might just have one person responsible for both marketing and communications. Still, it all depends on the organisation and its objectives.

So if they’re not creating sales messages and placing them in paid media outlets, what exactly does PR people working in Communications Departments and specialised PR agencies do?

what is pr

Model: Paid, Owned And Earned Channels

A useful (and highly popular!) model to describe today’s media landscape is to classify channels as paid, owned and earned:

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 13.27.49

Paid would be advertising, sponsorships and ambassador collaborations. Owned would be newsletters, websites and publications for internal or external use. Earned would be news articles, influencer endorsements and word-of-mouth.

If we look at marketing and communications, we see that working with paid falls under marketing. Owned and earned falls under communications. Even if marketing gets one and communications get two of these, marketing has always been bigger because paid media requires higher budgets and results more directly in higher sales.

But as we all know, things have changed since:

Enter social media and the internet. Now suddenly, we can add a whole range of channels which adds to some of the confusion from an organisational standpoint. Let’s take Facebook for example:

Facebook (Paid): When you advertise your branding, products and services on Facebook, it falls under marketing.

Facebook (Owned): When you “own” a Facebook Page and do stuff there, it lands on communications to deal with fans as stakeholders.

Facebook (Earned): When people talk about your brand and share your messages among themselves on Facebook, it lands on communications as well.

By confusing the above, many organisations struggle when they try to organise their efforts. Who should take care of a channel like Facebook when it falls underpaid, owned and earned altogether?

To make matters, even more, complex, some experts now argue that we now need a fourth type of media, borrowed:

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 14.16.09

You’re only “borrowing” your Facebook Page since Facebook can decide to change2 whatever they want, whenever they want. You don’t exercise the same amount of control over a Facebook Page compared to, for instance, your website (which is another owned channel). With so many new social platforms and so many new ways of reaching people through innovative channels, the model arguably needs the fourth component.

A company’s website is another example of an owned channel. It was often run by the IT department which generally focused on function rather than content. And as the media landscape became all about digital first, both marketing and communications have been forced to work more closely with IT. But if marketing and communications are brothers and sisters, then IT is a distant cousin:

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 14.35.35

To tackle this dilution of disciplines, some organisations are creating whole new departments and roles to fill the gap. Others are working in cross-teams where they put people from different departments in special teams to tackle specific challenges. Of course, it depends on the organisation and the industry, but in general, few companies has yet to find a general solution on how to tackle this3.

The Dilution Of Disciplines For Agencies

Since the digital transformation leads to organisational challenges for clients, agencies find it difficult to develop their services to fit their customers’ sometimes unclear needs.

Put in more concrete terms — agencies today are often not quite sure exactly which departmental budgets to aim for in the long run.

A few concrete examples:

E-commerce should arguably be the responsibility of the Marketing Department, but it has grown so critical and require such special skills, that larger organisations often have separate E-commerce Departments as well as specific roles with that specialised e-commerce agencies to help them. Content marketing and managing social media accounts fall under communications, but tasks like these have grown in importance and complexity, too, thus sparking new departments — and, even more, specialist agencies.

And this is happening on the IT side as well, where you often see hybrids between IT, marketing and communications in Online Departments. All the while traditional web agencies break off into mobile agencies, SEO agencies and conversion agencies.

I often show this slide during my seminars:

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 14.31.28

This slide helps me discuss:

  • The dilution of disciplines (as discussed above).
  • How challenging it is for the Marketing- and Communication Departments to find the right agency setup and how to afford outside help on a retainer basis — especially if you’re operating in multiple markets. The prospect of finding full-service agencies or establish single-point-of-contacts are vanishing.
  • How difficult it is for students and educational institutions to prepare for such a moving target on the agency side — how will this landscape look in only five years from now?

The Evolution Of PR Disciplines

PR is focusing on stakeholders, publics or individuals who are essential to the organisation’s long- and short-term survival.


For some organisations, it’s important to have close relationships and ongoing conversations with politicians and legislators. They must know what they’re up to, what to expect from them and sometimes also to provide them with facts or arguments to support both of your objectives. The practice is known as Lobbying, which is a specialisation within PR.

But politicians do not only listen to lobbyists. They also listen to what the media has to say and also what the people are discussing. If you want to influence politicians indirectly, by influencing journalists and interest groups, this is known as Public Affairs (which is often closely related to Lobbying from an organisational standpoint).

If you’re specialising in dealing with stakeholders during a time of crisis, this is known as Crisis Communications. When dealing with investors and the financial markets, this is known as Investor Relations. And so on.

The specialisations within PR are historically grouped according to the principle, “which stakeholder or public are we trying to influence?”

The classic model looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 18.27.56

The model illustrates what a full-service agency offering used to be. But in this day and age, I would argue that we need to add to further specialisations, simply because we have two “new” and key stakeholders to deal with:

Community Management, because companies today have audiences as publishers. These audiences are crucial and brands must nurture their relationships with them.

Inbound Communications, because people today often go directly to the source when looking for information and knowledge. These people are stakeholders and should be managed accordingly.

The new model would then look like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 18.27.36

A Brief History Of PR: Edward Bernays

The major misconception is that PR equals publicity. And while publicity is part of PR, it’s only a side-effect.

edwardbernaysTo understand PR even better, let’s revisit the father of public relations, Edward Bernays. His uncle was the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and Bernays too was interested in human behaviour. He helped companies not to get publicity, but to analyse the market and then surgically inject new perceptions. In a way, PR is all about perception management.

The two most profound examples of his pioneering work are somewhat disturbing:

Case study #1:

When helping Lucky Strike, Bernays realised that smoking cigarettes were mostly a male habit. From a business standpoint, this means that there’s a chance to add half the population to your list of potential customers.

No-one had done this successfully, not because no-one ever had that idea, but more likely because it was quite a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays did.

He did it by tapping into another prevailing trend in society at the time and that was the emancipation of women. Bernays planted the public perception of women smoking, not because it was enjoyable, but rather as a symbol of female independence. He did so partially by placing the idea in articles and newspapers, but also through celebrities and events.

Case study #2:

Another PR legend is how Bernays helped the farming industry to convince people to eat more eggs and bacon.

To facilitate this, he wanted to change people’s perception of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon. So he cooperated with food scientists to establish the idea that eggs and bacon should be part of a healthy breakfast for every American. And to manifest this, he also collaborated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for breakfast.

People simply hadn’t thought of the idea of eating eggs and breakfast or that practice would be good for you. Have you ever had eggs and bacon for breakfast at a hotel?

Now, these two case studies are indeed somewhat disturbing. Influencing smoking habits and over-consumption of meat isn’t exactly making Bernays into the perfect poster boy for PR. An inherent bad reputation is, unfortunately, something that the PR industry has struggled with ever since the beginning, which is ironic since managing perceptions is supposed to be a core PR skill4.

It’s not a coincidence that Edward Bernays’ hallmark publication is his book titled “Propaganda” (it’s excellent, though, I recommend reading it).

So, What Is Public Relations?

PR, as you know, is public relations. However, what most people don’t know, is that public is a very specific thing. It refers to the idea of publics. So it’s not public in the sense of “public domain” in that it’s available or accessible to anyone.

Publics is grouped based on their communication behaviours. They are formed in given situations when external factors bring them to the surface. For instances, if a municipality announces the building of a new bridge, several publics are likely to be created:

“The supporters” who loves the idea of a bridge.
“The environmentalists” who thinks that the bridge will disturb the wildlife.
“The conservatives” who argues that change isn’t a real solution in this case.
“The opponents” who reacts negatively to any political suggestion.

And so on.

For a more in-depth rundown on the concept of publics and how to find and reach them, check out my post The ‘Publics’ In Public Relations: Why You Should Change The Way You Think About Groups Of People.


  1. Some argue that communications are subject to marketing, simply because communications is a form of marketing. Not that many argue that marketing should be subordinate to communications — even though marketing is a form of communication. The latter probably correlates with the fact that marketing historically has had much larger budgets on average.
  2. The diminishing of the organic reach for Facebook Pages is an example of this, also known as “Facebook Zero”. Facebook allowed for lots of organic reach to lure companies onto the platform and have them pay for getting more followers for their page, and then, rather abruptly not far after Facebook’s IPO, the organic reach started plummeting. Now, this isn’t just Facebook’s fault to be fair; there is so much content to compete with and the quality of the content you’re competing with gets higher every day.
  3. In general, the dilution of disciplines is a huge advantage for many startups. They don’t have to organise themselves hierarchically to the same extent and so, therefore, they can focus on tackling challenges rather than finding a scalable structure. On that same note, this is also where many startups are struggling once they and their operations reach a certain size.
  4. And this comes from a PR blogger who goes by the alias Doctor Spin, ha! I hope you appreciate the irony here.

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Behind the keyboard:

Jerry Silver is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.

Add your comment:

Joakim Nordblom

Great scientific description on the problems of organising enterprise departments and agency matching.

I like the term “perception management”. My next job title shall be: Joakim Nordblom, Perception Manager. Aah, nice! It needs to be articulated well though, I don’t want to be known as a Reception Manager. :-)

Doctor Spin

I know, right! I’d love that title, too. Since I’m self-employed, I’m going to have a word with my boss about it … :)

But credit where credit’s due; I think it was Burson-Marsteller who coined the phrase (or at least conceptualised it) back in maybe 2002? I remember how Lars Thalén, who worked at BM at the time evangelised it. Pretty cool, too bad no-one picked it up.

Doctor Spin

Got a really interesting question on Facebook from a friend:

Why all of this focus on channels as you’re describing the PR profession?

I think this is fair argument, so I wanted to just mention in here in the comments as well. I too belong to those who thinks that we too easily stare us blind on channels rather than zeroing in on what matters, people, outcomes, the art of communication and persuasion itself.

Even “paid, owned and earned” is a channel-centric model! As McLuhan stated it, “the medium is the massage”. It’s simply difficult to get around.

So I agree that both my definition and this “exposé” is channel-centric, for sure. But in deciding to write this post, I wanted to paint a picture of how the profession has evolved. So even if I, to a large extent, use channels to explain where we are today, how got there and maybe also where we could go, I still believe that channels in themselves are tools and not strategies.

Note: If you’re reading this, thanks for making it all the way down here, I really appreciate your engagement! :)

Doctor Spin

Got a great piece of feedback on the definition on LinkedIn:

The definition is missing out a bit on the fact that PR is also about meeting people in person. Although the focus on “relationships” in the definition somewhat covers that base, the initial focus on “earned and owned” makes the definition somewhat channel-centric. i agree with this feedback and will do some experimenting to see if I develop the definition further.


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