Can there be a unifying definition of public relations? This is the story about the difficulties of finding that definition.
by JERRY SILFWER aka Doctor Spin
Someone once tried to count all definitions of public relations.
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) = (as a practice) the use of strategic communication to develop and sustain mutually beneficial relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.
In this post, I’ll take a stab at explaining how organizations structure their PR-function, explain why public relations has such a bad reputation, as well as discussing where the origins of our profession.
Simply put: I’ll answer the question, what is public relations?
Marketing vs. Communications
Large companies often have a marketing department and a communications department.
What is the difference? Is there a difference?
Some argue that communications are a form of marketing. Not that many argue that marketing should be subordinate to communications — even though marketing arguably is a form of communication1. So what’s the actual difference between these departments?
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.
The communications department is focused on communication and information. 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, influencers, and publics.
Marketing is about promoting brands, products, and services to consumer target groups.
Communications is about developing and sustaining relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.
Now, it’s totally understandable if this gets somewhat confusing at times. Especially since great communications results in great marketing and vice versa.
The departments are very closely related; they’re like brothers and sisters, and that’s why they sometimes play very well together. And why, sometimes, they don’t.
To add to the confusion, some organizations who only have one department for both functions still insists on calling it a marketing department. Even though the department handles communications as well. C’est la vie.
Paid, Owned and Earned Channels
An increasingly popular model to describe today’s media landscape is to classify media channels as paid, owned and earned: 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.
Crystal clear, right?
Well, if we look back at marketing and communications, we see that working with paid falls under marketing. Owned and earned falls under communications. (Note that paid media has always been a higher priority since it requires higher budgets and results more directly in sales.)
Still pretty clear, right?
Well, enter social media and the internet. And these types of channels defy classification in an almost elegant way.
Let’s take Facebook to illustrate:
Facebook (paid): When you advertise your brands, products, and services on Facebook, it falls under marketing.
Facebook (owned): When you “own” a Facebook Page and publish editorial content, it falls under communications.
Facebook (earned): When people talk about your brand and share your messages among themselves on Facebook, it falls under communications, too.
In this organizational confusion, many brands struggle to decide who’s responsible for what when it comes to digital:
Who should take care of a channel like Facebook when it falls under multiple ‘jurisdictions’?
Communications has two (owned and earned) and marketing has one (paid) — but marketing controls bigger budgets.
But we’re far from done yet:
To make matters even more complex, some channel experts now argue that we need a fourth type of media, borrowed:
The argument does have some merit:
Think about it. You’re only “borrowing” your Facebook page since Facebook can decide to change the game2 whenever and however they want.
“Wait, Didn’t We Forget Something?”
As the media landscape became all about digital first, both marketing and communications have been forced to work more closely with IT. After all, they are the ones who are experts on technology.
But if marketing and communications are brothers and sisters, then IT is a distant cousin:
And this gap is often huge:
Marketing and communications can’t speak “IT” to save themselves — and vice versa.
To tackle this widespread confusion, organizations are now creating whole new departments and job titles to “fill the gap.” (As if that would make things clearer, right?)
In the meantime, marketing departments are hiring communications- and IT-specialists, communications are hiring marketing- and IT-specialists and IT is hiring marketing- and communications specialists.
(And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the no. 1 reason why big organizations hire me. They need someone from “the outside” to help them sort this mess out before it reaches epic proportions.)
But, let’s get back on track. After all, we still haven’t really covered public relations yet.
But first — some added complexity:
The “Big Bang” of Marketing Agencies
Since the digital transformation leads to organizational challenges on the client side, agencies find it difficult to develop their services to fit their customers’ needs:
Agencies today are often not quite sure exactly which departmental budgets to aim for.
As a result, agencies grow smaller and we see a plethora of specializations on the agency side.
A few concrete examples of agencies out there:
This agency dilution has consequences:
- It becomes more difficult for agencies to scale and grow.
- It becomes more difficult for agencies to recruit.
- It pushes agencies to take on projects that they shouldn’t be taking on.
It also has consequences for educational institutions:
- It becomes almost impossible to educate students academically.
- It becomes increasingly difficult for academics to keep up with research.
- It becomes difficult to recruit teachers and instructors.
And, it has consequences on the client side:
- It becomes insanely expensive and time-consuming to add a full agency spectrum; especially across multiple markets. And opting for one of the few remaining “one-stop-shops” to get that precious single-point-of-contact only results in mediocrity — at best.
In my mind, there’s only one path to salvation: Consolidation. (But that’s an argument for another blog post.)
Now — it’s time to focus on public relations. Finally, right?
Communications and PR is the Same Thing
Okay, so this might come off as a little bit strange:
Communications and public relations is the same thing. I’ve studied Communications/PR for years at the university, I’ve read more books on the subject than anyone I know, and I’m telling you — it’s the same exact thing!
Now, how did this happen?
As it turns out: The term “public relations” has something of a negative connotation. It has a bad reputation (more on this later), but I certainly hope that you’re able to appreciate the irony here:
We’re experts on corporate communication, but we can’t manage our own professional reputation.
So, on the client side, many organizations have simply opted to name it a communications department instead of a public relations department.
However, most PR agencies are, unlike most other organizations, owned and led by public relations professionals who are proud to be in public relations. So, we’ve stuck with “PR agencies” instead of “communication agencies” (although the latter isn’t unheard of).
Public Relations and Publicity
There’s one aspect of public relations that’s a little bit more uncomfortable than other areas:
Journalists aren’t always nice to deal with. I’ve contacted approximately 3,000+ journalists, and I know. It’s a tough job, for sure, but someone has to do it. (At least, someone had to do it before the internet gave us the opportunity to connect with audiences directly.)
Since many communications departments have been eager to outsource this not-so-appealing part of the job, many PR agencies have specialized on securing publicity for their clients. And this has literally been going on for so long that public relations have begun to become synonymous with media relations.
In the US, there’s a job title for this: Publicist.
(Not-so-fun fact: In Swedish, ‘publicist’ is the same word — and meaning — as publisher. No help there, then.)
So, if not only working with media relations, what is it that a public relations professional do all day?
Different Types of PR Specializations
The specializations within PR are historically grouped according to the principle, “which stakeholders, influencers, or publics are we trying to influence?”
The classic model looks like this: The model illustrates what a full-service agency offering used to look like. But today, I would argue that we need to develop this old model, simply because we have two “new” and important groups to manage:
Community management, because companies today have social audiences. These audiences are crucial and brands must nurture these relationships well.
Inbound communications, because people today often go directly to branded websites or apps when looking for information and knowledge. These people are important and should be managed.
The new model would look like this:
The Origin Story of Public Relations
To better understand public relations, 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 behavior.
He helped companies not only to get publicity but to analyze the market and then surgically inject new perceptions. (In a way, public relations is all about perception management3).
Bernays was certainly somewhat of a character: His most famous book was titled Propaganda — in which he outlined how to manage the perceptions of crowds, much like a post-modern Niccolo Machiavelli.
And it gets worse.
The two most prominent examples of his pioneering work are somewhat disturbing:
Case Study #1: Lucky Strike
When helping Lucky Strike, Bernays realized that cigarette smoking was 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: Eggs and Bacon
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?
Persuading people to smoke cigarettes and consume more meat isn’t exactly making Bernays into the perfect poster boy for public relations, right?
An inherent bad reputation is, unfortunately, something that the public relations industry has struggled with ever since. (And this from a blogger who goes by the alias Doctor Spin… is spin a bad thing?)
So, What is Public Relations?
PR is, as you know by now, public relations.
However, what most people don’t know, is that public is a very specific group classification. It refers to the idea of publics. Publics are grouped based on their communication behaviors. (You can compare this with ‘target groups’ defined on demographic similarities, not similarities in the way they communicate.)
Publics are situational; formed in given situations when external factors push them to communicate.
For instance, 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 argue that change isn’t a real solution in this case.
- “The opponents” who reacts negatively to any political suggestion.
So, there you have it: My run-down of exactly what public relations is, why the profession exists, and why there is so much confusion all around.
But despite it all: PR is the most fascinating, ever-changing, complex, and creative job anyone who loves communication can wish for. And I haven’t regretted a single day of my chosen career.
If you’re thinking of a job in public relations — go for it!
How would you define public relations? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
- The latter probably correlates with the fact that marketing historically has had much larger budgets on average.
- 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.
- Perception management is an old Burson-Marsteller term.