What is public relations?
I’ve got a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations and a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics from Mid Sweden University, and I’ve supported 100+ brands strategically and tactically since 2005.
I’ve written this article to give you an overview of public relations and how best to understand all the different parts of the profession.
Let’s get right into it:
- Definition of Public Relations
- Stakeholders in Public Relations
- Influencers in Public Relations
- Publics in Public Relations
- Three Approaches To Public Relations
- Grunig and Hunt: The Four Models of PR
- The Difference Between Journalism and PR
- Examples of PR Objectives
- Measuring Public Relations
- The PESO Model in PR
- Notable Mentions in PR History
- The Biggest Challenge in Public Relations
- Public Relations in Popular Culture
What is Public Relations?
What is Public Relations?
Public Relations (abbreviated “PR”) shapes perceptions and influences decision-making for specific interests. Industry insiders sometimes refer to PR as perception management or personal relationships.
PR professionals are tasked with various types of work, including corporate communications, investor relations, media relations, digital PR, public affairs, lobbying, internal communications, crisis communications, marketing communications, and industry PR.
Whereas marketing uses various forms of advertising (one-way) in paid channels, PR use strategic communication (two-way) in earned, shared and owned media channels.
Learn more: What is Public Relations?
Definition of Public Relations
How To Define Public Relations
Someone once tried to count the number of actual definitions of public relations, but they allegedly gave up after finding over 2,000+ different versions.
Amongst so many definitions of public relations, here’s the definition that I find to be most useful.
Public Relations (PR) = the strategic and tactical use of communication to develop and maintain productive relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.
Stakeholders in PR = incentivised representatives with various interests in the organisation.
Influencers in PR = independent gatekeepers with audiences of importance to the organisation.
Publics in PR = situational groups with similar communicative behaviours affecting the organisation.
Learn more: How To Define Public Relations
Stakeholders in Public Relations
Stakeholders in Public Relations
In PR, we often discuss stakeholders. And our PR specialisations are named based on which stakeholders we’re responsible for managing. 1The stakeholder model is far from perfect. There are plenty of overlaps, especially when it comes to media relations. Also, the corporate communications function is often regarded as an umbrella … Continue reading
Here’s the stakeholder model in PR:
A widespread misconception is that the PR function only deals with journalists, editors, and influencers (Media Relations) within the scope of attracting new customers (Marketing PR). But such work represents only a tiny percentage of all the stakeholder relationships PR professionals must manage daily.
Learn more: Stakeholders in Public Relations
Influencers in Public Relations
Influencers in Public Relations
In PR, influencers are individuals who have managed to grow a substantial audience which has the potential to affect a specific organisation either positively or negatively.
It’s therefore important to establish and maintain good relationships with influencers who are strategically important for the organisation.
I recommend using the following tiers and naming conventions for categorising different types of influencers:
Learn more: The Influencers in Public Relations
Publics in Public Relations
The Publics in Public Relations
Here’s how to define publics in public relations:
Publics in PR = a psychographic segment (who) with similar communication behaviours (how) formed around a specific issue (why).
Psychographic segment = similarities in cognitive driving factors such as reasoning, motivations, attitudes etc.
Communication behaviours = how the public’s opinion is expressed (choice of message, rhetorical framing, and medium type).
Specific issue = determined situationally by a specific social object, often high on the agenda in news media or social media.
Learn more: The Publics in Public Relations
Three Approaches To Public Relations
Fundamental Approaches To PR
There are three scholarly approaches to PR:
The Excellence Approach. A business-oriented approach focused on objectives and corporate value creation. The underlying motivation behind the theory was that PR was mostly a variety of tactical tools that desperately needed a management theory to work well in a sophisticated organisation.
Notable mentions: James E. Grunig, Larissa A. Grunig
The Rhetorical Approach. A classical approach that stems from ideas dating back to ancient Greece. It’s a psychological theory of how communication structures human culture by shaping human minds. An absence of moral judgement characterises the rhetorical approach and is utilitarian.
Notable mentions: The Toronto School of Communication Theory, Robert Heath
The Critical Approach. A critical approach deeply rooted in theories around societal power dynamics. Power is seen as a means to exert dominance, manipulation, and oppression. The critical approach borrows many ideas from the rhetorical approach by placing them in moral frameworks.
Notable mentions: Walter Lippmann, Noam Chomsky
Read also: 3 PR Approaches: Excellence, Rhetorical, and Critical
Grunig and Hunt: The Four Models of PR
The Four Models of PR
In the Excellence study, James Grunig and Todd Hunt (1984) developed the most widely cited PR model in academic circles. It’s not one, but rather four models in sequence:
Model 1: Press Agentry Model. The organisation uses media manipulation to shape the narrative deceptively.
Model 2: Public Information Model. The organisation is practising one-way communication to disseminate information with little or no feedback from recipients.
Model 3: Two-Way Asymmetrical Model. The organisation engages in two-way communication to persuade and establish power structures.
Model 4: Two-Way Symmetrical Model. The organisation engages in two-way communication to find common ground and mutual benefits.
Non-surprisingly, the researchers found that the two-way symmetrical model is the most effective way to practice public relations.
Learn more: The Four Models of Public Relations
The Difference Between Journalism and PR
Journalism vs Public Relations
PR professionals and journalists share many practical skill sets. Still, public relations and journalism are fundamentally different:
Journalism is the effort to report the news on the public interest’s behalf objectively.
A fundamental critique against journalism is that objectivity is unrealistic and the public interest heterogeneous.
Public Relations is the effort to advocate positions on behalf of special interests subjectively.
A fundamental critique against public relations is that advocacy of special interests is manipulation by the affluent.
But even if both journalism and PR fail to live up to their ideal states at all times, both practices play vital roles in upholding a balanced and stable democracy.
Learn more: Journalism vs PR
Examples of PR Objectives
Typical PR Objectives
PR is quite similar to other white-collar industries. A typical day for many office workers might contain:
All of the above is certainly true for the PR profession as well. But more specifically, there are many different types of typical PR objectives:
Learn more: Public Relations Objectives for Organisations
Measuring Public Relations
How To Measure Attitudes
How do you measure attitudes? There are a few things to think about to get your measurement right. 2The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes. In AECT.
An attitude measurement should meet the following criteria:
There are four main types of measuring approaches:
There are four main types of measuring methods:
I’m a big fan of using questionnaires and standardised interviews for PR measurements:
Validity. Attitudes are psychological, so I strive to clarify what I want to measure, nothing more, nothing less. And I never add any unnecessary complexity.
Reliability. People experience the world differently. But even if attitude measurements aren’t exact, their usefulness for PR more than makes up for it.
Learn more: How To Measure Public Relations
The PESO Model in PR
The PESO Model
The PESO model divides the media landscape into four different media channel types: 3Please note that there’s no industry-wide consensus on whether a social media account (like a brand’s Facebook page or Twitter account) should be considered a shared or owned channel. Personally, I … Continue reading
Don Bartholomew, vice president of digital research at Fleishman Hillard, presented a version of the PESO model in 2010. According to PR blogger and PR measurement expert Heather Yaxley, this is likely to be the earliest mention of the model:
In 2013, PR blogger Gini Dietrich popularised the PESO model on her blog, Spin Sucks: 4Please note that the Spin Sucks model is focused on various disciplines, publics, practices, engagement etc., rather than types of media channels.
“In June 2013, Gini Dietrich presented the first iteration of the PESO model you may recognise in a blog post: The Four Different Types of Media. It was followed in August by the post Mobile Marketing: Use the Four Media Types in Promotion, where she talked about integrating paid, earned, owned, and shared.”
— Heather Yaxley, PR Expert & Blogger 5Yaxley, H. (2020, June 28). Tracing the measurement origins of PESO. PR Conversations. https://www.prconversations.com/tracing-the-measurement-origins-of-peso/%22,%22text%22:%22tracing-the-measurement-origins-of-peso/%5CnSkip” rel=“noopener”>https://www.prconversations.com/tracing-the-measurement-origins-of-peso/
Learn more: The PESO Model: Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned Media
Notable Mentions in PR History
The Father of PR: Edward Bernays
Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) is considered the father of public relations. His uncle was the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, and Bernays, too, was interested in behavioural psychology.
Bernays certainly was something of a character: His most famous book is titled “Propaganda” — in which he outlined how to manage the perceptions of crowds, much like modern Niccolo Machiavelli or Sun Tzu:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
— Edward Bernays
PR Case Study: Torches of Freedom
When helping Lucky Strike, Bernays realised that cigarette smoking was mostly a male habit. From a business perspective, there was a golden opportunity to add half the population to Lucky Strike’s list of potential customers.
No one had done this successfully, not because no one ever had that idea, but because it was a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays succeeded by tapping into another prevailing trend in society: The emancipation of women.
Bernays positioned cigarettes for women as “Torches of Freedom.” He placed the idea in articles, newspapers, celebrity endorsements, and events. He planted the public perception of women smoking not because it was enjoyable but as a symbol of female independence.
PR Case Study: Eggs and Bacon
Have you ever had eggs and bacon for breakfast at a hotel? Well, you can thank Bernays for that idea.
Another PR legend is how Bernays helped the farming industry convince people to eat more eggs and bacon. To make this happen, he wanted to change people’s perception of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon.
Bernays cooperated with food scientists to establish that eggs and bacon should be part of a healthy breakfast for every American. And to manifest this, he collaborated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for breakfast.
Phineas Taylor Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”
Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum was a 19th-century American showman, entrepreneur, and politician known for his larger-than-life personality and uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination. Born 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum rose to prominence in the entertainment world by founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Barnum pioneered the art of press agentry, employing sensationalism and publicity stunts to generate interest and draw crowds to his shows. His innovative marketing techniques and relentless pursuit of the extraordinary laid the groundwork for many modern public relations strategies.
“Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810−1891) was a savvy publicity showman, one who impacted particular aspects of public relations and advertising, primarily event planning, event promotion and true publicity/media coverage. Ahead of others in his time, he actually understood the importance of media coverage (he started New York’s first illustrated newspaper in 1853) and believed ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity,’ a popular phrase many times attributed to Barnum himself.”
— Ashley Foster, APR 6The End of a Publicity Era: How Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Founder Affected Marketing and Public Relations
Although some critics have labelled Barnum as a purveyor of hoaxes and deception, his enduring legacy as a visionary showman and master of spectacle continues to captivate audiences and inspire generations of entertainers and entrepreneurs.
Learn more: P.T. Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”
Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium is the Message”
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his notable book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”
Despite being one of the most influential thinkers in media theory, McLuhan’s ideas are often widely misunderstood. “The medium is the message” is no exception.
“The medium is the message” doesn’t imply that content or substance lacks importance, only that the medium in which messages are sent will significantly impact humanity.
McLuhan views mediums as extensions of human physiology. Our ability to build houses extends our human skin, as it protects against the elements. This added layer of protection and physical safety frees up mental bandwidth for human interaction.
So, a house is a medium in McLuhan’s interpretation. All human technologies, down to the campfire, are considered mediums.
“McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. […] McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.”
— Wikipedia 7Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan
According to McLuhan, our ability to create extensions of humanity exponentially impacts our communication more than any message conveyed as a result:
And so on.
Why is McLuhan’s analysis necessary? “The medium is the message” is a stark reminder that a medium’s format (and its limitations) will massively impact human society — and the messages themselves, too.
We often default to seeking meaning in messages but forget to consider the medium’s inherent media logic.
Learn more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic
Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management
No one is basing their attitudes and behaviours on reality; we’re basing them on our perceptions of reality.
Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) proposed that our perceptions of reality differ from the actual reality. The reality is too vast and too complex for anyone to process. 8Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
The research on perception management is focused on how organisations can create a desired reputation:
“The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activities that help organisations establish and/or maintain a desired reputation (Staw et al., 1983). More specifically, OPM research has primarily focused on two interrelated factors: (1) the timing and goals of perception management activities and (2) specific perception management tactics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Hargis, M. & Watt, John 9Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.
Today, our perceptions are heavily influenced by news media and influencers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, perception management is more critical than ever before.
“We are all captives of the picture in our head — our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann
Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management
The Biggest Challenge in Public Relations
The Digital Transformation of PR
The biggest challenge in PR is ensuring that our profession keeps up with new communication technology and stays valuable and relevant as a business function.
“The authors argue that earlier paradigms are mostly inadequate in addressing the needs of a 21st Century in which communication technology is creating rapid globalization while it is dangerously exacerbating the tensions of multiculturalism. Through a critical discussion of prior assumptions and paradigms in public relations scholarship, the authors underline the need for public relations to revitalize and bring its body of knowledge into the 21st Century. The authors posit and discuss how the community-building theory originally espoused by Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) and modified in subsequent scholarship can provide a viable departure point toward developing new approaches to research about and practice of public relations that can take into account the dynamic environment wrought by changes in communication technology.”
— Valentini, C., Kruckeberg, D., & Starck, K.10Valentini, C., Kruckeberg, D., & Starck, K. (2012). Public relations and community: A persistent covenant. Public Relations Review, 38, 873 – 879.
The biggest challenge in modern public relations is the constantly changing media landscape. With the proliferation of social media, the rise of fake news, and the decline of traditional journalism, it can be difficult for organisations to control the spread of information and protect their reputations.
Public relations professionals must now be strategic and proactive in their approach and must be able to adapt to new technologies and platforms to communicate with their publics effectively.
Learn more: PR Must Adapt (Or Die)
Public Relations in Popular Culture
PR Examples in Popular Culture
Fictitious PR professionals have made a few notable appearances in popular culture:
Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) in Sex and the City is a media relations specialist, but her job isn’t exactly the series’ focus.
Stuart “Stu” Shepard (Colin Farrell) in Phone Booth is a lying publicist trapped in a phone booth.
Eli Wurman (Al Pacino) in People I Know is a press agent who knows everyone.
CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) in The West Wing is a press secretary to the US President.
Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) in The West Wing is an introverted communications director who writes press releases in his head.
Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Sliding Doors is a hard-working PR professional with two different narratives.
Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) in Wag the Dog is a Spin Doctor called in to help the US president manage — and, when possible, also avoid — a series of crises.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) in Thank You for Smoking is a lobbyist. His job? To lobby for Big Tobacco.
Shauna Roberts (Debi Mazar) in Entourage is a publicist for Hollywood movie stars.
Learn more: 12 PR Movies Every Spin Doctor Should Watch
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|1||The stakeholder model is far from perfect. There are plenty of overlaps, especially when it comes to media relations. Also, the corporate communications function is often regarded as an umbrella category for the other disciplines.|
|2||The Handbook of Research for Communication and Technology, 34.5 Measuring Attitudes. In AECT.|
|3||Please note that there’s no industry-wide consensus on whether a social media account (like a brand’s Facebook page or Twitter account) should be considered a shared or owned channel. Personally, I classify social media accounts as shared channels since they’re not fully under the brand’s control.|
|4||Please note that the Spin Sucks model is focused on various disciplines, publics, practices, engagement etc., rather than types of media channels.|
|5||Yaxley, H. (2020, June 28). Tracing the measurement origins of PESO. PR Conversations. https://www.prconversations.com/tracing-the-measurement-origins-of-peso/%22,%22text%22:%22tracing-the-measurement-origins-of-peso/%5CnSkip” rel=“noopener”>https://www.prconversations.com/tracing-the-measurement-origins-of-peso/|
|6||The End of a Publicity Era: How Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Founder Affected Marketing and Public Relations|
|7||Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan|
|8||Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.|
|9||Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.|
|10||Valentini, C., Kruckeberg, D., & Starck, K. (2012). Public relations and community: A persistent covenant. Public Relations Review, 38, 873 – 879.|