What is Public Relations?

Your questions about PR—answered.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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:

What is Public Relations?

Silver Spinning Top
Spin it to win it.

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

Pouring Coffee in PR Mug
I love PR, but first coffee.

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.

Please note:

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:

  • Corporate Communications = External and intern­al pub­lics, busi­ness journ­al­ists, reg­u­lat­ory insti­tu­tions, part­ners, sup­pli­ers, vendors etc.
  • Investor Relations (IR) = Shareholders, fin­an­cial mar­kets, mar­ket ana­lysts, fin­an­cial insti­tu­tions, trade journ­al­ists etc.
  • Media Relations = Journalists, edit­ors, influ­en­cers etc.
  • Digital PR = Inbound web traffic, brand com­munit­ies, sub­scribers, fans, fol­low­ers, influ­en­cers, social net­works etc.
  • Public Affairs (PA) = Voters, polit­ic­al journ­al­ists, polit­ic­al ana­lysts, colum­nists, interest groups etc.
  • Lobbying = Politicians, legis­lat­ors, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, com­mit­tees influ­en­cers etc.
  • Internal Communications = Coworkers, poten­tial recruits etc.
  • Crisis Communications = Crisis vic­tims, wor­ried pub­lics, the gen­er­al pub­lic, cowork­ers, journ­al­ists, influ­en­cers, cus­tom­ers, share­hold­ers etc.
  • Marketing PR = Potential cus­tom­ers, exist­ing cus­tom­ers, trade journ­al­ists, mem­bers, affil­i­ates etc.
  • Industry PR (B2B) = B2B cli­ents, B2B pro­spects, trade journ­al­ists, trade organ­isa­tions, niche influ­en­cers etc.

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

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As an influ­en­cer, you’re the work of art.

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:

  • Nano influ­en­cer. Nano influ­en­cers are indi­vidu­als with a small yet engaged fol­low­ing, typ­ic­ally between 1,000 and 10,000 fol­low­ers (but this will vary based on both the plat­form and the niche), often focus­ing on niche interests and hav­ing a sol­id per­son­al con­nec­tion with their audience.
  • Micro influ­en­cer. Micro influ­en­cers have a mod­er­ately sized audi­ence, ran­ging from 10,000 to 50,000 fol­low­ers (but this will vary based on the plat­form and the niche). They are known for their expert­ise in spe­cif­ic fields or indus­tries, lead­ing to high­er engage­ment rates and a loy­al fanbase.
  • Macro influ­en­cer. Macro influ­en­cers pos­sess a more sig­ni­fic­ant fol­low­ing, usu­ally between 50,000 and 1 mil­lion fol­low­ers (but this will vary based on the plat­form and the niche). They have estab­lished them­selves as influ­en­tial fig­ures in their respect­ive fields, often col­lab­or­at­ing with brands for pro­mo­tions and partnerships.
  • Mega influ­en­cer. Mega influ­en­cers are high-pro­file indi­vidu­als with over 1 mil­lion fol­low­ers (but this will vary based on the plat­form and the niche), often includ­ing celebrit­ies and pub­lic fig­ures, who have a massive reach and can shape trends and drive con­sumer beha­viour on a large scale.

Learn more: The Influencers in Public Relations

Publics in Public Relations

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You become what you think, say, and do.

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).

Please note:

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

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I love PR (mugs).

Fundamental Approaches To PR

There are three schol­arly approaches to PR:

  • The Excellence Approach
  • The Rhetorical Approach
  • The Critical Approach

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

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To spin or not to spin.

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:

  • Read, write, and send lots of emails.
  • Participate in lots of meetings. 
  • Make lots of phone calls. 
  • Read lots of documents.
  • Write lots of text and pro­duce lots of con­tent.
  • Create lots of present­a­tions and lead lots of workshops.

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:

  • Keep stake­hold­ers, influ­en­cers, and pub­lics well-informed and up to speed.
  • Increase aware­ness via earned, shared and owned channels.
  • Educate the mar­ket and modi­fy perceptions.
  • Increase word-of-mouth by cre­at­ing social objects.
  • Increase pos­it­ive pub­li­city and decrease neg­at­ive publicity.
  • Coach and pre­pare cor­por­ate spokespeople.
  • Provide train­ing in com­mu­nic­at­ive leadership.
  • Facilitate cowork­er advocacy.
  • Promote cor­por­ate open­ness and trans­par­ency internally.
  • Manage insider threats.
  • Introduce new products or services.
  • Manage inquir­ies from journ­al­ists and analysts.
  • Strategic work (pos­i­tion­ing, per­cep­tion man­age­ment etc.)
  • Establish and devel­op mutu­al rela­tion­ships with key publics.
  • Monitor word-of-mouth and press coverage.
  • Improve intern­al communications.
  • Prevent and man­age crises.
  • Manage issues before they escal­ate and become real problems.
  • Influence pub­lic opin­ion and legis­lat­ive processes.
  • Develop the PR strategy and keep the PR plan updated.
  • Gather action­able insights from data ana­lys­is and focus groups.
  • Produce and pub­lish inform­a­tion­al and edu­ca­tion­al con­tent for vari­ous earned, shared and owned channels.

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:

  • Valid
  • Reliable
  • Simple to Administer, Explain, and Understand
  • Replicable

There are four main types of meas­ur­ing approaches:

  • Self-Reporting
  • Reports of Others
  • Internal Reporting (Sociometric Reporting)
  • Records

There are four main types of meas­ur­ing methods:

  • Questionnaires and Rating Scales
  • Interviews
  • Reports (Logs, Journals, Diaries etc.)
  • Observations

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

  • Paid chan­nels include advert­ising, spon­sor­ships, ambas­sad­or col­lab­or­a­tions etc.
  • Earned chan­nels include news art­icles, influ­en­cer endorse­ments, word-of-mouth etc.
  • Shared chan­nels include social media brand posts, social media brand accounts, SERP vis­ib­il­ity etc.
  • Owned chan­nels include news­let­ters, web­sites, pub­lic­a­tions for intern­al or extern­al use etc.

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:

What Is Public Relations | The PR Profession | Doctor Spin
The PESO mod­el. Source: PRConversations.

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

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations
Edward Bernays, the fath­er of pub­lic rela­tions. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images.

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. 

Poster for PT Barnum and the Greatest Show on Earth
“The Greatest Show on Earth”

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
Marshall McLuhan (1911 — 1980).

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 pro­poses that intro­du­cing a new medi­um will impact human­ity sig­ni­fic­antly more than any­thing sub­sequently trans­mit­ted through that medium.

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:

  • A light­bulb is a medi­um (an exten­sion of the human eye).
  • A house is a medi­um (an exten­sion of the human skin).
  • The tele­phone is a medi­um (an exten­sion of human vocal cords).

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.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

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)

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

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The harder you attack someone publicly, the more you convince their fans of their existing belief, not yours.
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