What Is Public Relations?

THAT IS TRULY THE million-dollar question. Sounds simple, doesn't it? After all, you've certainly heard about it, seen it in action, and experienced the effects of it, but if I were to ask you to define public relations for me right now, I'm sure that you may be just a little stumped on how best to do so.

The trouble was that back then as is now, there wasn't a very clear-cut definition of public relations, and, to this day, professionals in our industry haven't quite come to terms with this. Some consolation!

"Isn't it something that celebrities use to help with their damage control?" may be a common question on many people's minds. "Doesn't it have something to do with being good with people?" is another favorite, if slightly misguided, assumption.

If you look up the definitions on the Web or research it from any other reliable source, I'm sure you'll be just as confused and as overwhelmed about what PR is and what it does as we were then.

Doesn't it seem ironic that a profession at the forefront of communicating, building images, and promoting ideas would have such a hard time getting its simple message across? You'd think that after nearly 100 years of PR being a recognized and established industry, someone or some group would come up with a definitive definition.

Unfortunately, that isn't the case. To understand what I mean, you can ask your friends, colleagues, or relatives. Take a minute now and see. I'll bet they'll either have a fairly vague thought about it, or they will come up with a number of diverse ideas.

And the funny thing is that all of their responses will probably be right. Public relations is a lot of things, and then again, it is so much more. It is a great endeavor that can really help you succeed in your business and personal life.

Without sounding too long-winded or going into a lengthy and confusing definition of what public relations is, I'd rather explain it from my own personal perspective and leave the scholars and other experts to duke it out for themselves.

Public Relations 101 (Simplified)

TO BEGIN, there are many aspects to public relations. It is the business of promoting people, companies, products, services, and ideas. It can help shape attitudes, mold opinions, and build images. It can also enhance reputations, promote public awareness, generate acceptance, and identify policies and procedures. Sounds like a mouthful? Accomplishing these goals through successful use of the media is more than half the battle. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet are all important communication outlets that can be tapped to educate and inform the public about your important message.

It's the PR person's job to understand the special role of the media and what it takes to gain coverage. A very delicate balance always exists between the media and PR. Both are interdependent. To be effective, public relations needs a green light from the media, while they always want a good story to tell.

Knowing your industry and its unique concerns, as well as keeping up with current events, will surely put you ahead of the game.

Just as there are many varied facets of PR, there is more than one way to execute a campaign. For example, a company can decide to hire a public relations firm to represent it. Acting as the company's agency, the PR group may also handle a variety of other clients in diverse industries, such as business-to-business, consumer, industrial, healthcare, government, entertainment, or nonprofit sectors.

An institution or corporation may have an in-house public relations or public affairs department that handles its own PR. Universities, banks, government, and hospitals would fit into this category.

Additionally, there are individual public relations professionals, known as independents or freelancers, who can represent their own clients, or work alongside an agency or as part of an in-house department. (See chapter 17.) Publicists generally handle celebrities. They, too, can act as independents or be part of a larger company.

For the record, I have worked as an independent and in an agency setting, where I have handled a range of clients—from individuals, small businesses, and mid-sized firms to Fortune 500 companies, celebrities, and regular folk. Many of my clients have been manufacturing companies, or they've had a new product or service they want to promote. Some have been authors or lawyers, and others have had a cause or political concern that they need to bring to the public's attention.

A spy shop, toy manufacturer, eye frame distributor, computer and high-tech companies, motivational speakers, entertainers, politicians, educators, financial planners, aerospace manufacturers, fire and safety firms, environmental companies, and even an ice-cream ambassador are just a sampling of what this PR gig has gotten me into over the years.

To execute public relations campaigns, the PR person is typically involved in developing press releases, pitch letters, press kits, VNRs (video news releases), CDs, and DVDs to send to the media to obtain coverage. It is quite common to create collateral materials, such as brochures, direct mail pieces, newsletters, annual reports, and/or flyers to help get the word out.

Also, public relations can involve special events, news conferences, workshops and seminars, theme parties, premieres, anniversaries, and grand openings.

Unlike advertising, publicity coverage—articles or interviews in print (newspapers, magazines, and trade and consumer press), electronic media (radio and television), and now the Internet—is free. But there is a definite art form to the way an idea is pitched to the media.

Coming up with the right angle or hook for your pitch is of utmost importance. You'll want to have a great idea that will interest the decision makers, since PR people are in the business of making news.

The varied field of public relations includes employee, community, and investor relations; fundraising; public affairs; and speech writing. It can also involve counseling clients on crisis communications and ethics—timely issues considering recent scandals in the political and business arenas.

As you can see, numerous elements have to combine to make public relations work. This book will delve into each area in greater depth, giving you a better idea as to the many possibilities that exist in the fascinating world of public relations.

A Brief History Lesson in Public Relations

IT MAY BE A BIT STRANGE for you to think about now, but in our current multimedia age with its cutting-edge sophistication and global technologies, a rather surprising fact is that the field of public relations is a relatively new one—barely 100 years old.

Edward L. Bernays is considered the founder of the modern field of PR. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and his public relations efforts helped to popularize his uncle's theories in the United States. He pioneered the PR industry's use of psychology and other social sciences to design public persuasion campaigns (BBC, 2002). He believed that "the three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society. Informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people. Of course, the means and methods of accomplishing these ends have changed as society has changed" (Cutlip et al, 2000).

The earliest seeds of public relations can actually be traced to the 19th century. In the 1880s the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was founded. Known as Ma Bell, it was the starting point for the telecommunications industry and, subsequently, the major bridge for mass communications. By the late 1880s, the first press release had been created. In 1900 the nation's first publicity firm, The Publicity Bureau, was founded in Boston by George V.S. Michaelis, Herbert Small, and Thomas O. Marvin. Ivy Ledbetter Lee was one of the earliest public relations practitioners, as he developed many of the techniques and principles that practitioners follow today.

In 1917 the Committee on Public Information was organized by President Woodrow Wilson to help sell war bonds during World War I. In 1923 Bernays published the first book about public relations, Propaganda. For one of his most famous campaigns, he selected 10 women to walk down New York City's Fifth Avenue while smoking cigarettes to help advance feminism. Known as the "Torches of Freedom" march, this 1929 PR feat raised an ethical issue about promoting a potentially unhealthy product, an issue that still confronts the public today (Bates, 2002).

The Roosevelt administration relied heavily on public relations techniques to further its New Deal legislation. During World War II, the Office of War Information was created. It organized one of the largest public relations campaigns in history to support America's entry into the war.

With the post-World War II economic boom, the public relations profession prospered like never before. By the late 1940s, several organizations had formed to represent the interests of public relations practitioners. In 1948 the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) was founded. The Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education was chartered in 1956, and it later became the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education.

By the late 1960s, the field had matured into a full-scale professional enterprise with over 100,000 practitioners practicing in the United States. The profession continued to grow and prosper from the 1970s to the 1990s. By the millennium, the number of PR firms and practitioners had doubled to over 200,000. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, public relations is one of the fastest-growing fields that does not require a master's degree or higher (Bates, 2002).

(Excerpted from Chapter 1: An Overview.)