The task of defining Public Relations is difficult because the scope of work is different as it pertains to a particular organization or individual, and the responsibilities vary. As well, the PR industry refers to relations or dealings with the public, but publics can vary as well. Through segmentation, publics can be defined or classified as various types. PR often refers to the “buzz” surrounding an individual or organization. When the entity is talked about, it becomes recognized, and public opinion begins to formulate. Definitions throughout the years have tried to capture all the PR entails. What makes defining PR challenging is that it is a relatively new industry, in terms of being recognized in a corporate environment. As well, technological advancements and legislation has affected PR in the last few decades, therefore changing the scope of duties from a PR
professional. Though many have attempted to define PR, the one commonality among all definitions is that it refers to the influence of public opinion.
Here is a look at three definitions, and a personal definition of Public Relations.
Though the definition dates back to around 1923, one current definition is stated, according to Fraser Seitel (2004) as:
Public relations is a planned process to influence public opinion, through sound character and proper performance, based on mutually satisfactory two-way communication.” Similarly, to describe a PR professional, “public relations practitioner is a manager/orchestrator/producer/director/writer/arranger and all-around general communications counsel to management. It is for this reason, then, that the process works best when the public relations director reports to the CEO. (p.10)
The first definition, listed by Seitel, seems to provide a modern, accurate description of what PR encompasses. Breaking it down, Seitel mentions it is a “planned process.” This means the work done behind the scenes in preparation for any PR efforts. This refers to the communication with management, stakeholders, employees, customers, political groups, and all publics. By gathering this information, the PR professional is armed with the appropriate information to represent an organization effectively. Going further, “to influence public opinion.” This fragment clearly describes the essence of PR, which is an effort to change, modify, or influence a publics attitudes and thoughts that will turn into behaviors and actions.
The purpose of including the second part of the definition by Seitel, in which he describes the PR professional, is to further show what roles are included in PR. The person or persons truly serve as an overall communications counselor or entity in that they are consistently forming and maintaining relationships, writing, researching, managing, creating, and searching for opportunities to communicate with their various publics. The job does not focus on one particular skill, rather, requires multiple skills and characteristics for success in influencing public opinion.
The official statement adopted by the PRSA Assembly (November, 1982) states that: “Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring private and public policies into harmony.”
The PRSA, like Seitel, mentions the importance of two-way communication with publics by using the phrase “mutual understanding.” The official statement mentions the complexity of society and gently describes that again, PR is to influence public opinion, but takes the definition a step further by pointing out that PR should pointedly assist the public in reaching decisions and not just shape the decisions. As well, the statement implies that without PR, society’s public opinion would not function as effectively and harmoniously. The statement continues by mentioning the various organizations that need PR. Also, organizations must be able to effectively influence public opinion in order to meet their goals.
The Council of Public Relations Firms (Eggerston, 2006) says:
“In their service to clients, public relations firms play a vital role in encouraging public discourse. The professionalism and objectivity of our firms helps clients engage in that discourse, and clients turn to us for our counsel and assistance to vigorously pursue their organizational goals in educating or persuading audiences that matter most to them.”
In the third definition, again, influencing public opinion is made known in this definition, and in the first sentence. The softer word, encourage, however is used. This particular definition stresses the importance of professionalism and objectivity. A lack of objectivity could be seen as fraudulent activity, thus producing a PR nightmare. It is imperative to maintain objectivity, flexibility, and admit humility when necessary. Publics respond well to facts. Facts are used to persuade public opinion. Therefore, maintaining objectivity in line with facts is often a successful way to maintain positive public opinion. This particular definition reflects how professionalism can certainly influence public opinion.
Given the research and definitions reviewed, a personal definition would be:
“Public Relations is the creation, management, and maintenance of communicating with various publics to establish and promote two-way communication, and aid in the persuasion of positive public opinion towards an organization or individual. Objectivity, professionalism, and understanding societal differences is the key to assisting the influence of a public’s opinion and society as a whole.”
The personal definition mentions PR’s overall goal – to influence public opinion. However, this definition lists the methods and responsibilities in doing such. As well, the definition states that there are, in fact, different publics as well as society in general without being too specific or convoluted.
Though the definition of PR has evolved over the past 100 years, and the methods of delivery have changed, the overall message remains the same. If there was no effort to influence public opinion, PR would not exist. However, for centuries have various governments, organizations, and individuals used PR to communicate with their publics to achieve certain goals, yet they may not have given their efforts the formal Public Relations term. In this modern day, and especially in this high tech, fast-paced society, does it become increasingly important to keep the “buzz” generated so that organizations and individuals can rise above the noise.