Public Relations Society of America defines PR as:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” (prsa.org)
This is the industry standard definition that members of PRSA, like me, agree to. A lot of thought went into the wording of this definition, and it’s a wonderfully succinct explanation of the practice. However, I prefer to flip this definition to place the emphasis on relationships.
“Public relations is the intentional practice of developing, maintaining, and improving mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its stakeholders through the strategic use of communication and management.” (John M. Janney, M.A., APR)
OK, I added a couple of words: intentional and management.
PR is Intentional
I hate it when people say “Everything you do is PR.” This idea is as wrong as it is offensive. It belittles the public relations profession as something that happens regardless of effort. Public relations is the effort – not just the results. If you or your organizational players are not acting with intention, then you are not practicing PR. You’re winging it.
PR is Management
What you do communicates far more than what you say. In fact, what your organization says and what it does must match up before you can develop, maintain, or improve relationships between it and its stakeholders. What you communicate sets expectations. If those expectations are not met, then stakeholder trust in the organization erodes. This is bad for your brand, reputation, and business.
Expectations + Experience = Brand & Reputation
(See also: Don’t Confuse Reputation with Brand)
The results public relations pursue cannot rely on the communications process alone. PR must inform and influence the decision making of executive management. Of course, no one likes to think of themselves as being managed, so the term “management” is often disfavored. However, I prefer that organizations be well managed. Wouldn’t you?
Of course, this may depend on what you think management is, how management is structured, and other factors that play into how an organization functions. Public relations should help shape how executives address these issues if they want their organization to be responsive to the modern, dynamic, always-on marketplace.
Why take the focus away from communication?
Because communication is not the end goal, but merely a tool. It’s a “forest for the trees” issue. It’s confusing the message with the messenger. The ultimate goal of public relations is the relationships and the business impact of those relationships – not the communications. In fact, the focus on communications is one of the reasons PR has such a bad reputation. Public relations is not a perfume for actions that stink. Public relations as a management function serves as an ethical guide to make sure your organization does the right thing.
Organizational players must listen to stakeholders, make informed and ethical decisions, and then communicate those decisions to its stakeholders. And while that sentence makes it seem simple, it’s not. Effective public relations requires a lot of listening, back-and-forth communications, advocating stakeholder interests to executive management, relaying interests between all sides, communicating decisions as well as the reasoning and impact of those decisions.