What is public relations?

Public relations is an odd term. It has been a recognised label since 1919, when Edward L. Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, opened the first ‘public relations’ firm with Doris Fleischman. But even though it’s been around for more than a hundred years, it is often misunderstood. Many different definitions have been applied and many people have come to think of public relations or ‘PR’ in only a narrow or piecemeal way.

A common misconception is that PR just means dealing with the media. In fact, the media is just one channel that can be used to reach various audiences. PR can also mean engaging with people face-to-face through events or consultations, and using many other platforms and outlets to communicate a message. Some people also think that PR is just about delivery, but in fact the research and strategic development to build and support communications activity falls within the remit of public relations as well.

The functions falling under the PR banner primarily include:

  • Media relations campaigns / press offices
  • Events
  • Audience research and segmentation
  • Consultations
  • Communications audits and strategy development
  • Reputation management
  • Issues mapping
  • Copywriting for publications
  • Building case study libraries
  • Celebrity engagement
  • Stakeholder / partner engagement and management
  • Community engagement
  • Internal communications
  • Social media
  • Media training

Definition from Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR):
“Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

The main difference between advertising and PR is that while the former focuses on selling, public relations is all about informing, educating and engaging.

PR also relates to a far wider range of communications than the more singular practice of advertising. The two disciplines can work well together, though, in the form of integrated campaigns. Advertising can be far more successful when it appears after a PR activity has heightened awareness and understanding.

What’s the difference between ‘proactive’ and ‘reactive’ PR?

Generally, the term ‘proactive’ is used to describe planned public relations activities that are driven by an organisation and stem from its own agenda. This can refer to engagement activity in the form of events, or to media relations campaigns, for example.

Reactive public relations usually refers to activity that is triggered by the actions of others, outside the organisation. It may still be partly planned, if, for instance, an organisation has prior warning that a government department will be launching a report or consultation on an issue of relevance, or if another organisation is planning a major announcement and the PR team plan activity to ‘piggy-back’ on, or react to, that announcement. But it may also be more ad hoc. For example, someone in your organisation might read something in the press one morning, which directly relates to an area of your work, and you will then react by putting out a statement in response, via social or traditional media, your own networks, or informal channels.

How could public relations help my organisation?

Public relations can help you and your organisation in many ways. If you’re a charity, a social enterprise or a public body, these will include:

  • Informing and educating
  • Shifting perceptions
  • Influencing policy-makers
  • Supporting fundraising
  • Changing behaviour
  • Recruiting support
  • Protecting reputation
  • Managing mergers, collaborations or restructures
  • Establishing new services
  • Developing charity-corporate partnerships
  • Evidencing impact

What is Public Relations?

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