Gini Dietrich

What is Public Relations?

By: Gini Dietrich | August 10, 2017 | 

What is Public Relations?Alright, my friends. We need to have a talk.

Because of the work we do at Spin Sucks, I have the privilege of having hundreds of thoughtful conversations with communicators.

We discuss trends, the industry’s future, career growth, business growth, networking, and more.

It’s a very fortunate spot for me to be in because I get to hear from all of you what you’re dealing with every day—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And there is one thing that I hear over and over again that truly bothers me.

We cannot agree on the definition of public relations or on what we call ourselves—PR pros or communicators

It drives me absolutely batty when someone says, “I’m not in PR. I do strategic communications.” Or, “We just do PR for our clients because all they care about is media placements.”


It’s all the same.

We can call it public relations or strategic communications or corporate communications or internal communications or just communications.

The fact of the matter is, if we are the conduits between an organization and its customers, prospects, employees, investors, and other stakeholders, it doesn’t matter what you call it.

We are communicators.

What is Public Relations?

Sure, there are lots of specialities inside that title:

  • Reputation management
  • Crisis communications
  • Media relations
  • Content marketing
  • Internal communications
  • Special events
  • Social media
  • Strategic communications
  • Executive thought leadership
  • Speech writing
  • Email marketing
  • Influencer relations
  • Social media advertising
  • Cause marketing
  • Experiential marketing
  • Investor relations
  • Public affairs
  • Community relations
  • Sponsorships
  • Partnerships

And lots more!We might be specialists in one or many of these things, and we are all communicators.

Public relations does not mean we do only media relations.

And communications does not mean we don’t do media relations.

Media relations is one tiny part of a communicator’s job.

The Current Definition of Public Relations

The biggest challenge we have is the perception people have of our industry.

If anything, we perpetuate the perception.

Prospects call us all the time, looking for PR help.

After digging in, we realize they want just a media relations program.

Business leaders equate public relations with media relations, and we don’t do anything to correct that.

If we can’t agree on what it is that we do, how in the world do we expect those who hire us to know what we do?

PRSA defines public relations as:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

That doesn’t really help matters because it doesn’t say much, but it does include some key words we’ll use in a minute.

It also does not help matters that Entrepreneur describes it as:

Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives.

Described that way, it’s publicity (or media relations), not public relations.

It’s no wonder the more than six million business leaders who read Entrepreneur think all we do is media relations.

And that those who either don’t have media relations responsibility or have agencies that do it for them, say they don’t do public relations.

A Modern Definition of Public Relations

If we are to overcome the perception that public relations is media relations, we have to do two things:

  1. Agree as professionals what it is that we do; and
  2. Create a consistent message the entire industry uses that is easy for everyone to understand.

In the PRSA definition, the words “strategic,” “communication,” and “relationships” are included.

If someone says, “I don’t do PR. I do strategic communications,” they would be wrong.

We all do public relations, no matter our specialty.

Public relations is:

  • Strategic communications
  • Earned eyeballs
  • News engineering
  • Amplification or magnification
  • Broader reach
  • Message crafting
  • Idea generation
  • Consumer care

If we were to combine this list with the PRSA definition, it might look something like this:

Public relations—or communications—earns the eyeballs of an organization’s audiences to build loyal relationships between the two. It works with advertising and marketing to generate ideas, craft messages, engineer news, and amplify information. It strategically takes care of the people that matter to the organization, while adding new audiences.

Even that is still too jargon-y for the big business world, but it gets closer than any other definition.

Is it Public Relations or Communications?

It all comes down to how we see our role in the success of our organizations.

As long as we allow ourselves to be siloed in one very small portion of the communications landscape, we shortchange our ability to effect change.

We also remove ourselves as an indispensable part of an organization’s success, while we should embody the definition of modern PR in everything we do.

We don’t have to be a specialist at every part of it, but we do need to understand how it all works together.

It doesn’t matter if you call it public relations or communications, as long as we can agree we are all on the same side.

I know the phrase “public relations” tends to have a sleazy connotation, so we can either say we do strategic communications and snub our noses at public relations.

Or we can support one another in places like the PR Dream Team.

We need to understand there are different specialties, and we all need to fight to change the perception people have of the public relations industry.

Because until we do so collectively, we will remain our profession’s biggest obstacle.

Now it’s your turn…how would you re-define public relations?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Roger Friedensen

    Nice work Gini! This revision — or more accurately, redefinition — of the public relations profession is long overdue. In fact, our firm, Forge Communications, doesn’t even refer to itself as a “public relations firm.” There’s just too much associated baggage with “PR” that limits the depth and breadth of our work with clients and the community. I just friggin’ gave up trying to “build understanding,” as we say, about what public relations is and is not today. Hence, we’re a research and communication strategy consultancy. For the past eight years since our founding, it seems to be working pretty well.

    That being said, the best definition of public relations I ever heard — and I submitted this to PRSA when Elise Mitchell was helping lead the charge for a new definition (t’was ignored) — is this one from a professor and former colleague of mine, Dr. Larry Long (of N.C. State and Illinois State University): “Public relations is a communication function of management through which organizations adapt to, alter or maintain their environment for the purpose of achieving organizational goals.”

    For a deeper dive into this (don’t you just love jargon!), here’s a post I wrote on the subject some years ago:

    • We all submitted ideas when they did the revised definition. I remember it being more fill in the blanks, which didn’t lend to much discussion. 🙁

  • Sara

    I had this very discussion about an hour ago with my business advisor. We were looking at ways to help people understand what my company does and he said; ‘as the average joe business person, I don’t see social media as PR, but I know from you that it is.’ I always describe myself as a communicator, with PR being the vehicle I use to connect businesses with the people who matter. But I’m aware that doesn’t help explain PR. I’m still working on my own personal definition.

    • I think that’s what is so hard about this. NO ONE has the same definition. We changed to digital marketing communications a few years ago, but that might even be too much. I’m not sure how to get the entire industry on the same page, but we need to do that.

  • Howie Goldfarb

    i agree 100%

    but a marketing agency can take that list and call it the definition of modern marketing.

    maybe we need to merge the two into one with a new name?

    Like MarComm! ta da!

    • I don’t agree. Marketing could definitely take some of the list, but not all of it.

      • Howie Goldfarb

        So you are saying PR can do everything Marketing does but they can’t offer everything PR does? Doesn’t make sense. Because many are offering PR services under the title of Marketing. I did when I was soloprenuering. I did or advised on your whole list but never called myself PR.

        • I am absolutely saying that PR can do things marketing cannot do (and vice versa). A marketer cannot do executive communications. A marketer cannot write speeches. A marketer cannot effectively pitch the media. A marketer cannot do crisis or reputation management. Of my list, I’d say a marketer can do about a third of it.

        • Howie Goldfarb

          BUT I will agree the definitions and scope of work are expanding and blurring and will continue to do so.

  • Sarah Chain

    We just had this discussion as a team today! It’s so important to be aware ourselves but also to educate clients as to the diverse array of services that fall under “PR,” especially as the world of PR is changing so rapidly. Great walk-through here.

    • It makes me absolutely crazy that we cannot come to a solution that isn’t full of jargon and makes sense to those who buy our services.

  • Gerard Francis Corbett

    Advocacy + or –

  • Colleen Martell

    Your visual is so right on! We should wear that on chest when we walk into a client meeting! 🙂

  • Liz Reusswig

    Excellent! Now, how do we get this piece into the Wall Street Journal…and Forbes…and…every other business periodical & blog on the planet? 😉

  • Debbie Johnson

    This is a great post.

    A trend I’ve noticed in my market is more job titles with “communications” in them, including my own. I rarely see “public relations” in job titles these days. It’s “communications specialist,” “director of communications,” etc.

    I think communications is more inclusive and somewhat easier to understand than public relations, which, as you stated, too many people just think of as media relations.

    When people ask me to describe my job, I just say “I help people communicate more effectively.”

    • I wonder how agencies are describing their open jobs? I’m going to look and see.

      • Debbie Johnson

        I saw an agency post a job for a “social media ninja.” Um, no.

  • Scott D. Williams

    I would add “data collection, analysis, metric interpretation and predictive analytics”.

    • OK! I’ll update the chart before I make stickers. 🙂

  • Edward M. Bury

    Outstanding perspective and discussion. My addition: Public relations is a modern communications practice, and it should continue to evolve as technology ushers in new forms of communications.

    • It HAS to evolve. You would not believe how many communicators I talk to who say, “I just don’t want to learn anything new.” Makes me nuts.

  • I love how you’re breaking it down into what we actually do. Now, if PRSA would listen and take action, that would be something.

    Sometimes I feel like, we (as an industry) like to hide behind big words to sound important. And all that because we are afraid to admit we need to change. We’re afraid to admit everything we know is almost irrelevant in this day and age, and we have to learn how to measure our work and prove results at a very fast pace.

    • The bigger problem is we tend to be very right brained and measurement takes a left brain. So it’s intimidating by most creative types. But I promise we can get there!

  • Michelle Olson

    This is awesome, Gini! We’re having this EXACT conversation at PRSA these days and have agreed that our roles as communicators trump the title of public relations. I’m going to share this with the board as it’s so germane to the discussion. Not surprising, considering you wrote it. 🙂

    • Michelle Olson! Hi! Thank you for sharing this with the board. And CONGRATS on that awesome story about you. I loved that it married your passion with your work.

  • As an outsider, I see PR communicators having a key role in branding. Since branding builds search engine visibility and influences online ranking clients truly need you.

    (BTW, I would drop Google Authorship from the Authority bubble; Google no longer supports Authorship…maybe it supports some of the legacy profiles, but it’s no longer worth pursuing.)

  • n vinnie

    Good evening, a great post indeed, i need to briefly describe the situation in Europe and specifically in Greece regarding PR profession and its future potential.
    I will not redefine PR because to me PR is the basis of every human relation for the very start of this world.
    I feel that we all could agree that in everyones’ mind PR is a profession that is applied in comfort and ease. Not any more.
    It is luxury to be just a PR professional that works or is specialised only on corporate relations or media relations or..or….as i or you used to be.
    In my opinion the problem of the disoriented terminology and the blurry description of our profession today more than ever lies heavily on the economic crisis.
    To me, we should not focus on what we are and what we do or we do not, but focus on what it takes to remain the important communicators who perform so many tasks.
    I am a certified PR person from the American Deree College, i have started my PR working experience in Hill and Knowltons’ Greek branch. Back then in (2010) there were several PR agencies and many more PR job openings.
    Adversely, today there are no PR agencies for PR people to work for but there are Start Ups, Advertising and Marketing agencies that call us to help and collaborate with them for the same customers!
    We have to realise that we live in a very different world market compared with the same market of 12 and 15 years ago.
    The heavy economic crisis mainly in Europe has both decrease severely customers’ spending power and at the same time force the market to find alternate ways to retain or gain them with as little as possible expenses. Example >See Above the Line activities.
    We cannot focus on a handful of conglomerates for the discussion; though the problem speaks loud as well. Watch the majority of the market and its respected available budget for publicity- engagement – sales cycle and you will identify one fact.
    The information and the message needs a matter of seconds to spread. Digitally becomes cheaper faster and broader. In case of low vitality? You hit a button with no cost at all and none has a clue about it anymore.You start with a new idea asap.
    So, the digitised not so new world is here to stay,we form digital relationships – what else to say? It is a very broad and different discussion for our main theme.
    Accordingly to say the least, we, the PR people have been transfigured into social media experts, advertisers and marketing magicians.

    The more skills you acquire the more necessary you become ,it docent matter if you use tools for competition analysis or you are delving into the metrics of a campaign.
    What matters is to feel confident with your new skin.
    To end, I could not agree more with the following posts of Scott D.Williams, Debbie Johnson, Janet, Edward M.Bury and many others in this post. 🙂

  • The elephant in the room..I avoided using the term “PR” for a really long time when describing what I do. It used to make me cringe because I felt like everyone had preconceived notions about it – good and bad – but overall, the slices never made a whole pie. I always used the term “brand development”, and still do, only now our mission statement says “PR and brand development”. Turns out “brand development” alone leads to just as much confusion for many : Side note: My biggest concern lately has been trying to explain that I’m not a sales rep. Anyone else have this issue? There seems to be some definition SOMEWHERE that says hiring a PR team will automatically quadruple your earnings overnight. I feel like my job is to help your brand gain visibility, reach your target audience, broaden your audience and establish credibility and legitimacy with the placements. I’ve literally had three clients over the past two weeks corner me about why their “sales are so slow”??