Gini Dietrich

What Is Public Relations?

By: Gini Dietrich | October 20, 2020 | 
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What is Public Relations?

I recently had a conversation with a friend who said he is rejiggering his marketing and communications teams and wanted my opinion on how I would define marketing, communications, and PR—and what skillsets he would put underneath each discipline. 

What started off as a pretty tactical conversation turned into a philosophical discussion about the three disciplines and where they all sit in the middle of a fast-growing organization.

Because of the work we do at Spin Sucks, I have the privilege of having hundreds of thoughtful conversations with communicators, entrepreneurs, and CEOs, akin to the conversation I recently had with a friend.

We discuss everything from trends, the industry’s future, career growth, business growth, networking, how to structure an organization’s marketing department, 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.”

People.

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 challenge comes, then, when a business leader can’t define what we do—because we can’t, either!

The Perception of the PR Industry Is Wonky

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.

The friend I mentioned earlier? He is a big fan of the PESO Model and he said, “But that’s more integrated communications than public relations, isn’t it?”

That’s because he, just like other business leaders, equates public relations with media relations, and we (the industry) don’t do anything to correct that. In the conversation I had with him, he said he was trying to understand how he could have someone lead the communications discipline if their expertise is media relations.

You can’t. 

If that’s their expertise and they don’t at least have an understanding of the other media types, how they all work together, and how they can be measured, both in awareness and in sales, then they are an earned media person inside a communications department.

There is nothing wrong with that! We need experts very badly. People who are true earned media experts are few and far between today, especially as media continues to evolve or, in many cases, completely dissolve. With the lack of trust and faith, the public has in today’s media, it makes the job of an earned media expert more difficult. If you have someone on your team—or work with an agency or solopreneur—who is great at it, let them do their job…and build the department around them.

If you’re looking to define roles between marketing, communications, and the business-defined definition of PR, the former two are different disciplines that work together—and the latter works inside communications while informing messaging and consumer expectations for marketing.

The Current Definition of Public Relations

I’m back! When we talk about defining the roles between marketing, communications, and earned media, this leads to a larger problem. 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 or earned media, 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

2020 PESO Model Graphic

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
  • Trust builders 
  • Earned eyeballs
  • Working with third-party experts to provide credibility 
  • 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 earns the relationship of an organization’s audiences to build trust and loyalty between the two. It works with advertising and marketing to generate ideas, craft messages, amplify information, and care for customers. 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 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.

Heck, we can even agree that PR is just one tactic, earned media and that communications is strategic and must lead to the PESO Model while working in tandem with marketing. But we have to agree! 

In the case of my friend, because he has someone on his team who is great at earned media and that’s where he wants to spend his time, I say GREAT (and I’m a little envious because those professionals are incredibly hard to come by). Let him run and build the earned media department underneath the communications umbrella. Then bring in a chief of corporate communications who can build paid, shared, and owned departments, while that person works alongside the chief marketing officer (who is responsible for the brand, new products, and innovation). 

But, until the industry can be very clear about what it is that we do, we will always fight these battles. The path of least resistance is likely to continue to allow people to equate PR to media relations and, if you are a content creator or a shared media expert or great at SEO or paid social or search, you’re a communicator. Of course, there is always a very gray line between those disciplines and marketing, which throws another wrench into the mix.

Another topic for another day The point here is that we have to be very clear about what it is we do—and all row the boat in the same direction. Right now, there are far too many oars in the boat and everyone is rowing the direction they think is the sunniest and we’re going nowhere.

If it’s up to me, we would build communications departments around the PESO Model and have teams for each media type. When that happens, everyone can be an expert, and the boat rows in the same direction…and we can all get to that island without The Corona or whacked-out politics much more quickly. Ah, a girl can dream!

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.