Gini Dietrich

What is Public Relations?

By: Gini Dietrich | April 11, 2019 | 

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 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

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 earns the relationship of an organization’s audiences to build loyalty 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 such as the Spin Sucks community.

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, 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.