What is Public Relations?

Public relations introduction

What is public relations? At the outset of a chapter on the history and origins of public relations, a definition of the topic is needed. How does it differ from advertising, publicity, propaganda and other forms of persuasional or promotional communication? There have been innumerable attempts to define public relations. Harwood Childs offered one early but still insightful attempt: ‘Public relations is not the presentation of a point of view, not the art of tempering mental attitudes, nor the development of cordial and profitable relations. [. . .] The basic problem of public relations is to reconcile or adjust in the public interest those aspects of our personal and corporate behaviour which have a social significance’ (Childs 1940: 3 and 13).
In the mid-1970s, the social scientist Rex Harlow (1977) identified more than 400 versions or variations. Since then, more have been proposed, discussed and, in some instances, dismissed. Watson and Noble (2014) comment that ‘some commentators see the surfeit of definitions as a weakness of public relations; others appreciate the debate that surrounds them as an indication of vigour in the field’ (p. 6). This chapter won’t propose a single definition, but it will show there have been a wide range of cultural, managerial and political and religious influences upon the formation of public relations theories and practices. There are, however, some characteristics that shape the wide variety of forms of public relations:
■ It is a planned communication and/or relationshipbuilding activity with strategic or deliberate intent (Lamme and Russell 2015). Some definitions emphasise the management of communications (Grunig and Hunt 1984; Broom and Sha 2013), the management of relationships (Coombs and Holladay 2006) and the creation and maintenance of reputation (CIPR 2012). ■ It seeks to create awareness among specific groups, often referred to as ‘publics’ or ‘stakeholders’, and engage their interest. The interest of the public should result in a mutually beneficial relationship or response, possibly as dialogue (Gutiérrez-García et al. 2015). Thus, it is different from publicity which only seeks to disseminate messages. ■ In its most common form, public relations has been enacted through the media, which has been the gatekeeper of communication. This is an important difference from advertising which places messages through the purchase of advertisement space and airtime (radio, television and online). With the rise of social media, public relations activity has increasingly become a form of direct communication, bypassing media scrutiny.
■ Although the US public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays proposed that ‘public relations attempts to engineer public support’ (Bernays 1955: 4–5), the term ‘to engineer’ is rejected by many as implying manipulation rather than truth-telling. Many scholars and practitioners contend that ethical communication is the bedrock of professional public relations.

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