What is public relations?

What is public relations? PR Place guide

Public relations has been named as such for at least a century. The UK professional body the Chartered Institute of Public Relations is 70 this year and public relations degree courses have been taught in this country for 30 years. There’s now a growing library of textbooks to accompany the many books and blogs by practitioners.

Students, candidates for professional qualifications and those seeking Chartered Practitioner status all need to grapple with the ideas contained in these books and blogs. Study is inextricably bound together with practice throughout a professional career.

So with this heritage you’d think we’d have a clear notion of what we mean by ‘public relations’ by now.

But it seems not. The rise of digital channels leading to a blurring of the roles of advertising and public relations in a world of ‘pay for play’ is one factor. The shunning of any association with spin, publicity and media relations is another: many prefer to use the more neutral ‘communication’, the grander sounding ‘corporate communication’ or the more specific terms ‘internal communication’, ‘analyst relations’ or ‘public affairs’. Others no longer make any distinction between marketing, marcoms and public relations, using the terms interchangeably.

For graduate job seekers, it must be more confusing than ever. Will a simple search for ‘public relations’ suffice or should search terms be extended to include these other ones plus ‘content marketing’, ‘brand journalism’, ‘digital marketing’, ‘influencer marketing’ and ‘SEO’ among yet more varieties of the same thing.

For new students, even answering that apparently basic classroom question ‘what is public relations?’ raises lots more questions. It must feel like walking through a minefield.

With these groups in mind, we’ve edited together a series of essays, previously published at PR Place, addressing some of the main paradigms of public relations and introducing you to some of the main arguments made by prominent academics, practitioners and industry bodies. By doing this our aim is not to have the final word on these questions, but to direct the curious student to further sources. The essays are:

  • Public relations as reputation management
  • Public relations as communication management
  • Public relations as relationship management
  • Public relations as a strategic management discipline
  • Public relations as persuasion

Together with a new introduction and very short list of recommended reading for those considering a career or a course in public relations, those currently studying the subject, and those in the early stages of their careers, we hope this will be a useful introductory guide.

It’s free to download here (registration required). It joins the growing collection of PDF guides on this site written for those studying and developing careers in public relations. These guides are all available to download if you’re a registered member of PR Place.

Public relations may have come into use a century ago, though the term was used interchangeably with propaganda until the late 1920s (and still is today by critics of the practice).

So one very short answer to the question ‘what is public relations?’ is ‘propaganda’. For further discussion of this, and an overview of the tonnes of ink spilled debating whether there’s any distinction between these terms, read our introductory guide.

Download your free guide here.
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About the author

Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.


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