Above the line: Historical term used to distinguish between advertising (‘above the line’) and all other promotional activities (including PR) which were known as ‘below the line’. The line referred to the agency commission applied to media buying (but was not applicable to PR, direct marketing, sales promotion etc).

Alt text or tag: A description given to an image used on a website. Search engines can read the Alt text, but not the image.

AMEC: The International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication. Began as the Association of Media Evaluation Companies.

Analytics: A program that presents website data for analysis. Google Analytics is a feature rich and popular analytics program.

Authority: In SEO, the amount of trust a site is credited with for a particular search query. Authority is gained from incoming links from other trusted sites.

AVE: Advertising value equivalent. A discredited means of demonstrating the value of PR work by multiplying the assumed cost of media coverage (as advertising) by a multiplier to reflect the added value of editorial endorsement.


Backgrounders: Information sheets presented as part of a press pack providing information on the organisation (its history, organisational structure, senior management and major milestones).

Backlink: Term used in SEO to describe a link into a website (also known as an inbound link). The more authority the linking site has, the better for your page or site. Backlinks are important because they act as a ‘vote of confidence’ or third-party endorsement of a site or page. Media relations activity, which was once all about the cutting, is now as much about the value of backlinks from a trusted media website to your site.

Belbin: Belbin’s team roles describes how individuals perform within teams (eg plant, resource investigator, completer-finisher). Belbin, M (1993) Team Roles at Work, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann

Below the line: See ‘above the line’.

Black hat: In SEO, any tactics that run counter to best practices such as the Google Webmaster Guidelines.

Blog: A website that presents information in more or less chronological order (ie like a diary). Most blogs are created with a content management system such as WordPress.

Bounce rate: In SEO, the percentage of visitors who leave the site without viewing any other pages.

Boundary spanning: Term used by scholars Grunig and Hunt (1984) to describe the public relations function within organisations. They argued that practitioners should ‘have one foot in the organisation and one outside’ so as to mediate the two-way relationships between organisations and publics. Grunig, J and Hunt, T (1984) Managing Public Relations, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Brand: Originally a means for identifying cattle, brand now describes a name, design or symbol that identifies and distinguishes products. In corporate PR, brand is used in discussions of corporate reputation.

Budget: A means of forecasting and controlling costs. In public relations, this usually refers to time (‘men’) and expenses (‘materials’).

Business to business (B2B): Where the end customer or user is another business and public relations is used for awareness, thought leadership and relationship management.

Business to consumer (B2C): Where the end customer or user is a consumer rather than a business (see B2B). PR is often used in support of marketing objectives.

Byline: An article published under an author’s name (‘byline’). In public relations, the article is often ghost-written and attributed to a company executive.


Change management: Structured approach to organisational change that involves significant internal communication activity (the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably).

CIPR: Chartered Institute of Public Relations – UK professional association for individual members. Established in 1948, it gained its Royal Charter in 2005.

Closed questions: These ask for limited, factual information and can usually be answered with a limited list of options, often ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Useful for data gathering and for confirming understanding.

Cognitive dissonance: Term used in psychology describing the uncomfortable tension from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time. Festinger, L (1970) Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Comment spam: Posting blog comments with the purpose of generating inbound links to a site.

Communication audit: Research tool that examines the communication process in detail, covering publics, channels, messages and identifying future communication needs and resources.

Communication manager: One of the two main roles identified by researches, the communication manager plans and manages public relations programmes. See communication technician.

Communication technician: The technician is not directly involved in making communication decisions, but is a skilled implementer of public relations tactics. See communication manager.

Community relations: Describes the communications between an organisation and the local community. Often seen as part of CSR and sometimes of internal communication, since employees are usually part of the local community. US scholars Dean Kruckeberg and Kenneth Starck have long argued for public relations to be seen as a community-building activity.

Confidentiality: Part of the professional codes of conduct, but the obligation to protect client or company confidential information can sometimes conflict with a desire for transparency and an obligation to tell the truth.

Conflicts of interest: Public relations consultants need sectoral expertise to win clients, but may find their growth constrained by their inability to serve more than one client in a sector.

Consultancy: Public relations work is usually carried out in-house or by an external consultancy. Consultancies can range from sole practitioners to large international networks servicing global clients. Consultancies are sometimes used in support of in-house teams, adding specialist expertise or additional resource, and providing fresh ideas and a more objective perspective.

Consumer public relations: Closely related to marketing communications, this is where public relations contributes to marketing objectives (and often reports to a marketing manager).

Content analysis: A quantitative research method for determining the content of media coverage (whether positive, neutral or negative).

Copyright: Legal rights regulating the use of creative works. Publications, artwork and photographs are subject to copyright law (even when shared on the internet).

Consultancy: A professional services firm that, like a law firm, usually provides advice in return for a fee. Often described as agencies, these (like advertising agencies or estate agencies) have historically been funded by an agency commission.

Content marketing: The promotion of a product, service, organisation or idea through published information (content) that people want to seek out and share.

Copywriting: The process of writing words (copy) to promote a business, person, opinion or idea. Sometimes known as content (eg content marketing).

Corporate culture: The attitudes, beliefs, experiences and values of an organisation, sometimes known as ‘the way we do things round here’ (Hofstede 2001).  Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences, 2nd ed, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Corporate identity: Originally the visual representation of an organisation, but now used to describe the symbolism, communication and behaviour of an organisation – and so closely related to corporate reputation.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR): Described as the role an organisation has in society. Part of the non-performance measures by which organisations are judged (by their social and environmental impact as well as their financial results). Some prefer to use the terms sustainability or corporate responsibility.

Creativity: Public relations work seeks to raise awareness and change attitudes and behaviour, often with limited budgets. Creativity is often the way to achieve maximum outcomes for minimal inputs.

Crisis management: An increasingly important public relations function, related to issues management. Crisis management is how an organisation responds to a crisis (‘the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organisation’s performance and generate negative outcomes’ Coombs 2014).

Critical path analysis: Tool used in project management for determining which aspects of a project involve the greatest amount of time. See Gantt chart.


Defamation: Legal concept describing the communication of a statement that makes a false claim to the detriment of an individual or group.

Demographics: The study of the human population and its categorisation by eg age, gender, affluence, attitudes.

Dialogic communication: A two-way approach that seeks to build relationships with key groups or individuals.

Discourse analysis: General term for analysing written, spoken and visual language. Critical discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary approach to the study or texts that explores how domination is reproduced (eg gender stereotypes).

Domain authority: Term used in SEO to describe how much authority a website has (on a scale of 0 to 100 – the higher the better). A site’s domain authority (DA) can easily be calculated using a tools such as MozBar and Open Site Explorer.

Dominant coalition: Describes the senior management team within an organisation. Most argue for public relations to have a seat at the table; some argue that advice is best provided from a position of independence from the collective responsibility shared by the top team.

Dominant paradigm: Describes the main way of understanding a field. In public relations, it describes symmetry/excellence theories developed and described by James Grunig and colleagues.


Elaboration likelihood model: Petty and Cacioppo (1980) suggested there are two routes to persuasion: the central route (people are able to think deeply about the message) and the peripheral route.

Environment scanning: This takes place in the situation analysis of strategic public relations planning. It involves research to identify trends in public opinion and in the climate surrounding the organisation. Popular tools include PESTEL and SWOT analyses.

Ethics: Principles governing professional conduct. (Morality involves personal conduct).

Evaluation: Ongoing process to review and measure the effectiveness of public relations programmes. The discussion has shifted from output measures to outcome measures (ie from media coverage to behaviour change).

Excellence theory: Developed by James Grunig and others, this built on the principle of two-way symmetric communication to argue how public relations could contribute to excellent organisations.



Gantt chart: A way of visualising project tasks, originally developed for shipbuilding.

Gatekeeper: Media theory that sees journalists as gatekeepers, with the power to decide which news stories are communicated to mass audiences. A less powerful concept since social media removed the monopoly on news formerly held by journalists.

Global Alliance: Umbrella organisation representing national professional associations including the UK’s CIPR.

Greenwashing: A conflation of green and whitewash, this describes misleading claims made by organisations about their environmental (‘green’) impact.


Hierarchy of needs: Model by Abraham Maslow that suggests that people have fundamental physiological and safety needs and desires that need to be satisfied before they can aspire to esteem and self-actualisation.

Source: Maslow, A (19430 A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50, 370-396


ICCO: International Communications Consultancy Organisation. Umbrella organisation representing 55 PR consultancy trade associations including the UK’s PRCA.

In-house: Most PR practitioners work in-house (ie for one organisation) as distinct from working for a consultancy or on their own (freelance).

Integrated marketing communications (IMC): A coordinated approach involving all promotional and marketing communication activities. This suggests teams and consultancies should be broad-based, though there is still a role for sector and specialism experts.

Internal communication: Public relations focused on internal publics (ie employees). Originated in industrial journalism but is now seen as a strategic management process with links to change management.

Interpersonal communication: The emphasis on mass communication in the last century, and digital and social media this century means that interpersonal communication is often overlooked. But if public relations involves persuasion and is ideally based on a dialogue among equal parties, then face to face (or interpersonal) communication remains important.

Intranet: Internal website used as a tool for HR, management communication and internal communication. These have often been static and are often being replaced or supplemented by internal social media tools such as Facebook at Work and Yammer.

Issues management: The proactive management of issues to minimise negative effects and create commercial opportunities. Often seen as part of a public affairs function, and linked to (reactive) crisis communication.



Keyword: A word that a user enters into a search engine. Web pages should be optimised to draw in people who have searched for that term.

Keyword stuffing: The use of an inappropriate high density of keywords, designed to trick a search engine.


Likert scale: Widely used in opinion research where people express their agreement or disagreement with a proposition, often on a five point scale (from strongly disagree, through no opinion, to strongly agree).

Link building: The process of getting more inbound links to your website for improved search rankings.

Lobbying: Part of public affairs, lobbying involves attempts to influence public policy through relations with legislators and others involved in government. Variously viewed as a natural part of a functioning democracy and an attempt to exert undemocratic influence, lobbyists are now subject to registration and increased scrutiny.

Longitudinal research: This measures trends over time as distinct from opinion surveys which present a snapshot.


Marketing mix: The four Ps of marketing (product, price, place, promotion) are known as the marketing mix. From this perspective, public relations is a promotional activity that is used around product launches.

Media monitoring: Monitoring is used to identify what the media are saying about an organisation, its products and the accuracy and quality of this coverage. Monitoring can also track the frequency and favourability of coverage against competitors.

Media planning: This used to involve researching journalists, publications and programmes likely to be interested in an organisation or an announcement. Now media planning involves social media influencers as well as journalists, across the media cloverleaf (paid, earned, owned).

Media relations: A public relations activity focused on relationships with journalists and other media players, either in pursuit of short-term publicity or in order to develop longer-term relationships.

Metadata: Information readable only to search engines that explains what your site is about.

Mission statement: A short statement of the purpose of a company or organisation. It should be memorable, distinctive, and serve as a guide to action.

Mutual understanding: The principle of mutuality is that publics should gain from public relations as well as the sponsoring organisation (both parties should benefit from a relationship).


Natural search results: Organic search results as distinct from paid or sponsored content.

News release: A tool used extensively in media relations, it is an announcement of news sent to the media on behalf of the organisation with the goal of achieving editorial coverage.

Nofollow link: A link that does not provide any value in SEO terms. Use it when you do not want to endorse the page you are linking to, or when you want to avoid penalties for using duplicate content.


Objectives: Objective setting is an important process in public relations planning involving measurable targets. Objectives can involve awareness, attitude and opinion, or behaviour.

Open questions: These are broad, and frequently open with ‘why’ or ‘what’ to encourage in-depth responses.

Opinion leaders: Reaching target groups often involves going through third parties. These can be journalists (gatekeepers) but can also be influential people in any community (teachers, faith leaders, politicians or social media influencers).

Opportunities to see (OTS): An advertising concept that measures the potential readers, viewers or listeners to a publication or programme. So a magazine article may be read by the subscribers to that publication, but also to others who are shown the article, or who find it online, or who read it later in a doctor’s surgery. An advertising campaign may use a mix of media from billboards to print, radio and TV and an individual may have many opportunities to see the ad and receive its message.

Organic links: Those published because the webmaster think them valuable.


Paradigm: A world view that frames our approach to how we perceive a topic. So the communication paradigm views public relations as a communication process; the relationship paradigm as relationship building; the reputation paradigm as reputation management.

Persuasion: Public relations can be seen as a planned process of persuasion (though the dominant paradigm rejects persuasion in favour of two-way symmetric communication). Persuasion can involve appeals to logic and to emotion and involve verbal and non-verbal communication.

PESO: The Paid-Earned-Shared-Owned model of media proposed by Gini Dietrich. Dietrich, G (2014) Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age, Chicago: Que

Pitch: This has two meanings in public relations. Practitioners are said to pitch stories to journalists, and consultancies usually win clients following a series of presentations known as a competitive pitch.

PRCA: UK Public Relations and Communications Association. Established in 1969 as the Public Relations Consultants Association it changed its name in 2016. Now more directly competitive with the CIPR.

Press pack: Traditionally, a set of documents provided to the media containing a mix of news releases, background information, executive biographies, photographs, product sheets etc. Most of this information is now made available online for press and public.

Problem recognition: An important step in public relations planning. What problem is public relations or communication being used to solve? The situation analysis should lead to a clear statement of the problem.

Propaganda: Information designed to persuade. Often used to discredit public relations and PR practitioners. There are academic models (see the Four Models of PR) that attempt to separate public relations from propaganda, but many commentators accept that propaganda, like public relations, can be used for good and for bad purposes.

Psychographics: Describes the attitudes and values of groups of people, as distinct from demographics which describes age, gender etc.

Public affairs: Specialist area within public relations that seeks to influence public policy through relationships with legislators.

Public opinion: An assessment of where the consensus lies on important questions.

Public relations: The process of managing relationships with key groups in order to establish and maintain legitimacy for a cause, individual or organisation. Public relations usually involves communication and aims for an enhanced reputation among key groups (employees, customers, shareholders, politicians, the media, activists etc).

Public sphere: The place where private opinions can be transformed into public opinion. Historically, this was a shared public space, but increasingly the media and social media provides a virtual space. The role of public relations in the public sphere was challenged by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

Publicity: The art of making things known. Tactics include publicity stunts and media relations. Publicity is usually considered part of public relations, but does not define the whole process which should be focused on attitude and behaviour change, not just awareness.

Publics: Scholars reject use of ‘the public’, so talk about publics (plural), stakeholders, constituencies etc. Publics are groups of people categorised by their position on an issue or problem.


Qualitative research: This investigates the reasons for human behaviour by exploring attitudes to issues or questions.

Quantitative research: This provides empirical evidence of anything that can be measured.


Reciprocal link: Two sites that link to each other. Search engines usually don’t see these as high value links.

Relationship management: Perspective on public relations championed by US scholars John Ledingham and Stephen Bruning.

Reputation management: The purpose of public relations, according to the CIPR definition. Yet there are few academic champions of this perspective beyond Charles Fombrun.

Resources: The resources needed for public relations campaigns are usually categorised in three ways: human resources, expenses, equipment.

Rhetoric: The study of the language used to persuade and influence. This usually begins with a study of Aristotle and has been developed into a paradigm by US scholars such as Robert Heath and Elizabeth Toth.

Risk: Usually linked to issues and crisis management. Just as doctors are enjoined to ‘first do no harm’, public relations practitioners must weigh up the risks of action and inaction in any given case.


Secondary research: Also known as desk research, this involves a review of published sources as distinct from original (or primary) research.

Segmentation: Ways of categorising groups of people, eg by demographics, psychographics, geography.

Semiotics: The study of signs, language and meaning. This teaches us that there is more to communicating than literal meanings. Meanings can be ambiguous and some readers and viewers take different meanings from the same source.

SEO: Search Engine Optimisation. The process of improving the visibility of a site by improving where it appears in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

SERP: Search Engine Results Page. The page you are sent to when you type a query into a search engine. The search engine will rank the results, so you usually want to appear on the first page.

SMART: Acronym referring to campaign objectives, which should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.

Social marketing: The use of marketing techniques to promote social change and good causes (not to be confused with social media marketing, the use of social media for marketing purposes).

Soundbites: Sentences of phrases that summarise what the speaker is trying to communicate in a short and memorable fashion.

Spin: A pejorative term to describe the manipulative practices of ‘spin doctors’, especially in the political sphere. Has come to be associated with public relations.

Stakeholders: Groups affected by or capable of affecting the achievement of organisational objectives (Freeman 1998). Often used interchangeable with publics.

Systems theory: Theory developed by biologists to describe interactions within dynamic ecosystems. Adapted by public relations scholars to explain how public relations helps organisations adapt and adjust to change pressures. A more recent critique of systems theory draws on chaos theory to argue that seeking to achieve equilibrium is no longer an adequate way to avoid extinction.


Further reading:

Cain, S (2009) Key concepts in public relations, Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan
Heath, R (2013) Encyclopedia of Public Relations, 2nd edition, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
LaFerney, D (2007) A complete glossary of essential SEO jargon, MOZ
Whalley, B (2011) 40 essential SEO terms marketers should know, Hubspot


Technician: In public relations roles theory, a technician is a master of communications channels or techniques, but not someone who contributes to the development of PR strategy (see PR manager).

Tendering: The process of shopping around to achieve best price on goods or services. Often a requirement within the public sector.

Testimonial: An endorsement by a third party often used in promotional materials.

Trade journal: A specialist title focusing on a specific trade or profession, as distinct from general consumer (ie end user) audiences. Often an important component of B2B PR campaigns.


USP: In marketing, a unique selling point – or the distinctive benefit of a product or service.

Uses and gratifications: Media theory that suggests that people are not passive receivers of information, but use it to fulfil their particular needs.


VNR: Video news release, designed for use by broadcasters (as distinct from a press release, designed for print publications).


White hat: SEO tactics that conform to webmaster guidelines (as distinct from black hat approaches).

Win-win: The concept that both parties can gain from reaching an agreement or achieving mutual understanding, as proposed by the two-way symmetric model. See zero sum game.

White paper: An informational article or report produced by a cause or company to establish thought leadership and/or promote a product or perspective.




Zero sum game: In game theory, the concept that one side’s gain must be compensated by another side’s loss.