PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Underlying concepts of public relations
© 2000 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
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"One cannot choose whether or not to have public relations, one can only choose the degree to which those relations will be managed."      -- Paul Holmes

"Modern public relations did not spring full-grown out of anybody's brain -- it has evolved from earliest times out of the needs of human beings for leadership and integration."      -- Edward L. Bernays

Most people think they know what public relations is. It's so much a part of our everyday life and vocabulary that we tend to take it for granted. In that respect, it's a lot like "communication." Both are terms we hear every day. They're processes we experience and participate in regularly but, because they're so common and so familiar, we don't clarify them in our own minds or in our conversations with others. We assume everyone will know what we're talking about and that we'll know what they mean.

However, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) constantly bemoans the fact that "public relations" is often misused in day-to-day conversations, even by experienced businesspeople and by the news media. Sometimes they define it too narrowly. Sometimes too broadly. And, sometimes they attach undesirable, negative connotations to it.

Even public relations practitioners who are performing public relations for a living and who should, therefore, have a pretty clear idea of what it is often encounter other practitioners whose definitions and interpretations are dramatically different than their own.

Try to define it yourself.

Jot down what you mean by public relations. Then ask a few other people to do the same and compare definitions.

Or, did you describe it in one of the countless other ways it's been defined in the past? Perhaps you came up with a totally new and unique definition. Your exact definition isn't important. The point is simply how disparate and divergent the definitions of public relations are.

Other readings will explore dozens of definitions and discuss how they've changed over the years. They'll also talk about the changing preferences in what to call public relations. This reading focuses on the underlying concept of public relations rather any one specific definition.

Public relations is inherent in living in society.

Edward Bernays, one of the patriarchs of modern public relations, wrote, "The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people. Of course," he added, "the means and methods of accomplishing these ends have changed as society has changed."

And, the introduction to the third edition of The Dartnell Public Relations Handbook, one of the oft-cited bibles of the industry, notes: "Every organization, institution, and individual has public relations whether or not that fact is recognized. As long as there are people, living together in communities, working together in organizations, and forming a society, there will be an intricate web of relationships among them."

In its most basic form, building that intricate web of relationships is what public relations is all about. The fact that human beings live together forces them to think about their interactions and organize their relationships with one another. In a primitive society the relationships are fairly basic and the organization is minimal, but as the society advances and becomes more complex, so do the relationships.

Individuals practice personal public relations.

On an individual level, when you wash your car inside and out before you pick up a date, you're practicing public relations. When you comb your hair and wear a conservative suit instead of cut-offs and a t-shirt for a job interview, you're practicing public relations. When you answer the phone with a sprightly "Hello!" instead of snarling, "Yeah, what do you want?" you're practicing public relations. And, when you decide not to have another beer because you don't want people to think you're a lush, you're practicing public relations. The list goes on and on.

Any time you consciously act in a particular way in order to influence how someone perceives you or thinks about you, you're practicing public relations.

Some people are better at it than others. Some are more comfortable doing it than others. Some are completely honest and self-reflective in how they act; others try to project a false or unreal image of who/what they are.

Of course, you may not call such efforts to relate to other people public relations. -- Most people don't. They're more likely to call it interpersonal relations, interpersonal communication, or winning friends and influencing people. -- What you call it isn't critical as long as you understand that even these rudimentary attempts at enhancing a one-to-one interpersonal relationship with another person are the essence of public relations.

Organizations do public relations on a broader scale.

Organizations have the same basic need to interact and establish relationships with others that individuals do. As described by Todd Hunt and James Grunig in Public Relations Techniques, "Organizations, like people, must communicate with others because they do not exist alone in the world. (They) must use communication to coordinate their behavior with people who affect them and are affected by them."

Their size and complexity, however, generally require them to have somewhat different relationships than individuals. Instead of person-to-person relationships, they rely on a combination of organization-to-individual relationships, organization-to-group relationships, and organization-to-organization relationships.

When a Hy Vee or Kroger grocery store promises "A smile in every aisle." or Wal-Mart hires greeters to welcome shoppers, they're practicing public relations. When Wrigley's Gum sends its stockholders a case of gum as a Christmas present or General Motors offers its employees special discounts on GM cars, they're practicing public relations. When NASA makes photos taken with the Hubble Telescope available on-line or Big Boy Restaurants distribute game schedules for local athletic teams, they're practicing public relations. Other examples include the American Heart Association doing free blood pressure screenings in shopping malls, Better Homes & Gardens magazine establishing a foundation to raise money for the homeless, dairy companies printing photos of missing children on milk cartons, Macy's sponsoring a Thanksgiving parade, and hundreds of different companies sponsoring the Olympics. This list also goes on and on.

So, what is public relations?

A short and handy description of what public relations does was developed by the PRSA in the 1980s. It's not exactly a definition, but it's a good starting point for further study.

The statement was developed by the PRSA Assembly (its governing body) to try to resolve some of the long-running arguments about what public relations is and isn't. PRSA wanted to come up with a single statement that everyone in the organization would accept, but it wasn't easy to do. It took several years of discussion at PRSA's annual meetings before a majority of the members finally agreed, in 1988, that "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."

It's an intentionally broad and virtually all-inclusive statement. It doesn't limit public relations to particular organizations or special types of organization. It doesn't say it's just for businesses. Nor is it just for profit-making enterprises.

According to this statement, public relations is for any and all kinds of organization, from a neighborhood club to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), from a local hospital to the American Cancer Society, from a small business to General Motors, and from a small agency of county government to the United Federation of Planets. The size of the organization is irrelevant.

The organization's motivation is also irrelevant. Whether it's driven by a desire to make money, have fun, or enslave the world doesn't change the fact that it has to relate to and interact with other people, both individually and collectively, in order to succeed.

"Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."      -- The PRSA Assembly

Table of contents
for Online Readings
Interpersonal relations & public relations Practicing Public Relations home page
Duties and responsibilities of public relations practitioners. PR's changing name Assortment of Public Relations Definitions
(pdf - two-page handout)