Advertising, Marketing & PR and Human Resources

The many faces of PR

June 26, 2014
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I recently wrote on my GRPR blog about the city of Grand Rapids announcing a new position of communications director. In my post’s headline, I wrote that the city was seeking a PR director.

One of my readers commented that the headline was misleading. I had said “PR Director,” but the MLive article referred officially to a new position of “Communication Director.”

As I pointed out in my blog, and reminded the reader in my response, the actual job description offered by the city cites duties that would include being a "spokesperson, connecting to citizens, and help craft a long-term public relations strategy."

That’s public relations, no matter what city officials want to call the new position.

The truth is that many public relations practitioners do what is clearly understood as public relations, but their actual job titles could include any number of words that may or may not include “public relations.”

The problem is that public relations is such a broad profession. Some mistakenly see it as merely writing news releases. While that is the historical basis of public relations from the early 1900s when practitioners were called “press agents,” the field has evolved significantly since then. Already in the 1920s, early PR pioneers like Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee and Arthur Page were stressing that they didn’t do media relations, but counseled management on their relationships with the public.

The Public Relations Society of America, or PRSA, undertook an effort to reach a consensus definition of PR in 2012. It was an arduous task. The end result is both simple and broad: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

The key is relationships between organizations and their publics. But there are many types of organizations and many types of publics. Witness the many “professional interest sections” of membership in PRSA, and you get a sense of how varied and broad public relations is in practice.

Compound that with the fact that managers from outside the PR profession have their own idea of what PR is and the result is a variety of words and names for job titles and even departments within organizations.

As I explain to students in my PR Fundamentals course, PR can have many names. Just because a job or department is not called “public relations,” it still could very much be just that when you look at the functions and responsibilities. Here’s a partial list of alternate names for public relations, based on context and focus. The focus of the job or department is explained with each title:

  • Corporate relations: reputation management, executive communications
  • Investor relations: stock price, communication with retail and institutional investors
  • Public affairs: public issues management
  • Government relations: monitoring and communication with key elected officials and staff at regulatory agencies
  • Marketing communications: communications associated with promotion and sales of products and services
  • Community relations: efforts to connect to a specific community of people, either defined geographically or by interest, including online communities
  • Public information: often in a government agency or office, involves the obligated provision of information to citizens and constituents

It would be preferable if “public relations” was the standard term. But that will likely never be the case given the variety of work that falls under public relations. It’s best to keep a broad and open mind and understand that often public relations by another name is still PR.

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