What Public Relations Is — and What It Is Not

I hear a lot, both in the online and offline environments, terms that confuse the fundamental role of public relations with other similar communications functions.  Terms like “marketing public relations” certainly does not help clear up any of the confusion.

In my mind, to be a good public relations practitioner, you have to understand the fundamentals of what you are doing.  You are not shoveling information down people’s throats, or probing their subconsciousness in an attempt to get them to buy that new Mercedes.  If you are blasting our press releases by the thousands, you are not practicing good public relations.  Really.

My three favorite definitions of public relations come from:

  • Cutlip, Center and Broom (text): “Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.”
  • Webster’s – “The art and science of developing reciprocal understanding and goodwill.”
  • Public Relations News – “Public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization with the public interest and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”

There’s a lot to like in these definitions like “publics upon whom its success of failure depends,” “reciprocal understanding and goodwill,” and I really like the last one that classifies public relations as a management function.

What is common in all of these is the two-way nature of the relationship.  Sure, you might be talking, but you damn sure should be listening as well.  Think about the companies that have depended upon us for the societal license to operate (tobacco companies, chemical companies), that, due to public pressure, have changed the fundamental way that they do business.  So the important part of either online or offline public relations is the reciprocity:  if you are not talking to the your publics — and listening — and responding or acting — you are not doing it right.

P.S. – Just to stir the pot a little, I have listed a group of associated items that public relations, — in its purest definition —  IS NOT.   Feel free to comment early and often.

  • Marketing
  • Lobbying
  • Spin
  • Advertorials
  • Publicity




  1. The definition of PR now “intersects” perfectly with the new conversational tactics of all the items PR is not as listed above. Now marketing and advertising are more conversational – mobile technologies, send in your own ad (Doritos Super Bowl example), Facebook advertorials, viral spin videos, Amazon’s social marketing techniques, etc. So are the other communications genres becoming more like PR? Is the reciprocity merely an exercise in these other fields or is it a genuine conversation?

  2. yeah, it’s a good question. I just saw a similar discussion at Todd Defren’s blog.

    I’ve never been one for definitions. My job has evolved over time. Today, my job is simple – find influential people whose online discussions shape opinion everywhere, and help clients build relationships with them – no matter where they are or what tools they use.

    The skill is adapting to the situation at hand – becoming part of the community you wish to influence.

    (and I just got a blog post idea. AWESOME.)

  3. Thank you for the in-depth discussion regarding what Public Relations is and is not during last night’s lecture. I did attend bootcamp and was familiar with the subject matter from that session alone but it really hit home again after reading the blog and tying it into last night’s discussion.

    I think I have a much better and thorough understanding of the field at hand. When I think of the relationship between a PR professional, the public (or audience) and the companies and organizations dependency and need for good PR, the term “middleman” comes to mind but in a positive light.

    Being in the communications field, reciprocity is key because without it, communication doesn’t really exist. I can’t totally agree with the notion that other communications genres are becoming more like PR because each genre has a certain agenda or focus (which may change/changes)specific to that companies or individuals personal vested interests. Like Marketing, for instance. If someone wants to Market a product they have to consider the product itself, the purpose and use for that product, the target audience they intend to sell the product to (demographics) etc…

    Whereas in public relations, the idea is to not sell but gain the trust of both parties (the company/organization and the public/audience)and help both parties come to a consensus and mutual understanding and keeping the lines of communication open. The public/audience’s age, race, gender, income, religion…demographics does not matter because the public has one face (general) and not many in PR.

  4. This is a very timely discussion for me, as I am currently struggling with this very issue at my job.

    We are having a fundamental communications problem with our members. In our quest to improve our online communications and web content, we have yet to reach out to our membership to find out what THEY want from us as their professional organization. We dont know how they’re using the web, what content they are looking for, or have any sense of their needs as our ‘clients.’ We have had several meetings on this topic, and we’re really working to get buy in across the company, but nobody seems to understand that we cant be effective communicators of the VALUE of what we do if we dont understand the needs of our membership.

    This speaks to the two-way process of Public Relations. My department (Communications) gets it…but we’re having a helluva time getting the rest of the company to get it. Its tough for us to do our jobs with this organizational obstacle.

    Great topic. Thanks Mark!

  5. Adriana Gallegos Says: September 11, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I completely agree with Mark on the issue of reciprocity, “if you are not talking to the your publics — and listening — and responding or acting — you are not doing it right.” I think many times pr firms do not listen or research their publics enough because they are so focused on so many other things. Most pr firms love to send out press releases that have no real significance or do not tackle any key issues that affect our daily lives. I think before launching a campaign or a press release it’s important to listen and research what is on people’s mind so that it gets their attention and so reporters don’t get annoyed with us. After all we need those reporters to be on our side.

  6. Reading through the three definitions of PR, the last one by Public Relation News almost seems like a project description – very complete. I seemed to gravitate quickly to the first one (from our text) as I feel it gives us a place in the organization, a purpose and an outcome we are looking for (or that is our goal).

    After disecting these, simply because I took interest in comparing them, I decided to compare the “What PR is not” to the definitions. I had been told my second year in college that marketing, publicity and advertising were basically the “cousins” to PR. This is more interesting to me after last nights discussion. I now disagree for the most part.

    Yes, most part – as we spoke about yesterday, advertising does fall under the PR umbrella. I agree with that. I also agree with the fact that publicity does not. The one that gets me, is marketing. I do think that it could be a “cousin” in the sense that PR raises an awareness and I feel many marketing strategies do as well and can even assist PR professionals in doing their job. Correct me if I am wrong, it’s just my opinion – but I do find quite a bit of relation -(more so than publicity, advertorials, etc.)especially now with things like the Doritos commercial…both intertwined.

  7. https://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/item.aspx?type=blog&ak=55460184.blog

    Interesting – in the end is it advertising, marketing, “distressed sales” (as the article puts it), publicity, an assortment?

  8. Thira Sannikorn Says: September 11, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    I totally agree with the of developing reciprocal understanding and building goodwill for PR definition. From my own experience (working in the department of Marketing Communication at Sheraton Hotel), press release doesn’t mean anything if we don’t build good relation with press companies. They don’t really care what you are going to present, but they do care what they can get in return. It means that we have to speak up what we want and listen to what they need too. Also, I knew that PR and marketing are sometimes confusing. To what I have experience, marketing create, target, and sell its product to the audience. However, what I believe is PR maintain that product in order to get return customers or customers’ loyalty. Correct me if I wrong. Therefor, talking, listening, and responding are all what we need for PR.

  9. Thanks, David for posting.

    But when you write your AWESOME POST, you will cite me as the source, right?


  10. Shilpika Das Says: September 11, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Hey Guys,
    Found this interesting web tool that will flag instances of spin in a news story. Check it out: https://tinyurl.com/5dcgor
    Seems very timely especially after last night’s discussion. Comments on the blog posting to follow…

  11. Lindsey Brothers Says: September 12, 2008 at 7:49 am

    What really struck me was the term, “societal license .” I have never heard it put this way and found that it REALLY helps to sum up what PR ultimately achieves.

    This term can relate to each of the PR definitions above… heck, it should be included!

    I wanted to see if this term has been used before and to my surprise its pretty common. When I Googled, “Public Relations and Social License” I found some interesting articles one of which was found in a legal publication.

    “Social License and Environmental Protection: Why Businesses go Beyond Compliance.” This article was published by Law and Social Equality and focused on the importance of simply going going beyond just abiding by the law. They used several very clear examples such as one about Shell, “Shell’s failure to appreciate public concerns regarding the sinking of the Brent Spar, its oil installation in the North Atlantic, led to costly damage to both its international reputation and sales.” One other good point was, “…Nike’s perceived exploitation of labor in developing countries, widely publicized by a variety of NGOs operating internationally, also caused substantial damage to its brand image.” Earning their social licenses did not seem to be at the top of each companies priority list at this time.

    In addition to “social license”, the blog also included, “What is common in all of these is the two-way nature of the relationship. Sure, you might be talking, but you damn sure should be listening as well.” This goes hand in hand with “social license” because in order to earn this, organizations much exercise the simple task of listening (and hopefully responding) if wanting to create or maintain a positive image and mutually beneficial communications arena.

    I never really thought about public relations as a key factor in building a “societal license.” Now I’ve got more ammunition to use when somebody says PR is simply “spin.” Thanks Mark!!

    “Social License and Environmental Protection: Why Businesses go Beyond Compliance” can be found at https://www.catalogue.polytechnique.fr/Files/S10-X18_Gunningham.pdf. This is definitely an interesting piece and looks at PR through a legal perspective. Enjoy!!

  12. Anca Bilegan Says: September 12, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Before I read the first chapters of Cutlip, Center and Broom my opinion on what PR is could have been labeled as the opinion of an outsider: I thought PR is about writing and about establishing relations with the media.
    My first contact with the Public Relations field was about 1 year ago when I started to take classes towards a certificate in Public Relations. I took three classes and all of them were focused on writing, especially Press Releases but also a few other documents. Therefore, I thought PR is about writing.
    I share the view that “to be a good practitioner you have to understand the fundamentals of what you’re doing”. I believe this applies to any profession. You simply can’t do a good job when you don’t know what your attributions are.
    The Intersection of Online/Offline Public Relations course announces itself as the class that will provide in depth understanding of what this profession is about.
    Stating what PR is not eliminates any kind of confusion due to the misemployment of terms and it is a great way to start understanding where PR integrates as a profession.

  13. Becky Richardson Says: September 14, 2008 at 5:25 am

    Mark, after reading your blog–and after thinking about my classmates’ comments, it dawned on me that public relations is a real “relationship.” It is an ongoing and responsive “give and take,” which is “mutually beneficial.” You zeroed in on the fact that listening is vital (there is no “give and take” without listening). And, Mia’s use of the term “trust” struck me. Effectiveness is lost without trust.

    Having only done PR at a non-profit, this makes perfect sense to me. But, trying to understand how agencies (“firms”), corporations, lobbyists, etc. practice PR was not as easy for me to get my head around. Would it be correct to say that, the functions may vary but the basic principles stay the same?

    Your blog post and the discussions that follow provide clarity. Thanks to all.

    (Shilpika’s article was great–with “Spinoculars,” it is abundantly clear that “spin” is not PR!)

  14. I agree with Mark’s point; the key to effective public relations, online or offline, is the reciprocity. To be successful in any communication that is meant to persuade, it is important to talk, listen, and respond/act to what you hear from the audience. Without knowing what the audience wants, or even is turning them away from your message, one cannot effectively construct a persuasive message.

    In regards to what PR is not, as someone who has studied marketing, I can agree that PR is not marketing, directly. But, I believe that PR is a part of marketing (much as I also believe advertising and publicity are a part of marketing). Marketing is meant to persuade the target market to act, in order to turn a profit for the organization. PR has a role in connecting with that audience, building the brand, and supporting the marketing efforts. With how PR is changing, especially with it’s increasing presence online, utilizing the tools that once were only considered “marketing tools”, I believe that PR is beginning to look a lot like marketing. Some may argue that PR is a separate entity of Marketing, some may argue it is the same. More and more, I am believing that marketing is the “umbrella” and PR, advertising, publicity, etc. all fall under it. I’d love to know what others think of this?

  15. In light of the conversation above, I should probably run for cover after I say this, but PR to me has always been a branch of advertising. PR is image maintenance & promotion, and while advertising is never reactive, both PR and advertising are proactive with the aim of keeping a brand moving forward. Just because a company can be good at one and lousy at another doesn’t mean they aren’t interrelated.

  16. Where should I start with this comment? My first comment on the definitions above would be that I completely agree that PR is definitely not any of the ones listed especially “spinning.” I would have to say that I would most identify with the Cutlip, Center and Broom and the PR action definition only because in all of my non-related PR careers, this is exactly what you do, especially in Human Resources and retail. I currently work in retail and the most important aspect of my job is that I have public relations skills not only with my customers but with my vendors, employees, peers and community. I am not only encouraged to develop relationships at all levels, but also maintain them as well. I don’t think that PR is necessarily all about press releases and the media but building relationships, as it states.
    My second comment about the definition of PR is that networking should be added to the definition to give a better idea of what it entails. It truely encompasses networking since you do have to have your 30 second elevator speech ready as well as a working database of contacts both personally and professionally to maintain.
    I recently read the “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell and it basically talks about the rules of the “stickiness factor” with messages, epidemics,trends and the power of context. I couldn’t help but thinking that it was hand in hand with PR, since the bottom line is that the messages and/or relationships need to stick to make an impact. IF they don’t, then nothing is gained from the effort itself. It is a true test to the “so what” factor as well, at least I think.

  17. Emily Howard Says: September 15, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I agree with all 3 of Mark’s definitions of PR and I also agree that there is confusion by people (who aren’t in the industry) between PR, advertising, marketing, etc. In my limited experience, I can’t tell you how many people just throw all of those strands of corporate communications in one basket. I am glad there has been clarification and a simple definition on what PR is and what it is not.

    My comments/question aren’t related so much to the comments thus far, but I thought about it during class and I am interested to hear what people think.

    We stressed the fact that PR is “mutually beneficial” with the media and PR agencies. I agree that it can and should be a mutually beneficial relationship. That being said, during conversations with the media, they tell me they receive hundreds of releases a day via e-mail and then their phone is ringing off the hook from PR professionals pitching their story. They said they are annoyed with it and they feel like the sheer volume of e-mails and phone calls they are getting is out of control. In turn, PR professionals hate making the pitch calls.

    The media is relying more and more on RSS feeds and online resources to get their stories and less and less on direct relationships with PR professionals. It is still mutually beneficial, but will it always be? The industry is changing but will the definition of PR stay the same?

  18. THANK YOU! This is something very few of my young, ‘mover and shaker,’ ambitious PR peers seem to understand. It’s not all about what you can get out of a contact. The same practitioners who gloss over the idea of ‘mutually beneficial’ PR are the same ones who find it so hard to get a call back from a producer or editor. Perhaps it is because our consumer market is so cluttered with noise or because, as Emily noted, it’s so difficult to actually get through to a reporter – not just getting your pitch through, a ‘hello…’ will make one’s day.

    Yet, this has to be one of the more gratifying aspects of PR for any communicator. You are not only able to strategize, write, present, etc., but are also responsible for managing your professional relationships for benefit of the client/organizations. For people like me, who enjoy building and nurturing relationships, it is icing on cake.

  19. I am glad this topic was brought up. I have wondered about the difference of these job functions myself. I have my undergrad in marketing and had a little confusion on the differences, specially between marketing and PR.

    I like the last definition the best because it clarifies the function of PR ,“Public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization with the public interest and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” I feel that PR is the informative aspect of communication and marketing is the sales aspect.

  20. Shilpika Das Says: September 16, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Notes from the blurry eyed…

    I have been looking up Public Relations and its definitions on the internet all week – and the results are mind boggling. Not only are there hundreds of them out there, most of them are conflicting as well. As one PR professional puts it: “the very people charged with shaping an organization’s reputation cannot project a unified picture of themselves.”

    No wonder this profession is so misunderstood.

    Reading the articles, I couldn’t help but wonder if terms like IMC (Integrated Marketing Communications), Marcom (read Marketing Communications for the uninitiated, like me!) or Corporate Affairs are thinly veiled terms for PR. Are they?

    So, you’re probably thinking I missed the whole point of last week’s class… but in my defense – it does get a little blurry!!! Savvy communications (or is it marketing?) professionals, sometimes, make it very difficult for a PR newbie like me to make the distinction.

    One thing I know PR is NOT, and that is spin. Here’s an interesting example of spin with the recent Calif. train wreck.

    “On Friday, an LA commuter train slammed into a freight train, killing 25 people. On Saturday, the PR person for the Metrolink train system said publicly it appeared that the passenger train’s engineer was at fault for the crash. On Sunday, her bosses issued a statement saying her pronouncement was “premature.” On Monday, she resigned.”

    Read the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/6xpuos

    Hoping to get more clear-sighted…

  21. Heather Lovett Says: September 17, 2008 at 9:58 am

    I agree that as a good public relations practitioner we have to understand what we are doing and the differences between marketing, spinning, and the others Mark has listed as what pr is not. In my experience at an agency I have heard people claim that their job is “like marketing” to make it easier for those who don’t quite understand public relations. I wonder if they know the differences themselves.

  22. I would like to touch base on the definition given by PR News and Mark’s comments on PR as “reciprocal understanding and goodwill,” as he put it during class. I think that PR has a lot to do with listening, evaluating, monitoring, and re-implementing; a lot of trial and fail, and a lot of making mistakes to learn from them. I am not sure if the field is misunderstood or if we, PR professionals have made a point to not make ourselves understood. We don’t clarity on whether or not a press release should be just a like a press release on a particular product, because sometimes our products are ideas. In the document PR comes of age, there is a very interesting graphic on the Marketing Mix, and all its components. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times I have gotten some of these components mixed up. But beyond that, how is that PR is an integral part of a Marketing Communications Strategy? I am not quite sure how is that we are not supposed to shovel down our audience throats our product/idea. I would love to further discuss this idea during further…

  23. I definitely agree with the “reciprocity” point. In fact, I think nowadays in many fields, besides PR, are all begin to emphasize on mutual beneficial relationship and even rely on such relationship to thrive. From my point of view, it’s a crucial concept not only in PR (but especially important in PR) but also a trend that has been applied to several areas.
    I used to work in TV news station being responsible of a lot of communication with PR professionals. We relied on PR practitioners to provide us interesting news pieces while they hoped to get their events published. The different management and approaches among those thousands of PR professionals definitely strongly affected our willingness of maintaining such relationship. The various level of consideration they had for our benefits also majorly influenced the length of our collaboration. With my actual experience, I can obviously experience that reciprocity is what good PR has to take into account.
    By the way, I specifically like the Webster description of PR as as “art”. How PR professionals finish projects with a beautiful touch can help creating a IMC mix masterpiece which is composed with inter-related yet distinguishably amazing art pieces.

  24. Nikiforos Gkrestas Says: September 17, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Definitely, I agree first of all with the reciprocal character of PR function. And is not something that describes PR, we have to generalize a bit at that point. That reciprocity is precisely what defines human communication in a fundamental level. There’s no communication between us, unless we interact each other. There’s even NO message at all if that message is a part of an one-way communication attempt. Message -as the primary material of our communication- has to be interpreted by a receiver in order to exist. The message, in its entity, obtains its entire and real meaning after the contribution and involvement of both senders and receivers. That way, receivers become senders as well etc etc. In other words, the whole procedure requires feedback. Consequently, we could possibly reach a conclusion (as the first rhetoric speakers in the history of mankind, Sophists, would do in an hypothetical speech held in Athens’s Agora) that one-way communication is NO communication at all. Maybe it’s an aphorism, yes. But who could really resist an aphorism??!

    After all, by the time Public Relations is indeed a kind of applied communication, it has to obey that basic rules to function properly (and morally i guess…)

    Finally, i have 2 worries.. First, i’m not sure if it’s a good idea to include the term “Publicity” in the “NO” list. I still believe (without clear evidence and personal experience, i admit it) that Public Relations as a 2-way communication method could serve publicity as well. After all, a company has to communicate its existence at first…

    Second, why the MPS curriculum perpetuates the confusion between PR and Marketing including a course called: “Integrated Marketing Communication”? I wonder…


  25. Great content – I’m following your blog now.

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