What is Public Relations?

Building long-term positive relationships among individuals and institutions

Lucy van Pelt PR help 5c cartoon
Lucy van Pelt, crabby cynical eight-year old fuss-budget, by cartoonist Charles Schulz in the syndicated comic strip Peanuts. Courtesy of PR professional Sally Saville Hodge, Hodge Media Strategies, Adventures in Communicating.
PUBLIC RELATIONS involves the planned promotion of goods, services and images of organizations intended to create goodwill for a person, place or event. Public relations professionals work to build long-term relationships among individuals and institutions.

There is not one single generally accepted definition of public relations. Instead, there are many ways to define it.

Public relations projects are planned and sustained to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.

Some lingo

Publics are the interested audiences that are important in some way to an organization including current and potential customers, current and potential employees and management, investors, vendors and suppliers, media, government, and opinion leaders. They can be internal within an organization or external from an organization.

Internal publics are people employed by a firm or members of an organization. External publics are people and organizations that are clients doing business with a firm or agency.

A client is a customer who buys and receives goods, services, help or advice from a professional. PR clients include for-profit and not-for-profit organizations as well as individuals.

A non-profit or not-for-profit organization is an agency, institution or organization that is not commercially motivated. It's objective usually is to support a matter of public concern with no interest in profit.

What's it like?

Public relations professionals work with and answer to senior management and deal directly with the critical external and internal publics on which an organization depends.

Much of a professional's career involves mastering and monitoring the Internet as well as traditional media. Writing, speaking and media production skills are of the utmost importance.

Public relations work consists of a variety of activities by individuals and organizations intended to promote a positive relationship or image among customers, employees, investors, suppliers, media, government, opinion leaders, and members of the public.

The three general kinds of PR work are publicity, event management and publication design. Their products are intended to influence public opinion and are designed to promote and protect an individual or organization's image and products. These public relations efforts by a corporation, store, sports team, business, government agency, school, institution, media outlet or an individual are intended to promote goodwill with various publics, including the general public, the community, customers, consumers, fans, followers, employees, management, government officials, stockholders, suppliers, opinion leaders and others.

How is public relations different from advertising?

One simple answer is the advertiser has full control of the message all the way to the audience while the public relations professional has control only until the message is released to media gatekeepers who make decisions about whether to pass it on to the audience and in what form.

Be real and complete

Success for public relations professionals depends largely on reputation – what they do, what they say and what others say about them. The crux of public relations is ethical behavior.

Telling the truth is at the heart of the profession and so-called spin is incompatible with that. Spin is the enemy of public relations professionals. In other words, candid, truthful, complete communication is of the utmost importance.


An acronym you'll want to know is RPIE. It refers to research, planning, implementation and evaluation – the central components of any good PR program. Research involves: Planning assures that project goals are aligned with the broad goals of the affected publics and that objectives are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and timed. A plan lists: Evaluation afterward looks back at the project goals and objectives, checks the resulting data, and informs you of necessary next steps.

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© 2011 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke    email    home page