Over the years, Public Relations was a controversial concept and brought many paradigms. PR has many definitions. For instance, in 1976, Rex Harlow gathers 472 definitions of PR (Morris & Goldsworthy, 2012) in order to provide a comprehensive definition. Since then, many other definitions appeared which makes Public Relations difficult to asses. In this short section, it will be given some relevant PR definitions, characteristics, and theories, as well as some critiques.
Public Relations is seen as a management function by Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center and Glen M. Broom (2009, cited in Swann, 2010, p.2) saying that PR “is a management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the publics on whom the success and failure depend”. The PR UK membership body, CIPR (Chartered Institue of Public Relations), describes Public Relations closely linked with reputation: “Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics” (CIPR, n.d.). In essence, Public Relations develop and maintain relationships by communicating with stakeholders to solve problems, build trust and take advantages of new opportunities whether the client is an organisation or an individual (Swann, 2010).
Any organisation it is influenced by external environment as well as internal environment. The PR practitioners have to maintain a balance between organisational interest and public interest (Grunig, 2001). These characteristics outline one of the PR theories, and that is Relationships Management Theory. Another PR theory is the System theory which says that any organisation is formed by many subsystems which influence each other, and it is also part of the social system. An open system is an organisation that takes into account the environment (Cutlip, et al., 2006) fostering an open dialogue, or a two-way communication dialogue, as Grunig and Hunt (1984) describe it in Excellence Theory. The two-way symmetrical communication is part of the four model of Public Relations. The other models are: press agentry, public information and two-way asymmetric. Two-way symmetrical communication illustrates an honest and transparent dialogue, where PR practitioners listen to stakeholders in order to meet their needs.
Critical theorists in PR usually advocate that PR practitioners support an organisation to have a privileged position in society, excluding minority voices from the public debate (Edwards, 2009). Some other critiques of PR were highlighted by Morris and Goldsworthy (2008), describing that Public Relations has a negative connotation, many practitioners preferring to name themselves differently, such as account executive, corporate reputation managers, communication strategists and so on. Another critique is that PR is not a proper profession because anyone can practice PR. Also, it usually overlaps with other marketing and communications disciplines (Morris & Goldsworthy, 2008). Moreover, it is argued that PR is not all about reputation because PR practitioners can not control, for instance, product performance. L’Etang (2008) is a well-known critic who identified some other problematic aspects in PR such as: ethical issues, propaganda and manipulation, CSR, legitimacy, the strategic process, public affairs and so on. A definition is given by Morris and Goldsworthy (2008, p. 102) says that “PR is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives. It works primarily through the use of media relations and other forms of third party endorsement”.
The main departments of the Public Relations professions are: Corporate PR, Internal Communication, Media Relations, Business-to-Business, Public Affairs, Corporate Social Responsibility, Investor Relations, Strategic Communication, Issues Management, Crisis Management, Copywriter, Events Management (Fawkes, 2012).
To conclude, Public Relations is a complex concept and this is why in this section was provided only the main characteristics, theories, and critiques. As it can be seen, PR is about reputation, maintaining relationships, planning, communication with all stakeholders and trying to get third party endorsement. How would you define PR? Please let me know in the comments below.
In the next article we will explore more about Internal Communications and its relations with PR.