What is PR?


If you’ve ever heard the fable of the five blind men and the elephant you will appreciate the challenge of answering the simple question – what is PR – which I’ve selected for my first post at PR Conversations.

This ancient story relates how each man provides a different description of an elephant based on the personal experience of feeling one part of the animal.  Their conflicting perspectives – is it rough or smooth, solid or flexible, thin or fat, hard or soft – lead the men to argue loudly over who has the most accurate perception of the elephant.

Of course, each opinion is valid as the different descriptions reflect a specific starting point and personal experience.  Isn’t that a lot like trying to explain public relations?  But the individual descriptions, based on isolated impressions of a leg, trunk, tail, tusk or ear, do not explain the entirety of the elephant.  So it is with PR.

Those who encounter PR as journalists naturally believe it predominantly involves media relations.  As such, an ability to write releases and pitch stories is paramount.  Poor practices by press agents and publicists give the impression that all PR is manipulative; full of liars and spin doctors.

If your experience is largely on the basis of helping clients to promote their products and services, you will believe PR is part of marketing – a cost-effective promotional tool focused on generating media coverage above all else.

Similarly, if you are involved with internal communications, financial relations, lobbying or corporate social responsibility activities, you may have a partial viewpoint of the beast.

Should we turn to academia for consensus on the entirety of public relations?  You are likely to find a different focus depending on whether the discipline taught in the journalism or media school or alongside marketing in business faculties.  There are arguments for PR as applied psychology – which may imply it is a social science or is it a liberal arts subject?

Textbooks reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of definitions.  Academic approaches range from the modernist, systems theory models of Grunig and Hunt, to the post-modernist critical perspectives of Holtzhausen, L’Etang or Moloney.  Is PR an ethical guardian nobly protecting the public interest or an invisible persuader, propagandist and evil magician?

Should we look at PR in terms of advocacy, rhetoric or persuasion?  Or communications – but is it one-way or two-way, asymmetric or symmetric?  Direct or mediated?  What about event management – or new media?

Maybe you see PR as building relationships with stakeholders or publics, managing reputation or handling risk, issues and crises?  Is it about implementing at a tactical level or providing strategic counsel?

Do you see PR as a multi-million pound industry, providing exciting and influential career opportunities?  Or are you the creative type, who enjoys coming up with ideas for new campaigns? 

Should PR be open only to those who have gained an undergraduate degree in the discipline – or are post-graduate qualifications and vocational training programmes more appropriate for improving skills and understanding?

Or is this all a waste of time, because you simply need a pleasant personality and knowledge of good wine to schmooze with key influencers?  Do you think PR is more about who you know rather than what you know?

Is this a profession that requires expertise, or is it something that anyone can practice?  Should it be seen as a specialist function within organisations, or is our role to facilitate communications and create corporate advocates at all levels?

Should we seek a seat at the boardroom table – or is it sufficient to have the respect of our chief executives? 

Rather than answering a simple question, I’ve raised many more.  My own opinion is PR is like the elephant.  There are many ways of describing aspects of the profession – and focusing on the individual parts may not bring us any closer to reflecting the entirety.

We need an ability to see the whole and draw together the conflicting opinions to improve our wider understanding of the value of PR – as well as better understanding of PR in society and organisations. 

Rather than finding fault with those who hold a different attitude, or becoming defensive in supporting our own, possibly one-sided, viewpoint, I believe we need to recognise the elephant as it really is.


  1. This issue is a classic, and your brief is very clear. I often speak of “Communication” without any adjectives, but I accept it can be a limited term to include all we do.

    Last week I attend a conference by Justo Villafañe, a Spanish expert, who said that the term “communication” had been exceeded, as it cannot include everything. He says that we have to look for a new name, and he suggested “intangibles management” (“gestión de intangibles” in Spanish).

    I suppose there must be many debates on this issue in US and Europe, but I imagine it must be interesting for you to know that it is an issue here, in the South.

    Regards from Buenos Aires.

  2. Ignacio – thank you. Despite the negatives associated with the term “public relations”, I’m feel it encompasses relationships with publics which goes beyond the idea of communications.

    It is interesting to hear of the discussions in South America – managing the intangibles certainly covers aspects such as human capital, goodwill, reputation, values. But PR also plays a role in enhancing the value of tangible aspects of organisations too. The danger there could be that the discipline is only seen as providing indirect benefits. But definitely an area worthy of discussion – adding another perspective on the elephant.

  3. What an excellent post, Heather! And what an excellent analogy for the field of public relations. It is so true that none of these world-views/ perspectives/ approaches to PR are wrong. Only, some of them are more limited (and therefore more limiting) than others. They are but different sides of the coin. The same coin, that is. Only, our PR coin seems to have more than two sides. Or does it?

    Your post brings us right back to the discussion started on PRC some months ago (but didn’t finish), namely what is the ‘ultimate purpose of PR’? For some answers to this question, we might benefit by looking in academia. Because this is a paradigm question. What is the central unifying paradigm in the field that could tie all these perspectives together? Each paradigm has a core concept. We must look for the core concept that encompasses all (or most) of the different views. We must not focus on the individual views that the 5 blind men had of the elephant. We must try to look at the nature of the beast. Inspired by you, I am going to try and provide a few views of what the whole elephant looks like. After all, I just came back from a hike in the Kruger National Park and this entitles me to an overall view. My overall impression: Do you have ANY idea how BIG this creature is (especially when you are on foot and it is standing only 20 yards away). No wonder I like the elephant analogy for PR so much!

    By the way: There is a lot of confusion about the terms ‘world-view’ and ‘paradigm’ (almost as bad as ‘strategic’). I see the term ‘world-view’ as referring to the attitudes, beliefs, values or views of social groups (i.e. PR practitioners or marketing practitioners or CEOs). If you are one of the zillion PR practitioners saying that your CEO/ top management or the marketing manager/ function doesn’t understand you, it is because you have different world-views for PR.

    Paradigms, to me, are ‘scientific’ world-views — a set of shared basic beliefs about how researchers view that which they study. In this sense, a paradigm is a model or frame of reference that organises researchers’ observations and reasoning, and directs their attention in making measurements (the latter is very important for the discussion on evaluation going on elsewhere in PRC. For if you are still in a one-way PR/communication paradigm, you will only find it necessary to measure ‘communication effects’, and will not even consider measuring ‘reputation’, etc).

    In summary, practitioners have world-views, referring to the way they view a phenomenon (such as PR), but researchers work within paradigms (that is why certain universities teach from a particular perspective, even if they mention alternatives). If you have been a marketing student at NorthWestern in the US, you will swear to it that the role of PR is to support marketing (which is why Kotler’s text books had such tremendous influence on the way in which marketing views PR). If you studied PR at Maryland, you will undoubtedly be a disciple of two-way communication. If you studied PR at the University of Pretoria, you will believe strongly in its strategic role. (Of course, researchers too have personal world-views. And should this clash with the PR paradigm of your university, you will soon have an ulcer. I was offered a very good job at an ‘Ivy League’ university in SA, and accepted it. However, the longer I thought about it, the more I knew that it was not going to work for me. Money isn’t everything. I was not willing to sell my soul. And I am too old to live with permanent conflict. So I never started there).

    With regards to paradigms in PR, a number of important ones immediately come to mind. I see the four US models of PR (Grunig & Hunt, 1984) as both world-views (the views of social groups) and as paradigms (the PR approaches of researchers). They are however also historic stages or eras in the field. First we had ‘publicity’ (some still see media relations as the most important purpose of PR). Then came along ‘public information’ (still the paradigm in which most governments operate, and the era of the house-journal). Distributing publications was the name of the game here. A journalism background with a focus on writing skills sure serves you well here. Even a major in English or the liberal arts will do well (Sound familiar)? This is clearly where the Princeton Review is stuck. The whole conversation with regards to the latter (now floating in virtual space-but we won’t forget it, Toni!) illustrates the tremendous influence that worldviews/ paradigms have on the perception of the kind of PR education needed.

    The third PR model, namely 2-way asymmetrical communication (persuasion) illustrates the view of PR as marketing communication. Very strong in the US, it seems, and not less so in South Africa. What about other English speaking countries like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK? Yes, research is being conducted in this approach—but only so that customers can be persuaded to the organisation’s views. Of course this is important for marketing—how else could a company exist/ survive? But it is NOT the only or most important purpose for PR.

    Some enlightened souls have progressed to the 4th PR model, 2-way symmetrical communication (the legacy of the Grunigs, for which we owe them greatly). Here the conversation has turned to conducting research to identify stakeholders, publics, issues and activists (and not only customers). No longer is the focus on communication effects (how must we package messages, how will it reach the audience, and did they understand and remember it), but TO WHOM must we be speaking, and WHAT should the MESSAGE BE in the first place). Now this is a paradigm shift par excellence—if only it would become the world-view of most practitioners (and their CEOs too).

    What is important to understand, is that the paradigm influences the ‘focus’ of PR. Of course publicity will always be part of PR, but it is not the ONLY purpose. PR will always support marketing (providing that the marketing function survives!), but it is not the MOST important purpose of PR. Two-way symmetrical communication, that became the foundation of the PR relationship paradigm, is today seen by some (enlightened souls) as the ultimate purpose of PR. But it is not the ‘dominant’ paradigm (i.e. not the way most people see it).

    Although it was ‘Made in the USA’, the 4 PR models/ world-views/ paradigms have for centuries described the approaches to PR all over the world. Of course they were not the only approaches—there are many other ways to see PR. To name just a few: there is ‘professionalism’ (versus seeing PR as a subset of something else); there is Pearson’s ‘ethical’ model for PR; there is Simoes ‘conflict’ paradigm (the purpose of PR is to legitimise organisational decisions); there is Cottone’s (and Ursula Stroh’s) application of the chaos paradigm to PR; there are critical perspectives—too many to mention. (If you believe very strongly in any of them, let us hear more about your views).

    Moving to Europe, I want to mention another important paradigm that merits our attention, namely ‘reflection’ (applied to PR by Susanne Holmstrom of Denmark). The Europeans (according to different articles by Van Ruler, Vercic, Butschi & Flodin) do not find a debate about ‘communication’ versus ‘relationships’ relevant. What differentiates PR from other functions in their view, is the concern it brings for broader societal issues – the fact that any problem is approached with a concern for the implications of organisational behaviour towards, and in, the public sphere. This concern is implicit in all PR definitions — whether the field is defined as ‘relationship’ management; ‘communication’ management; ‘image’ management or ‘reputation’ management. Public relations is thus seen to be a strategic process of viewing an organisation from an ‘outside’ perspective—being concerned with issues and values that are considered publicly relevant, pointing to ‘legitimacy’ and ‘public trust’ in the organisation as central concepts of PR in Europe.

    By the way: Speaking of ‘Europe’ is of course a generalisation–there are many other approaches and not all European countries are the same. (One problem is that many articles are in other languages, so English-speaking people don’t understand and therefore don’t know. Please comment if your country, whether inside or outside Europe, has a particular approach to PR). Reflection seems to me to be strong in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, some parts of Eastern Europe maybe—or is it only Slovenia (Dejan Vercic)? How strong in Italy, Toni? What about Portugal, Joao? And Enric, what is the situation in Spain? Anywhere else?

    Anyway, we are talking here about the merits of a particular approach, wherever it came from. We are searching for the ‘ultimate purpose of PR’. So the question is: Does reflection not present a more encompassing view of the nature of the PR beast? Could this not be a unifying view? Are there any definitions of PR that does not fall within this view? (Please let us know should you find some or know some). Is the reflective paradigm not a more unique contribution than a ‘communication’ paradigm (because everybody communicates); or a ‘relationship’ paradigm (because everybody builds relationships). Is this not a contribution that will earn some respect from top management or other functions?

    Sorry, Toni—this was way too long. I might have taken up all your virtual space! But I found Heather’s post so stimulating that I obviously could not stop. Even now I have to take a firm hold on myself not to drone on.

    Catherine: Finally my response to your past comment on ‘what is the ultimate purpose of public relations’. I hope we can continue this conversation.

    Como esta, Ignacio—a mi, me gusta mucho conocerte. Por favor, escribe otra vez. Ignacio: Can you see ‘intangibles’ as being part of the reflective paradigm? If organisations practise reflection by ‘listening’ to stakeholders and other societal members and considering what they hear; if they adapt their policies and behaviour to societal values, expectations, norms and standards; and communicate truthfully and transparently (without spinning or whitewashing), then the natural outcome is that the organisation is seen to be ‘legitimate,’ a good corporate citizen, socially responsible, which will earn it a good reputation and deserve public trust. What do you think? Or which PR approaches have you been following in Argentina?


  4. The sheer beauty of this post, Heather, is that, at the same time, it provokatively opens and closes what at least some of us have always looked on as a disturbing, possibly purposeless but in any case… a can of worms.
    I am sympathetic to the elephant metaphore, even if I cannot imagine today any profession (or anything else, to be honest, and maybe disrespectful to the generic principles part of the relatively new generic principles/specific applications framework to effective global public relations…) which five, even not so blind, individuals today would not describe at least as differently as Heather did with public relations.
    The legal, medical, accounting, teaching and you-name-it profession have in these last years imploded and disintegrated in such a fragmental way that, if only yesterday we seemed to be amongst the few wondering about out quote real unquote identity, today, and even in this-here discussion, we appear to have more certainties than those of many of my more aware friends from those professions…
    Having said this, may I suggest (to touch on another fable..) that the elephant is also naked?
    In other words….I am much more concerned with how others see h/im, talk about h/im, diffuse their perception of him than what s/he is really (and what does quote really unquote mean?).
    Benita does a thorough, detailed and very useful recap of what we may observe from the perspective of anyone interested enough in the issue to study it.
    I very much like the distinction she makes between worldview and paradigm, and I fully agree with her intelligent suggestion that the reflective approach (reflexive? I don’t know Benita… the two terms are used in different interpretations of possibly the same meaning by different authors…when I am in doubt I use this: reflective/reflexive…an easy way out)is perfectly not only compatible-with but, in my view, an essential component-of that new global framework for the effective practice of public relations which , since the Grunigs’ first and even more recent conceptualizations, has been the principal objective of many efforts to improve, refine, detail, describe ….also confuse… of many of us.
    In a way, Benita, although I agree that the two-way symmetric is not the dominant worldview (wish it was, as for you), it is certainly the dominant paradigm today.
    And this is good news although we must recognize, as the Grunigs’ I know certainly do (never encountered persons of their intellectual standing and reputation so open minded and willing to absorb reasonable and rational suggestions and criticism and to promptly integrate them into their next presentation….), that much work still needs to be done (and fortunately so…) to refine where we have arrived.
    So, Heather, I believe the elephant that I see seems to be very similar to the one both you and Benita and a growing number of researchers, scholars, certainly students see.
    I was truly impressed to learn that many of my students, before beginning their class with me, believed that the two way symmetric model is also dominant in practice -I of course explain to them that it is not so! And this, only because -I found out- just about every other professor in the course mantras the fourth model even when supporting the others in the rest of their teaching. Unfortunately (or maybe not so?) this is often the result of political correctness….maybe institutionalization? and maybe this is a reason why Larissa is so resistant to this term…that, as the true libertarian she is, she is disturbed by the pop star syndrome which accompanies their trips around the campuses all over the world???
    We must be grateful to Heather for having brought us back to basics, so-to-say, to oblige at least some of us to discover we agree on what the elephant looks like. I hope that the next post will elaborate on how and what we should be doing to ensure that our stakeholders (clients, critics, activists, journalists, politicians, public servants etc…but most of all our colleagues) use a similar pair of glasses….

  5. I certainly hope, Toni, that you are right with regards to 2-way symmetrical communication being the dominant PR paradigm, i.e. the scientific worldview from which PR is taught. But I am not convinced that it is. Maybe within those universities that teach PR, especially at the post-graduate level. But what about the ‘PR’ courses taught within journalism schools? Within marketing courses? What about the thousands of (vocational) colleges where most PR people seem to get their training (if they get any at all)?

    And even if 2-way communication is the dominant paradigm, we hardly have reason to rejoice. Because what the whole Princeton Review furore seems to be pointing to, is that a lot of PR people (in the US and possibly elsewhere as well) don’t have tertiary training and even if they do, it is not necessarily in PR. So it is going to take a long time before the world-view too is 2-way communication.

    But let’s look at this positively–maybe these are isolated incidences, maybe it is the older generation, maybe it is different now.

    Also, I don’t think we should close the can of worms even if it is disturbing. We should open it wide and keep it open until we all understand what is going on–namely that it is not necessarily a ‘defragmented’ field, but different sides of the same coin (or different ways to view the elephant). If people internally (PR practitioners) don’t understand what it is all about, then we don’t have a chance that others outside the field ever will.

  6. Well this is interesting. And to push on with the animal analogies, I may end up seeming like a one trick pony on this one, but here’s my ‘Five men and an Elephant: Part II’.

    Once, there was an elephant, and five men trying to discern its shape and form. As they argued and discussed their various perceptions, they failed to realise it had fallen into a great sleep. While it was asleep, it became surrounded by an inner cocoon of new knowledge and an outer shell of skepticism and criticism that obscured both its shape and purpose to the world at large. Some saw it as a large blot on the landscape, while those that could only see bits of it endowed it with – alternatively – deity and devil characteristics, depending on where they were standing. Then something interesting happened. The elephant woke up. While it was asleep in its cocoon, it had become even bigger – so big, it could no longer see its entire reflection in the waters of the river. So it wandered off and started chatting to people about what it could do, how big it was and what it might be called. Some people gave it an entirely new name, while others decided it was safer to just name the bits of it they liked or understood most readily, and some opted to describe some of the many things it could do.

    Sadly for the elephant, our five original protagonists were still huddled around the cocoon and failed to realise that not only had the elephant changed, it had long-since left the building. The evolution of the entire beast had escaped them, so they sat around an old paradigm warming their hands and debating a shell. Those who had witnessed the cocoon had also failed to notice it waking up and lumbering off on its bigger journey so they welded their assumptions to the empty cocoon in perpetuity because this was much more comfortable than having to alter their world-view.

    Meanwhile, our elephant set off on a very long journey, showing bits of itself to the world at large – some of which were recognisable in some places, some of which were not. On its journey, it continually asked people ‘What am I”? “Look – I can do all these things – what do you do”? During his travels, he met lots of other elephants, some of whom had been asleep, some of whom were settling down for a bit of a kip and others who hadn’t yet gone through the same evolutionary process. This didn’t mean that all the elephants were wrong, it just meant they hadn’t all begun the same journey – even though, ultimately, it was one that they were all destined to make. Our elephant also learnt to type (see how versatile it had become) got itself an avatar in Second Life and began to describe itself to younger elephants who were able to understand immediately what it was all about and started to be like that elephant too – simply because they were not hampered by the vision of an old cocoon.

    So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the old joke:

    Q: “What time is it when you find an elephant in your refrigerator?”
    A: “Time to get a new refrigerator”

    Recognising the evolving elephant is what we have to agree on – and then be brave enough to go buy a new refrigerator for it to sit in. We need to acknowledge not what the elephant once was, but what has the elephant has become – along with the current state of other ‘elephant journeys’ around the world.

    And here comes my ‘one trick pony’ line – our evolved public relations elephant is concerned with building relationships that allow publics/stakeholders/organisations/communities (call them what you will – I like people best) to function towards optimum mutual benefit. Once you recognise that as the shape, then the trunk, legs, ears all make perfect sense. This then means that when people see only one part, we can neatly explain that yes, of course, the trunk is a very important part of the creature, but only a part, not the whole.

    Like many of you out there, I have trawled through the hundreds of definitions of public relations, flipped my trunk through the literature, talked to practitioners and academics and groped blindly for the shape of things to come. But the evolved elephant is right there under our noses and has been within a sniff of us all for some time.

    Its purpose is to build relationships, its strategy is how to create, facilitate and maintain those relationships and its tactics provide the detail and functionality required to make them work.

    The reflective practitioner first seeks understanding of all those involved, recommending and undertaking the necessary actions that will ensure that organisations are truly ‘doing’ rather than just ‘saying’. Next comes communication, in the form of dialogue, participation, adjustment – of action and ambiguity where necessary – and further understanding, and finally the actions, that allow the relationships to progress and develop at whatever level has been determined, be that the public good, a commercial transaction, social improvement, democratic interchange and development or the recognition and acknowledgment of change.

    I said it was a big elephant. And in keeping with the discussion on ambiguity elsewhere, it is neither a black nor a white elephant. It is, of course, mostly dressed in grey.

  7. Catherine and Heather: I have already emailed Part 1 and 2 of the (new) elephant fable to my colleagues at different universities in South Africa. Thank you for this wonderful contribution! Now if the Princeton Review rather used this analogy to introduce prospective students to the many facets of PR, they would have earned the respect rather than the ire of (enlightened) educators and practitioners alike.

  8. I have read your post about Public relation and i must tell you that i’ts really interesting.I can see Public relation as a secret tool used in any organization to persuade customers and carry out the programs that will benefit the organization and it’s public.

  9. Hello again, sorry for my delay in answering.

    Intangibles are corporate image, brand, reputation, knowledge and social responsibility. While the brand is a promise that the organization makes to its stakeholders, reputation is the result of its behaviour in its stakeholders’ minds. And here is an example, if I don’t misunderstand, of the concept of reflective paradigm. There is some sort of symmetry between the organizations and the stakeholders, but it is the former who consciously traces a plan to follow a path and reach certain image out there. So the symmetry is not so natural, but provoked by one of the parties involved in the relationship, in order to legitimate itself.

    As Catherine says, first comes listening and then speaking, after understanding the needs of your stakeholders. If the organization answers properly to those needs, it is legitimated in the public sphere before the audiences. And the media (traditional and social media) play an essential role in that legitimation, with their own interests.

    The reflective paradigm seems to be, in my mind, like a mirror where the stakeholders, while looking at the organization, can see themselves and feel identified in their needs, their illusions, their wishes and, why not, their fears, which they share with the organization. If they expect the organization to solve these fears, or even to embrace them, and the organization knows this and behaves coherently, I guess we are in a reflective situation. And even if the PR of a company doesn’t have a strong theoretical background or a terciary degree, he will have to understand this need of reflectiveness if he wants to be successful in his job.

    Am I right? Have I understood your point of view? Am I an idealist? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I don’t pretend to reach the height of the former commenters, but only give another vision. Thanks.

  10. From my point of view,Ignacio, you have understood very well but I I insist, to the point of useless repetion maybe, that the listening-understanding-interpreting-of-stakeholder-expectations phase, if performed before organizational operative decisions are taken, improves the quality of those decisions, hastens the time of their implementation and therefore influences, long before organizational communication, actual organizational behaviour and performance.

  11. Hi Everybody,

    The portuguese perspective:
    I believe there’s still some misunderstanding about the term PR, specially if we are speakig about SMBusiness (and some other bigger…). Some relate it only to media and press releses, other to advertising, some to lobby.

    There is some confusion about what a PR Consultant can make for a company and what is the role of the marketing expert and can both work together with success. People think about cost/benefit (don’t see the difference between ouput and outcome) and don’t understand the importance of build trust bank and long term relationships in order to create confidence and reputation!

    Other issue – there is a problem from my point of view – is how some Schools teach PR: the principles, the tools and the practice.

    Anyway, if we think about Perceptions we can easly understand that a PR professional deals with many targets. His/Her jobe is to advice the Company, The CEO – by designing a strategic communication plan – about how do “talk”, how to communicate with the stakeholders according to his business and objectives.

    Hope this come to be more clear asap.


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