(Re)claiming a defined role for public relations…but first determining what it isn’t

I’ve recently returned from a “flying” visit to the jewel-like, antebellum city of Savannah, Georgia, the location of the 2007 LERN Leaders’ strategic planning retreat. The mandate of this international, non-profit association is to provide training and consulting to providers of lifelong learning programs. You might ask how someone who spends her working day practising public relations fits into this mix—and you wouldn’t be the first to do so.

My involvement with the Learning Resources Network (LERN) dates back 10 years, when I was first recruited to sit on its newish association education council. LERN was working to grow its primarily “higher education” (i.e., universities and colleges) organizational membership base to include other areas, and it identified (professional and trade) associations as significant providers of continuing education. The accounting association where I work (which a double-digit number of years ago instituted mandatory continuing professional development to maintain the CGA designation’s currency) was identified as a “best practices” example, so I was asked to contribute to the knowledge base and development, specifically to the association sector, but also to LERN overall.

Ten years ago my primary area of responsibility was member communications, including the marketing of our professional development programs to constituents. (Most LERN volunteers are senior-level programmers or marketers.) After chairing the council for several years, I was elected to LERN’s board, where (effective this weekend) I’ve commenced the final leg of a four-year term; this includes a third consecutive year as its secretary/treasurer (working for an association of professional accountants, it’s assumed I have a handle on strategic financial management; happily, LERN’s balance sheet remains resoundingly in the black).

During a segment of the intensive Saturday morning information session, each invited participant shared major initiatives undertaken over the past year. Unlike the others (who focused on things such as re-engineering departments based on key ratios for success, innovative new programs that anticipated or mirrored trends in the field of lifelong education, plus generational programming and marketing initiatives), I detailed examples of our education outreach programs to targeted external publics. At dinner that evening, some of my colleagues asked what my position in public relations entailed. Interestingly, I found it easier to describe what I didn’t do, rather than what I did.

Which brings me to the heart of this post: before determining (and claiming) a more defined “position description” for public relations, I’d appreciate the help of PRC readers in identifying what PR practitioners and consultants don’t do for the most part. (Note: I recognize that strategic communication and public relations management comprises an integrated function, with many of the key players possessing complementary skill sets and developed competencies. That having been said, I’m of the opinion that defined “public relators” probably spend at least 75 per cent of the time “promoting rapport and goodwill between a person, firm or institution and other persons, firms or institutions that constitute defined publics.” We can work on a better definition later.)

* * *

Subsets of Responsibility

I think subsets of the public relations role include media relations, publicity, public affairs, (external) speechwriting/presentations and—in some instances—investor relations. Are there others?

Some areas I go back and forth on regarding primary ownership, include corporate social responsibility and (yes) social media. I’ve never received a satisfactory definition of what corporate communications includes, so I’m leaving it out of both lists at this point.

Not Public Relations

I don’t believe the following qualifies as (pure) public relations (I’ve sketched in definitions):

Advertising (the act or practice of calling public attention to one’s product or services, usually through the media, which often includes sales promotion and definitely involves payment for space and/or time).

Marketing (the art of identifying and then providing a product or a service at a profit, with elements including design, supply, packaging, pricing, manufacturing, advertising, distribution, sales, training, promotion and research).

Employee/internal/organizational communications (a strategic and tactile focus on employee education and engagement, primarily through effective communication and distribution of pertinent information via a variety of channels and techniques; objectives are successfully met when the internal audience benefits, as well as the bottom-line performance and morale of the organization itself).

Customer service (assurance by dedicated employees that what is promised in the advertising and marketing materials and mix is, in fact, delivered, whether it be the quality of the product or service or the responsiveness to queries and complaints).

Website communications (the public, online communication tool that serves as a repository of information and available product and services resources related to an organization, often including interactive options).

* * *

The above list is not all-encompassing so please fill in the gaps (I would particularly enjoy hearing from students on how these roles are being described in academia); however, these are the functions I often see lumped in with a generalized (hence diluted) term of “public relations.” Obviously I disagree, even though I spend a (fluctuating) percentage of work time in many of these areas. (In particular, public relations has an excellent relationship with our marketing department, serving as a partner and a resource, but all the while appreciating who has the main carriage of responsibility for this function.)

I do recognize that each of the detailed communication-management areas, done effectively, can have an immense impact and influence on the reputation and health of an organization (not to mention the bottom line), but I don’t think the majority of them qualify as a “public relations” function. In a nutshell, I want to (re)claim this PR position description and main organizational role from those whose main expertise is found and focused elsewhere.

Appealing to You for Assistance

I invite you to add to (or modify) the above categories or descriptions, challenge and debate relevance, agree with my assessment or convince me to reevaluate my erroneous thinking.

Down the road I’ll work on the “do-do’s.” Then (perhaps) at the 2008 retreat I’ll be able to detail easily and understandably to my LERN colleagues what those of us in public relations actually do, rather than what we don’t.

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11 Replies to “(Re)claiming a defined role for public relations…but first determining what it isn’t

  1. Hi Mercia

    To answer your first question: In my view, the tenets/ assumptions/ principles of public relations depend on the perspective/ approach you have to the field of public relations. There are many different perspectives or views on the purpose of public relations, none of them right or wrong. As I said in Heather’s post ‘What is PR’, some see the purpose of PR as publicity, others see it as persuasion (often manifested in supporting the marketing function), others regard it as building relationships or as building reputation. Some Europeans have a reflective approach to public relations. Some South Africans have a strategic approach to public relations.

    These are not the only approaches to PR–there are many others. You have to decide which of these views on/ approaches to PR YOU support (i.e. what is YOUR worldview for public relations) and then describe the basic assumptions or tenets or principles of that specific worldview/ approach/ perspective. That is, which specific principles characterize that approach (how does it differ from other approaches to PR).

    If you look at my comment in Toni’s November 4 post titled ‘Xenofobia catches up with Italy against Romanians. How could public relations help?’ (http://www.prconversations.com/wp-trackback.php?p=360), you will see that I spelled out there some of the assumptions or tenets of a strategic approach to public relations. For instance:
    • Public relations assists an organization (or institution) to adapt to its societal and stakeholder environment by feeding intelligence with regards to strategic stakeholders (and their concerns or expectations), societal issues and the publics that emerge around the issues, into the organization’s strategy formulation process.
    • Public relations influences organizational leaders to address the reputation risks and other strategic issues identified in this process by aligning organizational goals and strategies to societal/stakeholder values and norms—serving both the organizational and the public interest.
    • Public relations influences organizational leaders to state the organization’s position on, and practice two-way communication with, external and internal stakeholders about issues of strategic importance.
    • Public relations plays a strategic role at the top management/societal/environmental level.
    • Strategic public relations is based on the outside-in approach to strategic management, conducting environmental scanning to gather information on stakeholders, publics and issues from the environment.
    • Public relations practitioners act as boundary spanners in acquiring, processing and interpreting information gathered with regards to consequences for organizational strategies and stakeholders.
    • Public relations is part of the strategic team that adapts the organization to the future.
    • Strategic public relations entails strategic thinking by performing the mirror function of public relations.
    • Public relations makes an input into the organization’s strategy formulation processes — resulting in a strategic contribution mainly towards enterprise strategy, but also assisting corporate, business-unit, and functional strategies in the identification of reputation risks and other strategic issues that need to be communicated about.

    If you look at the book ‘Public Relations as Relationship Management’ by John A Ledingham and Stephen D Bruning (2000), you will find the basic tenets of the relationship management approach to PR.

    If you look in ‘Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management’ edited by James E Grunig (1992), you will find the assumptions/ tenets (also called presuppositions) of an asymmetric approach to PR on page 43 e.g. an internal orientation, a closed system, elitism, conservatism, and central authority. The presuppositions of a symmetric approach to PR you will also find on page 43, e.g. interdependence, open system, moving equilibrium, autonomy, innovation, conflict resolution, etc.

    To comment on your second question: I am not a member of PRSA (but of PRISA in South Africa) and therefore am not informed/ knowledgeable enough to be able to comment on their position.


  2. Hi Mercia,

    Thanks for stopping by to join the conversation. If you look through the archives of our international, collaborative blog (a volunteer effort that is non-partisan), you’ll see that we grapple with the question of “what are the tenets of public relations” quite often. One of the best places for you to research past posts/conversations (beyond this one) is from the category public relations. For example, check out Heather Yaxley’s (more recent) post on What is PR?

    I am a member of the Canadian Public Relations Society, not PRSA, so I don’t feel I’m the right individual to discuss views on what I think about the PRSA’s position on public relations issues. I’d much prefer PRSA members to provide a critique of their national public relations association. If you are a member of PRSA (current or lapsed), you can certainly provide your opinion in this non-judgmental and welcoming forum.


  3. Kindly assit me by answering me this questions
    1. What are the tenets of Public Relations
    2. Discuss in your own view what you think about the PRSA’s position on Public Relations issues.

    I will be very glad if am assisted with the two questions, bye.

  4. Benita,
    I do not disagree with your rationalization and I think that your support versus strategic role that public relations plays in an organization can be very useful, if not for other reasons at least to clarify the difference between an organization that thinks public relations and an organization that thinks marketing. Both thought are fully legitimate and, again, very much depends on the organization. Also, both concepts (public relations and marketing) are sufficiently fuzzy to allow the use of terms such as marketing public relations, or relationship marketing, or internal marketing, or social marketing…and so forth.
    Also your issue about integrated communication is a valid one although I recall having been, in the mid eighties, part of a highly rewarding joint effort by Italy’s Ogilvy and Mather group and my then agency SCR Associati, to develop an ‘orchestration’ approach (this is how O&M then called it), which led:
    a) to pr definitley taking the lead of the various disciplines;
    b) to the formation of a joint venture (sintonia) which was a great business success for the two years it existed (personality issues broke it up);
    c) to the definition of an orchestrated communication model called gorel (governance of relationships)which is today’s most adapted and adopted approach in this country….
    This just to say that marketing is as vulnerable as public relations.
    Finally, I am intrigued over your definition of synthesis and integration which obviously apply to many fields of thought. thank you

  5. I sat down tonight to answer Catherine’s question on why I find building relationships to be a limited view on the purpose of PR. But then I got side-tracked when I read Judy’s post (again) on what PR is and isn’t, and the comments that followed (especially those of Toni and Brian) and couldn’t refrain from first ‘laying an egg’ here (as we say in my language Afrikaans. I think Judy’s issue is a good preamble before venturing into the ‘mother of all questions’ namely what the ultimate purpose of PR is—something that I hope we can still discuss in length.

    With regards to Toni’s reference to Emanuele Invernizzi’s approach (IULM University, Milan) that there are ‘core’ competencies in PR (media relations, public affairs, organisation of corporate events and cerimonials) and ‘extended’ competencies (employee, supplier, marketing, investor and other stakeholder group relations), I see it a little differently — namely that PR has a ‘strategic’ role to play in the organisation as well as a ‘support’ role.

    Potentially, PR can support any other function with its tools. It can organise an event for marketing (e.g. a product launch); or publish the annual report (for finance); or design the website (for information technology). These are activities in pursuit of another function’s goals and here PR is only a support function. My argument is thus that this is not PR, since ideally PR should not be defined by its techniques but by its goals. ‘Whether it is PR’ or ‘when it is PR’ should be determined by which/whose functional goals are being achieved rather than by which techniques are being used. (Do I hear snoring already as a result of this academic discourse? But I shall not be intimidated!!) The question is: Does an event or a newsletter belong only to PR? Is this not the reason why there is such confusion as to what PR is because we are defining it by techniques that are also used by other disciplines/organisational functions?

    Performing such support activities on behalf of other functions is not a problem per se, certainly not when PR also has a clear strategic role in the organisation. But when it doesn’t, it could lead to an identity problem–worsened when PR actually reports to another function because its activities are then most often used to support the goals of the other function (as is often the case with marketing). The result is that after a while top management and everybody else sees PR and marketing as one and the same, because they become indistinguishable in their activities/ techniques. (In other words, PR loses its identity in the pursuit of the other function’s goals).

    I want to be even more provocative and refer to the so-called ‘integrated communication’ concept, which to me looks more like ‘integrated marketing communication’–i.e. PR activities used in support of achieving marketing communication goals. Nothing wrong with this at all, but are we seeing here the integration of the marketing and PR function, or are we seeing the use of PR activities in support of another function’s goals/objectives? Is this PR? Is this integration? If PR assists with the annual report or arranges shareholder functions—is it moving towards integration with finance? I know this is a very ‘previous century’ viewpoint but I have never yet been able to buy into this integration stuff. Maybe some comments will help to remove the bucket from my head and take me into the 21st century?

    Some last clarifications in this regard: I do not hate marketing or any other function. I do not believe in turf wars. It is counterproductive. Actually, I would love to see PR co-operating strategically with other functions such as marketing, e.g. bringing about a service quality culture in the organisation; or with HR, in advising/developing communication strategies/goals for how to prevent the negative effects of downsizing/ restructuring through pro-active management communication; or with information technology, in developing systems/parameters for collecting information on stakeholders through environmental scanning. But is this not ‘synthesis’ (where each retains its own identity, sets its own goals in accordance with its own competencies/unique identity, and works together to achieve organisational goals) rather than ‘integration’ (losing own identity and becoming one with the other?)

  6. I’ve taken the liberty of whipping out some salient points from my last year’s PRINZ conference presentation, which looked at this very issue in some depth. I‘ve only extracted the bits I felt were really on the nail as far as your post and the subsequent discussion is concerned – hope that’s ok, but I really feel very strongly about the whole ‘don’t confuse the tools we use with what we do’ argument! I would be very interested to hear your opinions on my view as I absolutely believe this is what we are about – our shared purpose if you like – and if I am barking up the wrong tree, it is probably best that I am put right sooner rather than later!
    “Public relations is about building relationships. In building relationships we maintain connections between organisations and the people they need to deal with in order to function. Working relationships which have a continuous dialogue so they can be sustained, observed, nurtured and adapted depending on the impact each party has on the other. And this is a complicated process – which is why public relations has been so hard to define.
    And building strong, valuable working relationships is powerful stuff. Powerful enough to invite criticism from those – often external to the discipline – who can see the potential, realised or not, of what we do…..
    …..I would like to suggest that public relations needs to be more ‘self aware’ of its ability to be powerful. To acknowledge that as a discipline, we have the power to change things. Acknowledge that any power can be used well or badly – for the benefit or the detriment of either an exchange or a community relationship.
    So we have to tell people what we do – explain it so that they understand that the tools we use are the things we utilise to facilitate the building of relationships. Relationships that include dialogue, are beneficial to those concerned and reciprocal in their value. And perhaps put their mind at rest that we are not a the centre of attempts to undermine sustainable life on the planet! (This was a reference to some very anti-public relations sentiments I’d quoted)
    There is a great bit in Pirates of the Caribbean when Captain Jack Sparrow, having been marooned on the island with the beautiful Elizabeth, seeks to explain – under the influence of too much rum – what his ship, the Black Pearl, means to him. He tells her that his ship is Freedom, not ropes and sails and keels and a deck – they are the things a ship needs, not what it is.
    So too with public relations. PR is the power of advocacy and dialogue. The power to facilitate and build relationships. The bits it ‘needs’ are the many tools we use to achieve the outcomes we are working towards – positive and reciprocal engagement with our community…….
    …….The great new tools we have allow us to be far more able when we are working on the whole process of building relationships, but remember the new tools are more suited to other cultural communication models like direct storytelling, visual communication, the power of sound, personal recommendation and individual contact – all to be applied with a large dollop of emotional intelligence and organisational patience. They allow us to by-pass gatekeepers running restricted and biased mainstream media and hear what our communities have to say. And, the tools themselves are not The New PR as some suggest, any more than a collection of newspaper cuttings were ‘Old PR’.
    Public relations is about building relationships, it has a vast array of tools at its disposal and needs to be able to operate across the world and across worlds if our job is to be done well…… (I’d been talking about social media, operating online and in virtual worlds like Second Life)
    ……So next time you are at a party and someone asks you what you do, tell them you build relationships so that people can either exchange knowledge, products and services or so that a community is better off. If they ask you where you work, you can tell them that you operate in both the fabric world, where the party is being held at the moment, or in the virtual world, where there is a party scheduled in the Enchanted Forest in about three hours time. And if they ask you who you work for you can tell them quite simply. You work for people, so that people can do better, get on better and better understand each other’s point of view.
    And that’s what I would call a very powerful job indeed”.

  7. Assorted thoughts.


    Product advertising, and service advertising is NOT pr. Both are pretty obvious — Buy this car for $45,678. Here are its specifications. Get your television programs via this satelitte receiver that attaches to the side of your house.

    But “corporate” advertising IS pr, such as Honda Canada’s latest ads that take issue with the government’s program for giving frebates to people who buy Toyotas. Or IAM’s ads about how Menu Foods has terrible quality standards.

    And, ALL advertising relates to the reputation of an organization, so that even though pr is not responsibile for product and service advertising, pr is repsonsbile for final approvals. (along with lots of other approvals from othr people)

    MARKETING — if more people would define Marketing properly (Judy’s definition is a good one) it would be easy for people to see pr and marketing are different. We in pr have very, very little to do with pricing, or with determining margins, or deciding what products get pushed with product advertising.

    For years, I used the phrase “Marketing Support” on my montlhly activities reports, and this covered things like synchronizing all the elements of a news conference at a trade show, or coordinating an event where sales reps were invited to highlevel dinners between our senior executives and the senior executives at our customers.

    CUSTOMER SERVICE — well, we do seem to be the people who talk to the “ON YOUR SIDE!!!” reporters from radio, television and print. I think our pr role is to watch how an organization operates, spot problems before they take place or get into the paper, and then work with fellow senior managers to re-set things so, for instance, the fine print on the agreements is big enough to read.

    WEBSITES– pr is in charge of all the content that relates to reputation, and has approval / oversight on all product and service reatlated content, just as it does with print, television, etc. advertising. “reputation” is a very broad term.

    If a web site opens with Flash, it is our fault and we should be ashamed of ourselves. If the type is unreadable, it is the fault of pr. Computer department technicians do the same thing that the printing department did in the old days — they take our expertise, and put it onto a screen just like printers put it on paper.

    INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS — depends on the definition. Let the drones in the personnel department create a flyer about how to get your money back after you pay the dentist. But as far as pretty much any motivational communications, or messages about the purpose and reputation of the organization… keep it as far as possible from personnel departments. Their job is to cut pay, fire people, discipline and suspend unionized workers, prevent workers, fire people over 50, hire mediocre staff that are not better than their new bosses, and overpay a few senior executives. They are not trusted by anyone… don’t let them near the company reputation.

    Within pr, there needs to be some recognition of specialization. Overseeing corporate advertising is a skill. Creating web content is a strategy and writing job, using different strategy and different writing than used for internal communicaitons, which needs its own editing skills.


  8. Toni, I think you must have been commenting about the same time I was responding to Yaryna, hence the reason I didn’t address your comments, too.

    Hey, I was hoping my (highly subjective) post would stimulate some discussion and help me in *my* task of defining the role in easily understood terms, rather than be “highly problematic.” Sheesh. 😉

    Interesting that the employee communications is also in your “must mix.” As I commented earlier, it’s not that I have no relationship with employees, it’s just that as my association has a relatively small staff (fewer than 100), that relationship does not tend to take up a huge percentage of time. (I’m talking the quantity of the relationship time, rather than the quality.)

    For example, a year ago I was asked to contribute an article to the trade publication, The Journal of Employee Communication Management. As I indicated to its editor, David Murray, at the front end, my direct input into employee communications is limited, but that I could certainly write about our very successful staff education efforts about being brand champions, “Getting Employees Up to Speed on a Brand Revamp.” So, you can see that I don’t dismiss the importance of an effective relationship with colleagues. (I still feel a warm glow of pride when I listen to a staffer’s voicemail message with correct identification…the vast majority really did embrace the cause and understand the ongoing, important role they have to play.)

    I’m happy to *definitely* include investor relations into the subset mix. You are right that the type of organization very much influences where these areas of responsibility reside. For the average company, I was thinking about its annual report, which includes the financial reporting to constituents. (A very valuable public relations tool.)

    It’s interesting that you introduced the “who reports where” area, as I didn’t discuss that at all. More thinking on that, so my appreciation for that spark.

    Thanks for providing the information from the AMA (via David Phillips’ blog) about the “new” definition of marketing. It will be interesting to see if PRSA (and other public relations associations) comment with a different take on the matter.

  9. Yaryna, thanks for weighing in with your valuable thoughts.

    Maybe I wasn’t clear at what I was attempting to do. It’s more a process of elimination at the front-end, in my attempt to build an “elevator speech” in future to define the role of the public relations practitioner (or at least my role).

    If you say you are in advertising and marketing, people have a pretty good sense of what you do, without a lot of explanation. “Public relations” is a lot more murky, with a lot of folks immediately thinking of “spin” and “publicity” as the main reasons it/we exist.

    Regarding employee communications, my own work colleagues are definitely listed as one of my targeted internal publics, both for education purposes, feedback and/or where I direct requests received from members of the public, etc. The percentage of time I spend with/on this internal public is fairly minimal though, compared to the external publics where I devote the majority of my work day.

    Also re: organizational communications and employee/internal communicators…what I was trying to get across is that I don’t think their *main function* is relating to external publics. Yet I find a lot of employee/internal/organizational communicators claiming ownership to PR expertise and knowledge.

    I’ve never put myself forth as having an extensive knowledge of/expertise in organizational communications (member communications is different in many ways, an external-internal public, found all over the map, literally and figuratively), and I admire those in comms who run effective programs, particularly for globally dispersed staff in the hundreds or thousands. But it isn’t “public relations,” so I don’t think it should be claimed as such in the elevator speech.

    Finally, I think *you* should write a post on public relations as “the way to manage communication that one way or another involve the third-party endorsement.” I would be very interested in seeing this theory developed more fully!

  10. Judy,
    yours is a highly problematic post and it is quite a task to respond to your specific questions without addressing the more general issue.
    But let’s give it a go:
    a- I fully agree with Yarina on the employee relationship role. This, fortunately, is also substantiated by organisational dynamics, at least in Europe (over the last ten/fifteen years, this function is increasingly being assigned to public relations).
    b- similarly, I would defintiley argue that investor relations are part of public relations for the same reason: investors, as well as suppliers are stakeholders and public relations implies relationships with stakeholder groups.
    I know very well that factually investor relations often report to finance but this is not a good enough reason not to consider them part of public relations, as much as marketing public relations which normally report to marketing.
    In other words I would not confuse the ‘who one reports to’ with the ‘what is public relations’ questions. This very much depends on sector of activity, specific organizational cultures and more and more often on the individuals involved and their leadership abilities.
    A convincing approach is that of scholar Emanuele Invernizzi (IULM University, Milano) who theorizes that there are core competencies (media relations, public affairs, organization of corporate events and cerimonials) and extended competencies (employee, supplier, marketing, investor and other stakeholder group relations).
    But each organization is different.
    Finally, you might be interested in reading, taken today from David Phillips’ stimulating http://www.leverwealth.org, the most recent definition of marketing by the American Marketing Association which is:
    “Marketing is the activity, conducted by organizations and individuals, that operates through a set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging market offerings that have value for customers, clients, marketers, and society at large.”
    As you see there is no room here for any bi or multi directional, nor for any tendentially symmetric approach.
    The focus is on price and communication plus the lip service to society at large.
    This is also why I suggest that we throughly embrace the relationship oriented approach and let communication be where it belongs: as a very important tool for relationship building.

  11. Judy, a few points where I disagree on the “do not do” side: in my opinion, employees are not much different a public from other constituents, and the tools we use are basically identical, so I don’t see why employee communication should be left out of scope of public relations.

    I tend to look at public relations as the way to manage communication that one way or another involve the third-party endorsement, versus advertising, which is sponsored communication. Although it may seem that social media actually eliminates the third party, I still see bloggers and other content-generating consumers as opinion leaders rather than the general public, and therefore they still serve as the third party that actively engage in endorsing or denouncing whatever we promote or discuss.

    Another point I would like to make is that PR still defines itself in terms of the process, versus the result. When defining our role, we tend to explain in as a set of tools (media, social media, Web sites, speeches, etc.). Even your very nicely put definition of “building rapport…” is really process-oriented. I believe, pragmatic as it may be, that building relationships with publics is a means to an end, although I do have trouble defining the “end.” Would it be too last century to say, reputation?

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