Today, for your reading pleasure, we are going back to basics. We are going to take an in-depth look at a question that has puzzled people for generations: What is Public Relations?
According to all the textbooks, public relations is defined as long-term, deliberate efforts to maintain (and foster) a mutual understanding between a company (or organisation, or not-for-profit, or individual) and its audiences.
The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) goes even further in their definition. The PRIA states that public relations is actually a management function. A management function designed to: evaluate public opinion and perception; align the policies, procedures, products and services of a company with that public opinion; and then execute a communication program that earns public acceptance and understanding.
While extremely detailed, and very specific, this definition can seem a little complicated and a little daunting.
Philip Lesly had a much simpler definition. Lesly was an award-winning American public relations practitioner (who operated the largest PR firm in world for over 20 years) and author of the Handbook of Public Relations and Communication. He described public relations as all tasks associated with helping an organisation and its public adapt mutually to each other. Lesly’s definition is quite different to some of the more complicated textbook definitions: it describes a mutual adaptation. It highlights the importance of an open dialogue, of two-way communication between audiences and organisations.
But it was not always so.
A Short History of Public Relations
Public relations arrived alongside the rise of mass media in the early 1900s. The exact origins of public relations are difficult to pinpoint; the discipline developed over time and through a series of events.
Some academics have claimed that PR began with the establishment of the Publicity Bureau in Boston in the mid 1900s. Others have claimed that early public relations began as ‘damage control’ efforts. At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers and journalists were prone to stirring up public outcry directed against powerful monopolies and wealthy industrialists. Early PR practitioners attempted to combat this negative press by placing positive stories about their clients.
It is thought that Ivy Lee (a former journalist) was the first person to use press releases. In 1914, he was retained by John D. Rockefeller to represent his company, Standard Oil. Lee fed newspapers media releases (often full of lies and misinformation) explaining away the sins of his apparently misunderstood clients. Lee became so adept at whitewashing even the worst corporate sins that he earnt the nickname ‘Poison Ivy’, helping PR professionals earn the reputation of being ‘spin doctors’.
Public relations has undergone a process of continued evolution since the turn of the century, and the antics of Poison Ivy. At its inception, public relations was quite simple. It began as a more one-sided love affair, focused on securing favourable publicity for one’s client. It then evolved into Lesly’s two-way process: advising clients on how to bolster their public image, garner public support, and engaging in carefully-crafted conversations with the public.
As the sophistication of the discipline grew, so did the realisation that there were many more audiences than just the general public. There were employees, company investors, shareholders, government departments and local communities. PR practitioners quickly realised that each of these audiences could have equally as much impact on the success of an organisation as the general public. So, separate skills and methodologies were developed to more effectively and efficiently communicate with each audience type.
Public relations practitioners pinpointed which communication skills and methodologies worked with each audience type. They called upon other disciplines and other factors to influence public relations campaigns. Psychological factors such as self-interest, third-party impact, cognitive dissonance and credibility played a big part in early public relations campaigns.
Public Relations Today
Rapid changes in society, combined with huge leaps and bounds in technology and media consumption, have resulted in paradigm-shifting audience segmentation and PR practices.
Only ten or fifteen years ago, PR professionals were mailing media kits and faxing pitches. Today, media kits are online and pitches are tweeted. It’s no longer all about journalists and editors on month-long deadlines. It’s about reaching out to bloggers with unlimited, hour-by-hour deadlines. Press conferences have evolved into Twitter chats, product shots are downloaded from Pinterest, focus groups have been replaced by Facebook friends, and Twitter breaks news stories rather than the six o’clock news.
With the rise of content marketing and the veritable landslide of online media, PR professionals are under pressure. PR professionals can no longer send out a media release or three, make a couple of phone calls and watch the editorial roll in. Increasingly, clients are looking for blog posts and bylines, viral social media campaigns, likes and follows and shares by the thousands. With the familiar cry of ‘Content is King!’ echoing through the communications industry, the traditional custodians of content (PR professionals) must adapt to our new world of technology.
In today’s multi-platform, social-media dominated landscape, content marketing is definitely here to stay. The PR industry needs to ensure that they are not sidelined and retain their content custodian status by taking advantage of the technology that is now available. Content is the bread and butter of the PR professional. Embracing this new technology simply stands the PR profession in good stead. At the end of the day, using earned media, in conjunction with owned media outlets, better supports the attainment of a company’s business objectives.
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