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Defining Public Relations Essay

The question, “What is public relations?” is extremely difficult to define, and has concerned many public relations practitioners and scholars alike. Ask anybody, and more than likely the answers will be different. Public Relations (PR) deals with a broad range of attitudes and methods, therefore, it is not easily defined. Many communication scholars agree that definitions are inherently rhetorical and that the formations of definitions are social processes that shape reality. Since definitions play critical roles both in societal processes and in the minds of those who study and practice public relations, this paper examines several popular definitions of public relations as well as a personal definition derived from a workplace experience. Most important, this paper explains that regardless of how public relations is defined, it is an essential element in the conduct of relationships for a vast variety of organizations in the 21st century.

Research Findings of Public Relations Definitions:

According to Fraser P. Seitel, author of the text, The Practice of Public Relations, public relations is a planned process to influence public opinion, through sound character and proper performance, based on mutually satisfactory tow-way communication.

In 1988, in an attempt to developed a simple definition for public relations, the governing body of the Public Relations Society of America (PSRA) formally adopted a definition of public relations which has become the most accepted and widely used. Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other. The definition implies the essential functions of research, planning, communications dialogue, and evaluation. Key words are “organization” rather than the limiting implication of “company” or “business”, and “publics” which recognizes that all organizations have multiple publics from which they must earn consent and support. (About Public Relations, 2005).

“Perhaps the best known definition of public relations is presented by Grunig and Hunt. In their introductory text, Managing Public Relations, Grunig and Hunt define public relations simply as “management of communication between an organization and its publics.” Likewise, most other public relations definitions also employ the three key terms: manage, organization, and public. Cutlip, Center, and Broom in the text, Effective Public Relations, state that public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and publics on whom its success or failure depends.” This conceptual definition,” they justified in an earlier edition of the text, “unifies the broad range of activities and purposes in public relations practice,” and “serves as a basis for determining what is not part of the public relations function” (Publications Relations Review, 1997).

Personal Definition Relations to Workplace:

In defining public relations and its role, the thing that comes to mind is the workplace, specifically, a non-profit organization, The ABC Science Museum. Public relations is as an essential function within the museum. PR reports directly to the Vice President of Marketing, and considered as a vital part of the marketing team. The PR function is responsible for the museums public reputation. The PR team works hard to develop and maintain good relations with the media. This helps to ensure the media reports information concerning the organization as accurate as possible to all the museum’s publics.

Overall, the PR function creates a climate of mutual understanding between the museum and its publics, which it serves as well as the community as a whole. Additionally, the role of public relations is to assess the perceptions of the museum, and where necessary work to develop a strategy to ensure the perception is the correct one. The marketing team oversees communications, advertising, and public relations. Communications, market research, and advertising all have a role in public relations. It is critical that these areas all work closely together to effectively influence public opinion regarding the museum’s image.

The ABC is an organization that clearly understands how public relations impacts society. Effective public relations should not only promote good will but also contribute to an organization’s stability and long life. Therefore, it is crucial that The ABC supports the entire marketing team in its efforts to earn and maintain goodwill and trust from all its publics. The museum’s ability to remain competitive and highly respected in today’s complicated and rapidly changing business is due largely to its marketing team, specifically, the public relations specialist.


As you can see, defining public relations is extremely difficult. It is clear that there are plenty of definitions and it seems incongruous that PR is still misunderstood. Although the definitions are somewhat different from one another, what is common amongst all of them are key terms such as manage, organizations, communications, and publics. “Managers in any organization need to have a healthy respect for the role of PR in their organization. Good PR can change the course of the future for an organization, it can change opinion and persuade, sometimes immediately” (The Practice of Public Relations, 2004).


Gordon, J. Public Relations Review, (1997). Interpreting definitions of public relations: self-assessment and a symbolic interactionism-based alternative. Public Relations Review, spring 1997 v23 n1 p57 (10) Retrieved on September 16, 2005 from website: http://faculty.jmc.ksu.edu/gordon/symbolic.htm

Public Relations Media electronic. What is PR. Retrieved on September 16, 2005 from website: http://www.publicrelationsmedia.com.au/whatpr.html

Public Relations Society of America, (PRSA). About public relations. Retrieved on September 16, 2005 from PSRA website: http://www.prsa.org/_Resources/Profession/index.asp?ident=prof1

Seitel, F. (2004) the Practice of Public Relations (9th ed.) Prentice Hall, 2004 Upper Saddle River, NJ

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