April 20, 2011

Harold Burson's Blog

Public Relations Defined

Posted By Harold Burson

Based on the comments I read on web sites, blogs and the trade media, I am appalled that so many who profess to be public relations or communications specialists are so far off the mark in their attempts to define public relations. Sadly, this applies even to some students at communication colleges specializing in public relations who, ostensibly, are being schooled in the theory underlying public relations as well as the application of public relations tactics and techniques.

Most people – even the scholarly and the sophisticated – fail to recognize the public relations element inherent in every human transaction and communication. The smile on our face, the tone of our voice and the letter we write, how quickly we respond to telephone calls, the typefaces and colors in an advertisement, the body language of the politician seeking our vote.

Even though not offered as a commercial service until the first year of the 20th Century, public relations has, mostly unknowingly, been practiced from the time humans began interacting with one another. But its basic principles have been recognized through the ages. The Ten Commandments were chiseled in stone; the broad boulevards of ancient Rome were built not to accommodate a heavy stream of traffic but to demonstrate the power and grandeur of the Roman Empire; Martin Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to the cathedral door, not tacked on the bulletin board; the horrible Boston massacre was the term used to describe the killing of five patriots at a time when American colonists were seeking independence from England.

Public relations is a process that impacts public opinion. Its objective is to motivate individuals or groups to take a specific action. Like buying a certain brand of toothpaste or automobile; voting for a specific candidate; supporting one side or the other of a political issue; signing up with one cable provider over another. As such, public relations is an applied social science that draws on several social sciences, among them psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, geography. Actually, one could more accurately describe public relations as a maturing applied social science. It is all too slowly developing theories and a body of knowledge, mainly case histories, that can bring about greater discipline, uniformity and predictability in delivering our services.

Everything we do is directed at people’s opinions and attitudes. We can affect opinions and attitudes in only three ways,

  • One, we can seek to change a presently-held opinion or attitude.
  • Two, we can seek to create a new opinion or attitude.
  • Three, we can reinforce an existing opinion.

That’s why we write and try to place articles and stories where they will be read or heard. That’s why we think up outrageous stunts certain to attract media attention. That’s why we’re responsive at times of crisis and so willing to answer reporter’s questions..

And that’s why the media so frequently refer to us as press agents, why they call us flacks. That’s the aspect of public relations to which they are most often exposed – our role as communicators using all manner of media to reach our target audiences with the greatest impact. Recognizing they couldn’t do their jobs without our help, they foster a love/hate relationship with us that has existed for a century.

A major problem for us public relations professionals nowadays is that too many of us believe the communications part of our job is the totality of what we do. The fact is that public relations consists of two major components. The first (and most important) has to do with influencing our client’s or our employer’s behavior. What I am talking about is best summarized in the rapper line "if you’re going to talk-the-talk, you gotta walk-the-walk." I don’t know of a more succinct definition of public relations.

While we commit ourselves to serve and get paid by our employer or client, we who choose careers in public relations also bear an implied obligation to what we call "the public interest." To what’s best for society – which, in the long run, is what’s best for our client or employer. Our function as public relations professionals is to reconcile client goals with the public interest, Part of our job is foreseeing major shifts in public attitudes on issues that affect our employer’s business and continually monitoring whether our employer is delivering on its promises and the public’s expectations.

In summary, here’s a definition for public relations that fully describes my idea of what our jobs should be and entail:

public relations (pub’lic re-la’shuns) n. sing. – An applied social science that influences behavior and policy, when communicated effectively, motivates an individual or group to a specific course of action by creating, changing or reinforcing opinions and attitudes.

It’s worth remembering when you’re writing what seems to you to be an innocuous news release announcing a mundane new product or a promotion to senior vice-president. Even more so when you’re part of the management team that wrestles with policy decisions. In either instance, make your views known!

Harold Burson

April 20, 2011

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