What Is Public Relations?

Most medium-to-large-sized companies maintain public relations staffs. Even small companies are hiring one- and two-person public relations staffs. When a tiny company can't afford a full-time public relations worker, it's not uncommon for the owner or one of the executives to operate in a dual role and perform public relations tasks along with other responsibilities. If that's not possible, the company might retain the services of a freelance public relations person to coordinate PR programs when needed.

It's only in the past 40 years that companies (large and small) have incorporated public relations concepts into their promotional strategies. Of the 300 top companies in the mid-1930, for example, approximately 1 out of 50 had public relations departments. And now well over 5,000 companies either have public relations departments of their own or retain the services of a PR agency.

Getting People's Attention

Since so many different forms of communication are vying for our attention, getting someone's attention can be a real challenge.

In the early 1900's, for example, the communication process was a lot simpler. Cities were just beginning to grow into enormous industrial centers, the world population was a lot smaller and technological innovations that were to reshape the world were still on the drawing board.

Since technology had not yet taken a foothold, we depended more on other people to meet our economic and social needs. Not so today, however. We live in a vast technological arena where the communication process is so complex; many of us are not quite sure where to turn for information. We're bombarded by sights, sounds, words and pictures. With all this in the foreground, it's easy to make a case for public relations.

Communication Skills

If one word could sum up what public relations work is all about, it is communication, Robert Marston, of Robert Marston & Associates in New York, defines it this way: "Public relations is planned, persuasive communication designed to influence significant publics."

A seasoned public relations worker prides himself on being able to exchange information in clear-cut, easily understandable terms. What separates the pros from the rank amateurs? Simple their ability and skill in communication.

For now, we're using the word communicate in its broadest sense. Later on, we'll fine-tune it to the many different public relations instruments commonly used-news releases, speeches, press conferences, etc.

Occasionally, you'll stumble on a Renaissance-type public relations worker who can communicate effectively on a number of fronts. More typically, public relations workers specialize in a particular area, depending upon their expertise. If you're the outgoing type, you might enjoy spending the major part of your time working with clients or prospective clients and members of the media. Public relations account executives, as they are called, are at their best when they're shaking people's hands and presenting their client's story over lunch or cocktails. Needless to say, to be a first-rate account executive, you have to enjoy and be good at close person-to-person contact. This is how account executives communicate best. Instead of putting their client's or company's story down on paper, they're more effective when they're talking about it.

On the other hand, a public relations writer is often referred to as a desk person, since the better part of the day is spent in the office as opposed to the field. Instead of talking, the communication medium is the written word. This is also true for the public relations speech writer, whose primary function is to research and write speeches for a company's or client's top brass.

And while most public relations workers specialize in a particular facet of PR work, many public relations agency owners have, at different points in their careers, worked in a variety of capacities, from writing releases and speeches and contacting clients to engineering lavish promotional campaigns. Having worked in all the key areas, they are better equipped to delegate authority and assign work to those who are knowledgeable enough to carry it out.

External versus Internal Communication

There are two broad types of communication used by PR workers: external communication and internal communication. Let's start with external communication and go back to the International Widget Company for a moment as it prepares to market its new line of super widgets. When the curtain abruptly came down, company employees were in frenzy, its high-ranking executives could barely get to sleep at night and the overworked public relations staff was not about to take a normal breath until the new widget was introduced to the public in grand style.

The PR staff's primary goal is to reach the public in the most effective manner possible. This is an example of external communication in action. The PR staff strives to "break the product" and get maximum publicity. This might mean anything and everything from securing media exposure (television, radio and print) to planning lavish direct-mail programs to prospective widget users. But once the new product is introduced, the company's PR staff might be involved with the internal communication process. Internal communication refers to public relations functions that are concentrated within the organization itself. A highly functional corporation like International Widget, for example, realizes the importance of creating a comfortable working environment for its employees. Over the past couple of years the company has given its employees a number of fringe benefits, such as a longer afternoon coffee break, a small gymnasium where employees can exercise during their lunch hour or after work and reduced airfare to certain vacation resorts.

All of the programs were introduced by the public relations department and they are only a few of the successful ways of establishing open internal communication between management and employees.

Many large companies distribute internal house organs, or company publications, to their employees. We'll spend more time on house organs later on, but for now it's important to know that it's another internal communication avenue commonly used by PR departments.
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