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Defining Public Relations

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Public relations, as it has grown in importance the past few years, has also become more complex and diverse. The examples in this article two constitute only a small portion of the activities and techniques of the public relations professional. Because a good public relations effort is applicable to so many aspects of everyday life, it is nearly impossible to arrive at an all-encompassing definition.

Attempts have been made to define public relations which describe the field to a degree:

  • Public Relations News (November 16, 1981), the international public relations weekly for executives, defined public relations as a broad field involving "a total communications effort"; it must be earned through its performance, not by what it says; should be "preventive" ("it should be used not only to throw communications snowballs but also to help make and shape them according to the types of targets to be hit"); and needs time "to gain public impact, to change people's minds."

  • At the international meeting of public relations practitioners in Mexico City on August 11, 1978, public relations was described as an art and social science which analyzes trends, to predict their effects and to help organization leaders implement programs to serve both the organization's and the public interest.

As the definition from Public Relations News points out, the ultimate quality evaluation for any public relations campaign is the final performance. While the information conveyed through public relations is crucial, the final judge of a campaign's effectiveness is what that distribution of information helps to achieve. Public relations is goal-oriented, and the final test is whether or not it achieves what it sets out to do.

As public relations specialists, we must constantly bear in mind that we communicate our messages to multiple and diverse publics. However, nothing today is carried out in an informational vacuum, and we must assume that at any given time, the world is watching us and listening to what we say.

The messages we communicate must have the good of a society in mind, and that includes promoting products and causes. Public relations can be a force for good-a persuasive force. As such, it has to be employed in the open, with public scrutiny. Public relations requires a degree of acceptance. It's one part of the job to communicate well-the other is to influence the audience to accept the messages and respond according to your design.

Development of The Public Relations Industry

Through growth in both clientele and sophistication, public relations companies are able to anticipate and deal with any press-related contingency that may arise. When public relations began as a profession, specialists dealt essentially with publicity, which was used as a device for marketing, whether it was for themselves or for a product. They scattered their message like buckshot without worrying a great deal about how they were perceived.

Then, as a number of companies went to the public for funds, public relations firms went into the disclosure and corporate image phase. Suddenly, for example, like Washington law firms, one had to know how to deal with the government agencies, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), financial analysts and stockholders. It was a process of looking to see how the corporation was perceived by the public.

Now, public relations is in a third phase-the age of corporate responsibility. It came in the 1960s and 1970s when consumer advocate Ralph Nader touched off an outcry from individual consumers.

The PR Specialist in the Years to Come

The public relations expert in the years to come must be a businessperson first. Without a thorough knowledge of how to perform successfully in business, the practitioner not only will fail to sustain his own business but he will also be unable to understand the needs and goals of his client.

Especially in today's exceedingly complex world, it is in-appropriate and shortsighted to view the public relations specialist's role simply as that of a celebrity's press agent whose job it is to get the client mentioned in somebody's column. That is a far cry from dealing with the varied and multiple complex problems of today's corporation.

Today's professional public relations person must have skills in many facets of life. Life has become so complex that problems are no longer easily placed in separate compartments to be dealt with by individual specialists. This does not mean that in understanding aspects of contemporary psychology, the public relations specialist intends to hang out a shingle as a consulting psychologist. However, he or she must be able to help both clients and the general public better decipher the tons of information which is made public every day.

Word processing instruments, home computers and video machines are primary examples of revolutionary advances in communications which the public relations expert, his client and many publics must understand. Who knows to what educational use today's video game will be put? With summer camps offering entire sessions devoted to computers, today's parents are being forced to catch up with their 10-year-old's breadth of technological skills and knowledge.

With the increasingly older American population, coupled with more leisure time for most adults, the public relations expert must, wearing his sociologist's hat, help people understand and deal with changes in their lives.

The permutations associated with one's choices in television viewing are already mind-boggling. Through the use of cable, a person sitting in his living room in rural Montana can watch a live sporting event from New York's Madison Square Garden! And this same viewer may choose to see a revealing "adult" movie without moving from his living room seat.

With today's miraculous communication advances come complicated choices which all of us must make. Consequently, the well-trained, hard working and skillful public relations specialist should have virtually limitless opportunities throughout the years to come.

The use of television air time as a public relations tool requires careful planning.
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