Recently, Paul Holmes penned a blog post discussing the ambiguity surrounding the definition of public relations. The post examined the need for a 21st century definition of PR. He argued, in my view, correctly, that PR “is the process of building, nurturing and leveraging relationships with a wide range of publics.” But it also struck me as odd that he had to write this post at all. For a field approaching the century mark (if you count forward from World War I and the rise of Edward Bernays), many professionals - even those somewhat familiar with our field - still seem to mistake the purposes, advantages and functions of PR as compared to advertising and, more broadly, marketing.
Having the chance to start my career working in both advertising and PR, I personally felt the distinctions, both in terms of strategic objectives and tactical approaches. While advertising necessitates both compelling messaging and the ability to targeting the right audience through the right medium, on the campaigns in which I participated it was clear the sole purpose was to “sell” - that is, drive sales growth. This is often the case with marketing functions, including advertising and promotions, that are based on paid media.
PR certainly aims to aid businesses in driving their bottom line, but it is not solely - or even, often, primarily - focused on selling. In PR, I’ve seen more emphasis on aiding individuals, companies and organizations in establishing a rapport with key stakeholders through trusted news sources or other channels. Whether organizations are looking to bring awareness to a critical social issue, or public officials are delivering crucial national security or health information, audiences rely on media organizations and other influencers to vet, scrutinize and analyze the information to make certain it is CREDIBLE. This is also the case when companies leverage public relations techniques to share news or insights on new product or service offerings.
This process of assessing credibility is not always perfect in a digital world where fact checking is more and more a relic of the past. But the spread of relevant information, as well as the credibility of both that information and its source, is still at the heart of everything we do in public relations.
While critics sometimes detract from our profession saying we are simply “spin doctors,” I would argue that we play a vital role in helping to deliver credible information to various publics - information that ultimately helps the development of important relationships between key constituencies. Even all these years down the road, it’s useful to revisit what makes PR distinct among marketing functions. To conflate these different disciplines is a mistake.