Public Relations (PR) Meaning, Types, and Practical Examples

What Is Public Relations (PR)?

Public relations (PR) is the set of techniques and strategies related to managing how information about an individual or company is disseminated to the public, and especially the media. Its primary goals are to disseminate important company news or events, maintain a brand image, and put a positive spin on negative events to minimize their fallout. PR may occur in the form of a company press release, news conference, interviews with journalists, social media posting, or other venues.

Every individual or entity operating in the public eye faces the spread of information about them or their practices to the public. While public relations is an industry unto itself, any attempt to portray oneself in a certain way to others can be considered a form of public relations.

Key Takeaways

  • Public relations (PR) refers to managing how others see and feel about a person, brand, or company. 
  • PR for corporations, notably publicly traded companies, focuses on maintaining a positive corporate image while handling media requests and shareholder inquiries. 
  • PR is especially important to defray public or investor outcry following negative news announcements.
  • PR is different from advertising or marketing as it’s often meant to look organic and may not necessarily try to promote a product or service.
  • Public relations can be used to mitigate negative events, though history has shown PR may cause problems to become worse.

Understanding Public Relations (PR)

Although not inherent in the definition, PR is often thought of as "spin," with the goal being to present the person, company, or brand in the best light possible. PR differs from advertising in that PR attempts to represent a person or brand's image in ways that will appear organic, such as generating good press from independent sources and recommending business decisions that will incur public support. Loosely defined until the mid-twentieth century, PR is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States.

PR is essential to any company's success, especially when shares in the company are publicly traded and the value of a share depends on the public's confidence in a company or brand. In addition to handling media requests, information queries, and shareholder concerns, PR personnel are frequently responsible for crafting and maintaining the corporation's image. Occasionally, PR professionals engage in negative PR or willful attempts to discredit a rival brand or company, although such practices are not in keeping with the industry's code of ethics.

Types of Public Relations

Public relations is often divided into different agencies or departments. Each department is specifically suited to handle a specific aspect below:

  • Media relations is the emphasis of forging a strong relationship with public media organizations. A media relations team often works directly with external media by directly delivering them company news, providing validated content sources, and being accessible for public comment on other news stories.
  • Production relations is closely related to the direct operations of a company. This department supports broad marketing plans and is often related to specific, one-time endeavors such as the launch of a new product, a special campaign, or management of a major product change.
  • Investor relations is the oversight of the relationship between the company and its investors. This aspect of public relations handles investor events, oversees the communication of the release of financial reports, and handles the complaints of investors.
  • Internal relations is the public relations branch between a company and its employees. Internal relations pertain to counseling employees, ensuring all workers are satisfied with their working conditions, and mediating issues internally to avoid public disclosure of dissatisfaction.
  • Government relations is the connection between a company and related governing bodies. Some public relations departments want to forge a strong relationship to provide feedback to politicians, sway decision-makers to act in specific ways, and ensure fair treatment of the company's clients.
  • Community relations is public relations focused on brand and reputation within a specific community. The community could be physical (i.e. a specific city) or non-physical (i.e. the dog-owner community). This branch of public relations keys in on the social niche of the community to align itself with its members.
  • Customer relations is the bridge that connects the company and its customers. Public relations often involves handling key relationships, conducting market research, understanding the priorities of its customers, and addressing major concerns.

Many public companies have a separate investor relations (IR) department for dealing with communications to shareholders and analysts.

Public Relations vs. Other Departments

Public relations may overlap or be confused with other similar departments. Here's an overview how PR may or may not relate to marketing, advertising, or communications.

Public Relations vs. Marketing

Marketing is sometimes more squarely focused on driving sales, promoting products or services, and ensuring financial success. Meanwhile, public relations is sometimes more focused on managing the reputation of a company or brand.

Both departments may embark on very similar types of activities. For instance, both may interact with customers to garner feedback. From a more direct marketing lens, this information is used to better understand sales trends, product demands, and ways to generate more sales. From a more direct public relations lens, this information is used to understand customer satisfaction, ensure customers are happy, and make sure any dissatisfaction is managed quickly.

Public Relations vs. Advertising

Advertising is the act of garnering public attention, often through the use of various types of media. A company may want to advertise to promote a product, announce expansion into a new market for a growth company, or reveal pricing changes.

While advertising is the intentional act of trying to be in the spotlight, public relations is a more strategic and thoughtful approach about how a company should be interacting with internal and external stakeholders. Sometimes, it may be in the company's best interest in "lay low" and strengthen its relationship with the public by not being front and center.

Public Relations vs. Communications

Public relations and communications are heavily intertwined. Both involve portraying information outwardly in hopes of creating a brand, image, or relationship that fosters value. Communications may be a separate department within a company solely responsible for written or verbal comments issued internally or externally.

One potential difference between public relations and communications is the exchange of information. Sometimes, public relations is a one-way channel that imposes information in an attempt to have a more favorable public image. Communications may be more rooted in the two-way functionality of receiving feedback and making changes based on information collected. In general, most companies will see overlap between public relations and communications.

There's many titles and roles an individual working in public relation can hold. As of December 2021, individuals working as a publicist in the United States reported average total compensation of $73,164.

Working in Public Relations

A career in public relations has no defined career path. An individual can obtain a degree in a number of different fields such as public relations, communications, marketing, journalism, broadcasting, or political science.

Professionals in PR must have soft skills including strong written and oral communication skills, the ability to solve problems, and the ability to think critically and creatively.

A career in public relations can take many different turns. Some aspects of public relations emphasize digital media; potential careers include content creators, social media managers, or digital artists. Individuals can specialize in an industry (i.e. finance) to emphasize working between a company and its investors. Individuals interested in working for nonprofit organizations may find the branch of fundraising overlaps many aspects of public relations.

Public Relations in Practice

PR also involves managing a company's reputation in the eyes of its customers. In a 2012 PR crisis, restaurant chain Chick-fil-A was forced to issue emergency statements with respect to its stance on same-sex marriage after a Chick-fil-A executive publicly came out against marriage equality. The statement stressed the company's "biblically-based principles" and its belief in treating "every person with honor, dignity, and respect." It was an example of how companies must exercise good PR. Most major companies have a PR department or utilize the services of an outside firm.

A company often has multiple publics to impress. Internally, a company will want to present itself as competently operated to its investors and biggest shareholders, which can involve arranging product demonstrations or other events directed towards shareholders. 

In response to the 2010 oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico, BP issued a public statement outlining its course of action. Some felt the response missed its mark, a stark reminder of how public relations may sometimes make matters worse.

Externally, a company that sells a good or service directly to consumers will want to present a public image that will encourage genuine, lasting brand support, which extends beyond the somewhat knowingly specious goals of advertising. 

This can involve reassuring customers during a crisis, such as when Target (TGT) offered an $18.5 million settlement to its customers following a 2013 credit card hack in an attempt to restore good faith or the promotion of a lifestyle that would make the company's product or service attractive. The company also generates PR to attract investors. In this respect, good PR is especially important for startups or rapidly expanding companies.

What Is the Primary Role of Public Relations?

Public relations often boils down maintaining the image of a company, individual, or brand. Public relations creates media, connects with external media, crafts public opinion, and ensures customers have a positive disposition towards the company's brand.

What Skills Do You Need for PR?

Public relation specialists often have strong communication skills. Their role is to absorb information, process how it may impact a company's image, and how to externally communicate to shift this image. Public relation specialists often forge relationships with many different types of people including key customers, government officials, and external media.

Why Is Public Relations Important?

Customers make decisions for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the relationship they feel they have with a company. If a company has a negative image or is ensnarled in a controversial public issue, a customer may no longer feel as connected with the brand, image, and product. Public relations often manages this brand and ensures customers, employees, investors, and other external parties have a positive disposition to continue involvement with the company.

Who Uses Public Relations?

Public relations is useful for any party that wants to have a positive public imagine. Most often, corporations and publicly traded companies will embark on public relations. A company may have a different public relations team or public relations strategy for specific brands or products. Also, individuals such as celebrities or high net worth individuals may have private public relation teams. These teams are used to maintain a positive public image as well as handle media requests.

Article Sources
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  1. Glassdoor. "Publicist Salaries."

  2. Chick-fil-A. "Chick-fil-A Response to Recent Controversy," Page 1.

  3. BP. "BP Initiates Response to Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill."

  4. State of California Department of Justice. "Attorney General Becerra: Target Settles Record $18.5 Million Credit Card Data Breach Case."

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