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What is Public Relations?

By Mark LaVigne, APR

Public relations is an often-misunderstood term in modern business.

While most business people are generally quite familiar with advertising (the granddaddy of marketing communications) public relations remains relatively misunderstood.

Therefore, many of those responsible for initiating or procuring public relations services, do not fully understand the power of public relations and what it can accomplish for them.

Public relations is the communication that takes place between an organization and its numerous “publics” or audiences, both internal and external. Hence, it is far more than just publicity as in generating ink or airtime for a celebrity or, in the political arena, the “spin doctoring” that’s done to convert bad press into good.

PR is proactive and positive, always trying to avoid a problem before it occurs. Those who do not understand PR, think it is only there to clean up problems.

Public relations uses relationship building as one of its essential tactics. It builds strong teams, often driving those teams to consensus.

There are several disciplines within public relations; including media relations, investor relations, government relations, community relations and employee (internal) relations to name just a few.

As PR has matured (it’s roughly about 75 years old), it has become more integrated with the traditional marketing communications disciplines of advertising and sales promotions. Some profess that it is now becoming the strategic engine for all three disciplines, especially as marketing communications budgets have become more equalized in the past decade.

Although some argue that advertising is dead and PR is rising in its ashes, PR is most effective when it’s integrated with many other marketing communications disciplines. Frankly, a PR-friendly organization will apply its strong PR thinking to every level of the organization, from front door reception to back door shipping and receiving.

Media relations is one of PR’s main disciplines, and arguably is the most difficult. It is the only marketing communications discipline that has to go through a gatekeeper to reach the end audience. The media relations strategy that enables key messaging to pass through the gatekeeper intact is easily applied to other marketing communications disciplines. Finding the “newsworthiness” in a message necessarily removes non-essential information. It focuses organizations intellectually to get down to their “brass tacks.”

Media relations can be very effective when key messaging is also adopted by advertising and sales promotions (like point-of-purchase) and rolled-out in an integrated manner. Key messaging can also be adopted by other divisions of a company, from sales to human resources, and once again, from the reception desk to shipping and receiving.

PR should be the guardian of an organization’s brand, and that concept of brand is not just reserved for a private sector, product-oriented company. The concept of brand, what an organization is, what is it about, what it wants to say, is the organization’s being, and PR is often its protector.

PR is also about truth. Journalists, like police officers, develop an instinct for truth. Non-truthful messaging certainly won’t get through the journalistic gatekeeper very often, and if it does and is found out, an organization is in deep trouble. Truth is an essential tool in the PR’s arsenal. This is why Canada’s PR professional organizations have adopted strict codes of ethics to ensure practitioners continue to guard their organizational brands with integrity.

As the PR profession matures, it increasingly requires a more prominent seat in the organizational engine room. It is emerging as a fundamental profession to help steer organizations through troubled modern waters and is as deserving in respect and placement in that engine room as legal, financial, technology and HR concerns.

PR professional organizations have also doggedly pursued accreditation programs to teach, test and recognize senior practitioners. As the profession matures, so does that process.

PR as a profession is multifaceted, vibrant, and filled with dedicated professionals who are directly involved in many, many facets of our modern society.

Mark LaVigne, APR, is President of the Canadian Public Relations Society (Toronto) and runs a media relations and media coaching firm based in Aurora, Ontario. He can be reached at (905) 841-2017 or

See also:
Public Relations Strategy as a Valuable Fundraising Tool
The power of public relations