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    This is a discussion of the public relations field, its various definitions and how to determine which definition fits a business best.

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    How to Define Public Relations


    There are many ways to define the artful science of public relations. This wide ranging discipline also seems to have as wide a variety of definitions as it does definers. Online dictionaries define it, as well as textbooks and organizations from the U.S. Department of Energy to the Public Relations Society of America. The question is why so many definitions? Which one is the best definition for my business? To answer these complex questions one must first look at a few of these definitions and how the functions of the definition serve the definers.

    Definitions of Public Relations and Their Functions

    One definition comes from the freedictionary.com website which describes public relations as, "the art or science of establishing and promoting a favorable relationship with the public (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2011)." American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, however, is not a dictionary in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it is a marketing website. Its definition of public relations appears next to web links which are advertisements for various public relations firms. This definition, therefore, serves as somewhat of an advertising copy aimed at potential clients looking to hire a public relations firm for their business or personal needs.

    On the other hand, The Practice of Public Relations, a college level text book, asserts that "public relations is a planned process to influence public opinion, through sound character and proper performance, based on mutually satisfactory two-way communication (Seitel, 2004)." This definition is of a far more academic nature than the one displayed at freedictionary.com. It is attempting to teach the subject of public relations, therefore it is more specific and descriptive of the public relations discipline than the freedicitonary.com definition.

    Another definition comes from a U.S. department of Energy study which advocates that public relations should be the "active attempt to restore/maintain a sense of community," rather than the commonly accepted practice at the time to use "persuasive communication to obtain a vested non-marketing goal on behalf of a represented client." The study cites the successful community relations program designed by the Standard Oil Company refinery at Sugar Creek, MO, as the case in point (Kruckeberg, 1985).

    Last but not least is the official definition of the Public Relations Society of America which states that "Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics." (PRSA.org, 2012)". This definition is intended to cover a wide range of public relations professionals and consequently has a diverse set of functions. This diversity of function is one of the reasons why there are so many different definitions for public relations.

    The Reasons for the Existence of Different Definitions

    One of the reasons why there are so many different definitions for public relations is the all encompassing nature of the profession. Public relations perform many different functions across a broad range of disciplines and industries. One of these is the advertising function as exemplified on the freedictionary.com website. Another is the academic function as shown in the text book definition. A third is the business use as when the Standard Oil Company refinery at Sugar Creek, MO designed and implemented a successful community relations program. Lastly, there is the professional function where the Public Relations Society of America has to maintain a somewhat standardized definition which covers a broad range of public relations professionals. These divisions of function strongly contribute to the seeming overabundance of definitions.

    Another reason for this diversity of definitions is that public relations professionals are attempting to accurately communicate information through ever changing societal, business and technology norms. For example a medium such as the Internet which once did not exist, and was later not taken seriously is now considered an essential tool in a public relation professional's arsenal. Additionally, some business practices which may have been acceptable before the fall from grace of such corporate giants as Enron and Tyco are probably no longer considered acceptable practice today.

    A third reason for the existence of so many public relations definitions may lie in the fact that it is a relatively young discipline. Its short 105 years of history have all occurred during a time when human societies have been evolving at faster rates than ever before (Bates, 2002). The rapid change of pace during these short years may not have allowed the profession enough time for entrenchment and standardization.


    Ultimately the reasons why a single, universally agreed upon definition of public relations is not available are as numerous and varied as the definitions themselves. The strongest underlying cause for this phenomenon is that the public relations discipline is broad and all encompassing. It touches all other professions as well as the academic world and even governments and individuals. By necessity it is -and has been through its short history- many things to many people through rapidly changing times. The best definition of public relations, therefore, is the combination or condensation of definitions that fits the organization and situation at hand. For my business, a small online company, the best public relations definition is a planned strategy of communication to influence public opinion.


    Bates, D. (2006). "Mini-Me" History : Public Relations from the Dawn of Civilization.
    Retrieved from: http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/MiniMe_HistoryOfPR.pdf

    American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011).
    Retrieved from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/public+relations

    Kruckeberg, D. (1985). Public relations: a re-examination of definition, role, and function based on community relations of the Standard Oil (Indiana) refinery at Sugar Creek, MO. Retrieved from: http://www.osti.gov/energycitations/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=6276317

    PRSA.org (2012). About Public Relations. Retrieved from:

    Seitel, F., (2004). The Practice of Public Relations (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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