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What is PR? A description for today

The definition of PR has developed over the years. Jargon PR’s Non-Executive Chairman, Kevin Taylor, discusses how, and what ‘PR’ means for us now.

One of the earliest definitions of public relations was:

“Public Relations consists of a planned and consistent programme of communications between an organisation and its publics.”

Breaking that definition down a little, today we wouldn’t use ‘publics’ but rather talk about ‘audiences’ or ‘stakeholders’. However, what is meant by the use of the word ‘publics’ in that definition is simple: You should be talking to every person, every group and every organisation that is directly or indirectly important to the success of your own organisation. 

It is about both internal and external communications. It is not simply about the media or analyst community – they are just one of the channels to reach your audience. Your public relations activity also needs to encompass your suppliers and distributors. And, of course, it has to reach your customers or users.

Another important element of that definition are the words ‘planned and consistent’.  Planned doesn’t just mean you have a calendar marked with target dates.  Planned means you have a strategic objective, and you know what you are trying to accomplish by your activity. 

The second element, consistent, is also carefully chosen to convey two important principles.  One is that the programme is not a one-off piece of activity – it is ongoing.  The second is that the communication itself is consistent – a communication feature that today we would describe as delivering a consistent message to the market.

So that old definition still teaches us a lot about the modern-day practice of public relations.  

But today’s public relations practitioners have so many advantages over their predecessors. 

The explosion of online and social media platforms gives today’s practitioners so many more channels for direct and indirect communication.  But while there is greater awareness of the concept of public relations today, it remains a practice that many people find hard to ‘pin down’ and fully understand. And while that old definition remains very relevant, and also manages to say a lot in just a few words, it doesn’t help convey the full process that modern PR practitioners need to master. It doesn’t explain how you arrive at that ‘planned and consistent’ programme.

In my view, modern PR practice can only be delivered if it has the right level of access to the heart of the organisation. It needs a seat at the top table not because of its ego, but because of its purpose. PR needs to understand fully the purpose of an organisation, needs to recognise the keys to its success, and it has to have the strength of voice to influence and direct exactly how that is presented to the organisation’s ‘publics’. 

With that access, the role of the PR team is then:

  • To shape and create the right messages to strategically advance the organisation’s purpose and its interests
  • To choose or build the right platforms to convey those messages to all its target audiences
  • To foster and harness the relationships – both internally and externally – with the people, groups and organisations that can influence the organisation’s success
  • And to monitor, measure and refine the programme of communication against the objectives established at the outset.

This description of  a modern public relations programme is vital to building and maintaining the overall reputation of the organisation. Not just the reputation of its products and services, but also the organisation’s reputation for fairness in its dealings with its staff and suppliers; for its transparency, honesty, integrity, social and environmental purpose.  

This is an approach to PR that is fundamental to the success of the organisation. And funnily enough, as well as building on that old definition of PR, it also builds on another old definition about reputation that remains as relevant today as it was when it first coined. 

“Your reputation is based on what you do, what you say, and what others say about you”

The best way, some would say the only way, to influence the last element of that definition, is to make sure you get the first two parts right. Ensuring the PR team has a voice at the top table, is the only way to give them the opportunity to influence what an organisation does and what it says.

That’s what a modern-day PR programme looks like; it is strategic and central to an organisation’s purpose and its success. And it uses all the tools of a modern digital environment to deliver a programme that matches those old definitions that have stood the test of time. 

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