What Is PR? A Guide to Understanding Public Relations

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Bachelor's in Communication | View all blog posts under Master's in Strategic Communication and Leadership

Whether you call it an art or a science, public relations is a craft that requires undeniable skill, knowledge, and determination from those who choose to work in the industry. This field mixes emotion and logic to succeed, and can be equal parts demanding and satisfying. The field continues to grow, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there will be 22,900 new public relations positions created from 2016 to 2026 — which should provide ample employment opportunities for anyone interested in public relations.

Business people holding speech bubble devoid of text.

You may be wondering, however, what working in this industry is like, or what “public relations” actually means. Even if you’re excited about the prospect of finding a position, you should understand the nuances of working in this field. This guide from Maryville University will define public relations, explain its importance to businesses today, provide examples of both strong and unsuccessful public relations, and outline the steps needed to pursue this career path. Whether you’ve always dreamed of having a job in this industry or are exploring your options, here’s what you need to know.

The Definition of Public Relations

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Essentially, public relations specialists manage an organization’s public image and reputation. They help that organization communicate with their public and work on developing a positive relationship between the two.

Often abbreviated to “PR,” public relations is a distinct discipline, but it does share characteristics with several different specialties, such as marketing, communications, and advertising. Though responsibilities in these fields may be similar, there are certain aspects of public relations that differentiate it and make it a unique industry.

What Do PR Professionals Do?

Public relations professionals try to influence the public’s perception of their client’s brand, reputation, or image. Unlike advertisers, PR professionals don’t pay to promote a positive conversation about their client or organization; they persuade for or earn it. To achieve this goal, they utilize a number of tools at their disposal, including:

  • Posting and engaging on social media
  • Arranging speaking engagements
  • Creating strategies for crisis management
  • Organizing special events
  • Forging business connections and networking
  • Writing and publicizing press releases

Essentially, public relations professionals specialize in carefully crafted communication using emerging strategies and technologies to foster a relationship between an organization and its their public. The exact tactics and methods a PR professional uses will vary depending on the client, their objectives, and their needs. In virtually all instances, though, PR professionals will attempt to maximize their client’s appeal while minimizing the effects of any negative or damaging press.

Public Relations vs. Marketing

Public relations falls under the greater marketing umbrella. Marketing involves promoting a positive image of products, services, and organizations to consumers. While this is similar to PR, marketing strives to fill customers’ needs, ensure a product or service satisfies them, and drive sales. The focus of public relations, on the other hand, is to foster a relationship between the public and an organization. PR specialists can help marketers with their efforts, as positive customer relationships can indirectly help boost sales and satisfy a target market.

Public Relations vs. Advertising

Another subset of marketing, advertising is a field that often overlaps with PR. Both advertising and public relations work to accomplish marketing goals, albeit in different ways. Advertising communicates directly with customers to promote a product and explain why it’s superior in comparison to a competitor’s services. Public relations involves two-way communication with customers about why the organization itself is worthy of their business. PR can help open up the conversation with customers to assist advertisers in their efforts to sell, allowing these two fields to work in conjunction to meet customers’ needs and increase sales.

What Are the Different Types of PR?

PR is a varied, multidimensional discipline in and of itself. Public relations professionals use a number of different tactics to complete their objectives and maintain a positive public image for their organization. There is overlap between these tactics, and though each serves a different purpose, they can all be used as part of a successful public relations strategy. An experienced, knowledgeable PR professional will utilize all or a combination of them when needed.

Some of the most prominent types of PR include:

Community Relations

Community relations involves improving an organization’s image with the local or regional community. Often, businesses will engage with the community directly through events, charity work, or getting involved with a local project. This helps promote the organization’s presence within the community and establishes a relationship with members of that community.

For local or small businesses, community relations is a crucial form of PR. You need to understand how to best interact with and serve your community to open up a positive dialogue with them. Larger or national businesses can also benefit from community relations, particularly if they put on or participate in local events. With the accessibility of social media, even small, community-oriented events can become national news.

Media Relations

Media relations concerns your dealings with the press and media. Scheduling press conferences, organizing interviews, and writing press releases are all common examples, but any type of communication with the press falls in the realm of media relations. Depending on the organization, a media relations specialist may be the only one taking on these responsibilities; in other cases, one PR professional may be accountable for all kinds of public relations.

Virtually any and all organizations can benefit from media relations — it’s essentially a form of free advertising. It’s important to remember, however, that you cannot control what the press says about your organization. While you can pitch an idea for media coverage, they may take their own angle on the story and change the narrative you had envisioned. To work in media relations, you must be organized but highly flexible.

Public Affairs

Also called lobbying, this form of PR requires developing a relationship between your organization and the government. You must form and build connections with government officials who care about and may even promote your cause. Whether a change in laws could allow you to sell more products or you want to persuade the public to care about your services, the government can be a powerful PR tool.

Having a congressional representative or politician on your side is almost always beneficial. It can be even more helpful if you work for a large corporation and/or in a heavily regulated industry. Government officials wield a lot of power and can have a huge impact on your organization’s reputation and success.

Corporate Social Involvement

Corporate social involvement is a facet of PR that works to improve your public image as an ethical organization. This can take many forms, such as paying workers and employees fairly, only using ethically sourced labor or materials for your products, or working to promote diversity in ads for your organization.

This form of public relations can benefit anyone, but may be especially helpful if your customer base is young and knowledgeable about current social issues. Corporate social involvement can demonstrate that you understand their pain points and care about addressing them.

Another situation in which this kind of PR is particularly useful is if your direct competitor is being shamed or criticized in the media. For example, in 2017, the ridesharing company Uber came under fire for a litany of problems, including claims of sexual harassment, systematic sexism, and racism. Competitor Lyft seized upon this opportunity to brand itself as an ethical alternative to Uber. Whether or not these claims are true, Lyft was able to change the narrative and impact its sales as a result. If a similar opportunity presents itself to you, capitalizing on it can be a way to influence public perception of your brand.

Crisis Management

When something happens that threatens to damage your company’s identity, it’s time for crisis management. This could be due to a product recall, allegations of employee or customer mistreatment, CEO or employee wrongdoing, or any other kind of scandal. Whatever the cause, damage control can be essential to your organization’s future success.

Crisis management is typically only needed after a major issue comes up, especially if it’s been publicized. While some situations will blow over with time, others might not, which can lead to indefinite or permanent damage to your brand. PR can help spin the issue and change the narrative of the threat, which can help mitigate the crisis. A delay or misstep can lead to even more harm to your organization, so responding quickly and correctly is key in crisis management.

The Importance of Public Relations

Public relations plays a vital role in business today. It’s a key aspect of brand management, can help increase sales, and builds relationships with people who interact with your organization. PR can also allow you to mitigate damage from a crisis or take advantage of unexpected opportunities that can benefit your business. Best of all, PR can maximize the effectiveness of the narrative surrounding your organization. Because of the highly connected, fast-paced nature of modern life, this is invaluable.

While businesses may be able to handle this aspect of marketing on their own, they may not have the necessary experience and knowledge to successfully do it without help. For the biggest impact, organizations should enlist the help of a professional. That can mean they either contract out from an agency or keep someone in-house; each organization has unique needs, careful consideration is necessary to determine what would be best for a given organization before making a decision.

No matter what they decide, modern organizations cannot ignore the importance of public relations. It’s a demanding field, and, to excel, you need to have great communication skills, be able to think strategically, and understand how to manage the large and complex relationship between the public and an organization. Further, PR that is poorly done might hurt more than it helps.

Public Relations Examples

You’re likely already more familiar with public relations than you may realize. From the stories on national news to trending topics on social media, PR is everywhere. The most prominent examples of PR are typically either wild successes or complete failures, but no matter the outcome, they’re highly memorable.

From attention-grabbing stunts to conversation-starters, PR work can take many different forms. To give you an idea of what public relations professionals do, here are some noteworthy examples of PR work, both good and bad:

Good PR Examples

PR initiatives can influence the conversations that the public has with and about an organization for years, so it’s important to ensure they produce positive results. You can accomplish this with over-the-top antics that will generate discussion, but simple or seemingly irrelevant changes or announcements can also lead to incredibly productive results for an organization.

IHOB

In the summer of 2018, the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) announced it was changing its name to IHOB. For a restaurant chain that is famous for its pancakes and other breakfast items, this name change felt abrupt and unnecessary. Immediately, customers took to social media to discuss why IHOP would make such a sudden change and what the “B” in IHOB could possibly stand for.

Shortly after, the president of IHOP revealed that the name change wasn’t real, but rather a way to help the IHOP brand promote its hamburgers. The “B” stood for “burger,” and the entire announcement was a way to draw attention to its dinner menu. Though IHOP is primarily a breakfast spot, it also serves lunch and dinner, and wanted to create awareness for the other menu items.

Though it was a relatively simple idea, this PR stunt led to tremendous amounts of engagement on social media and generated discussions on several national news outlets. It also created a lasting impression on thousands of people, and ultimately accomplished the goal of bringing attention to its hamburgers and other non-breakfast food items.

Share a Coke

Soft drink company Coca-Cola made a huge impact with its Share a Coke campaign. Beginning in Australia in 2011, the company simply removed its brand name from the label of the bottle and replaced with it “Share a Coke with” and a person’s name. It encouraged customers to find a bottle that had a name with significant meaning on it, then purchase it and share it with their loved ones.

The Share a Coke campaign has been incredibly successful. It’s been rolled out to more than 80 countries and includes an increasingly greater number of names and phrases, including lyrics from popular songs, nicknames, and vacation destinations. Though it originally started out with 250 common names, there are now thousands of different variations.

There are several reasons why this campaign has been so impactful for Coca-Cola. Though it spurs customers to interact with the brand both transactionally and on social media, the campaign also connects with consumers on a personal and even emotional level. By continuing to evolve and add more names to the bottles, Coca-Cola demonstrated its willingness to be attentive to its consumers and update its campaign to be inclusive.

Paving for Pizza

Also in the summer of 2018, the pizza chain Domino’s revealed a new campaign dubbed Paving for Pizza. In an attempt to alleviate its customers’ concerns about how potholes in the road affected pizza delivery, Domino’s created this project to repair these potholes and bumps in the road.

Customers could nominate their towns on the Paving for Pizza website to win a grant from Domino’s that could be spent on pothole repairs. Cities that were awarded this grant received a box of assets — including road signs, stencils for marking the road, and stickers and magnets for the paving equipment — that they could use to repair potholes.

Not only did this campaign lead to a huge discussion on social media, it led to thousands of nominations in all 50 states, and 20 cities received a paving grant. Paving for Pizza was so successful that Domino’s decided to launch a second phase of the campaign; it is now striving to complete paving projects in every state in the U.S. In addition, this campaign has led to positive change in the lives of people who aren’t customers, making it a great example of positive PR.

Bad PR Examples

Of course, PR doesn’t always have the positive impact that organizations hope for. In some cases, the wrong campaign or response to customers can make a bad situation even worse.

Nestlé vs. Greenpeace

In 2010, environmental advocacy group Greenpeace released a YouTube video of an office worker opening a KitKat chocolate bar, only to discover the finger of an orangutan instead. By parodying popular KitKat commercials, Greenpeace wanted to draw attention to the fact that candy conglomerate Nestlé frequently used palm oil in its products — which contributes to the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia that orangutans call home.

As public outrage began to grow, Nestlé responded by asking YouTube to remove the offending video on the grounds of copyright infringement. It also deleted negative comments that users left on its social media pages. When it released an official statement, it claimed the company was already taking steps to move to sustainable palm oil suppliers.

This incident reflects poorly on Nestlé because of its denial of the problem. Rather than facing the situation directly, it chose to ignore it and overlook what its customers were saying. Acknowledging the criticism and communicating about the issue to the public could have led to a much more positive outcome than evading it entirely.

United Airlines’ Passenger Removal

In the spring of 2017, United Airlines asked four passengers to give up their seats to make room for four crewmembers who needed to be on that flight. When no one volunteered, it selected four passengers to be “involuntarily de-boarded.” Three complied willingly, but passenger David Dao refused to leave the plane. This resulted in police officers forcibly and violently dragging him off of the plane. Other passengers recorded the incident, and when uploaded to social media, it went viral.

People immediately began to criticize United Airlines. Its CEO, Oscar Munoz, issued a statement that was met with even more backlash. Instead of giving a sincere and full apology, he seemed to shift the blame onto Dao and avoid taking responsibility for his employees’ actions.

This half-hearted apology led to calls for Munoz’s removal and caused United Airlines’ shares to drop in value shortly after. Though Munoz had no direct control over the incident itself, he did have a role in how it played out after. By not owning up to the mistakes made during the incident, he helped create a PR disaster for the entire organization.

The BP Oil Spill

One of the worst oil spills in history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. This killed 11 workers and led to 87 days of oil and methane gas spilling into the ocean. The company BP was responsible for this rig and was blamed for the incident, as investigations determined that a series of cost-cutting decisions contributed to the severity of the disaster.

If the oil spill wasn’t bad enough, BP’s subsequent PR efforts did nothing to alleviate the damage done to its reputation. In fact, its constant missteps only worsened the situation. A particular tweet from BP’s CEO, in which he claimed he wanted his life back, drew harsh criticism for being insensitive and self-centered.

Instead of focusing on the spill, much of BP’s public relations strategy involved promises of restoring the Gulf to its original state. Its communications with the public lacked compassion for the environment, animals, and people who were affected by the spill. Its insensitivity to that relationship made one of the worst environmental disasters of the modern age even more painful and upsetting.

Becoming a Successful PR Professional

Many people work as public relations specialists with fulfilling careers, but it takes education, experience, and effort to find success as a PR professional. In addition to understanding what PR professionals do, you need to have the right degree, relevant experience, and cultivated skills to pursue a career in this field.

Acquiring the Right Degree

Though the field is growing, competition for PR positions is substantial. A college degree in a relevant field can give you an advantage when searching for public relations positions. The following degrees are especially useful when preparing for a career in public relations:

Each of these majors will teach you skills that are relevant to a PR position, and which can serve as effective additions to your resume. Pursuing an internship or job related to PR while completing your degree can serve as an additional way to bolster your resume, regardless of what you study.

Characteristics of Public Relations Professionals

Because there is no single degree required to enter the field, public relations professionals rely heavily on different qualities and characteristics they bring to their positions. However, certain skills are necessary to do the job of a PR professional effectively:

  • Strong written and oral communication skills
  • Knowledge of sales, advertising, and marketing
  • Creative, critical thinking
  • Ability to conduct thorough research
  • Technological literacy
  • Complex and strategic problem-solving
  • Being service- and solutions-oriented

Keep in mind that the skills needed in your day-to-day job duties can vary depending on your position. Further, these are skills and qualities that can be useful in any career related to PR — such as marketing or journalism — not just as a public relations specialist.

Public Relations Career Paths

Becoming a public relations specialist for an organization or agency isn’t the only career choice you have in PR. If you work in public relations, you’ll likely be able to pursue a career in any area of marketing. However, there are a number of positions that are available specifically to PR professionals:

  • Publicist: Working either for an agency or organization in-house, publicists develop and execute brand strategies, and identify the most effective ways for clients to connect with their customers. Publicists make an average of about $51,000 per year.
  • Content Creator: Content creators and copywriters create written materials, such as press releases or blog posts, for their clients. They work to establish a clear brand identity through the written word. Content creators typically earn about $42,000 annually.
  • Social Media Manager: Social media managers are responsible for maintaining a brand’s image on social media. They interact with the public and create engaging content for an organization or client’s social media pages. Their average salary is roughly $50,000 per year.
  • Financial Communications: Financial communications specialists build relationships between investors and their organization or client, working to improve the financial reputation of their brand. They typically can earn about $77,000 per year in a mid-level position.
  • Spokesperson or Brand Ambassador: Spokespeople are the face of an organization, brand, or product. They speak to the public for the company at press events and are responsible for responding to any criticism. Though it may vary depending on the position, spokespeople make an average of roughly $57,000 per year.

Similar Career Paths

Public relations can be a difficult industry to work in. While some may thrive in that kind of environment, it may not be the right fit for you. If becoming a public relations specialist doesn’t seem like the best career choice, but the general field still interests you, there are a number of viable alternatives to explore:

  • Multimedia or Digital Artist: Multimedia artists create content such as infographics, videos, and images for different visual mediums, including television and video games. These skills can also be relevant when used in a marketing context. Multimedia artists make an average of $70,000 annually.
  • Editor: Editors revise and polish the written work of others. Editing is a flexible and useful position in a number of different contexts, including marketing and creative writing. Editors make about $58,000 each year.
  • Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Manager: An advertising, promotions, or marketing manager plans programs to create interest in a business’s products or services. They can earn over $100,000 annually.
  • Writer: Writers plan and create written content for a variety of mediums. Depending on the position, they may write for advertisements, books, magazines, blogs, or other forms of media. Writers’ pay can fluctuate greatly depending on their position, but they make an average of $61,000 per year.
  • Fundraising Manager: Fundraising managers plan and execute campaigns to collect donations for their client or organization. They may work for an agency or a business in-house. Fundraising managers can earn over $100,000 annually.

Many of these positions share similarities with PR or are highly relevant to related fields such as marketing and advertising. Because of this overlap, you have a great number of different career paths to choose from. And whether you choose a public relations job or a related position, your work in this field can be invaluable to your growth, both professionally and personally.

Recommended Readings
Crisis Communication Tips for PR Professionals

Sources

Adweek, As Domino’s Expands Its Pothole Paving to All 50 States, Here’s How to Bring It to Your Town
Adweek, Domino’s Offers to Fix Potholes in Your Neighborhood So Carry-Out Pizzas Get Home Safely
CNN, IHOP reveals the mystery of IHOb
CNN, Greenpeace, Nestlé in battle over Kit Kat viral
Glassdoor, Publicist Salaries
IHOP, IHOP® CHANGES NAME TO IHOb℠ AND REVEALS THE “B” IS FOR BURGERS
Investopedia, Why the ‘Share a Coke’ Campaign Is So Successful
Maryville University, BS in Marketing Degree Online
Maryville University, Guide to Inclusion and Diversity in Modern Advertising
Maryville University, How to Become a Social Media Manager
Maryville University, Online Bachelor of Arts in Communication
Maryville University, Online Bachelor of Arts in English
Maryville University, Online Bachelor’s in Digital Media
Maryville University, Online Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies
Maryville University, Strategic Communication vs. Emerging Media Strategy
ONET Online, Public Relations Specialists
Payscale, Content Creator Salary
Payscale, Social Media Manager Salary
PR Week, Show me the money
Reuters, BP CEO apologizes
The Coca-Cola Company, How a Campaign Got Its Start Down Under
The Guardian, Is Lyft really the ‘woke’ alternative to Uber?
The Public Relations Society of America, Public Relations Definition
The Telegraph, BP leak the world’s worst accidental oil spill
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Editor
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Multimedia Artists and Animators
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Public Relations and Fundraising Managers
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Public Relations Specialist
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Writers and Authors
ZipRecruiter, Spokesperson Salary