What is PR? Reflections on past and previous definitions

                This semester, I took CAP 220, which is the first class I have taken at GVSU that focuses on my major (AD/PR) and my emphasis (PR).  Going in, I felt that I had a decent grasp on what the PR field really entailed.  After my experience in CAP 115, a course that focused on the research side of the industry, I had come to a conclusion that PR was mostly researching successful campaigns and studying the tactics that made it successful.  This is true for the most part, but as of late, I have begun to rework my definition.  A good foundational definition that I have adopted as the backbone of my own is offered by the PRSA, and states that, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics,” (PRSA Staff, 2012).

Probably my biggest shift I have taken in my own personal definition of PR is to focus more on crisis management.  With the explosion of content sharing sites such as Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, it has become easier than ever for individuals to share an issue they have had with a business.  For instance, just recently I saw a photo shared on Facebook by a woman that claims to have been fired from the Allendale, MI McDonalds after she tried reporting a safety hazard.  The photo showed what looked to be black mold in the grease pit.  This photo accumulated many shares and likes from the GVSU student body, along with others, before it was eventually taken down by the user.  It is instances like these; whether they are true or false, can tarnish a company’s image.  It is with this in mind that the definition of what PR workers do has shifted a little.  Yes, research is important in the field, but not as important as handling a micro-crisis or a full blown crisis.

I also had a few misconceptions about PR at the beginning of the year, especially regarding where the line is drawn between advertising and PR.  Robert Wynne, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, breaks down the differences simply by explaining that, “PR agencies, as opposed to advertising agencies, promote companies or individuals via editorial coverage.  This is known as “earned” or “free” media — stories appearing on websites, newspapers, magazines and TV programs — as compared to “paid media” or advertisements,” (Wynne, 2013).  Although this definition is accurate for the most part, I also feel that PR campaigns have to use paid advertisements during certain instances (ex. the BP oil spill commercials).

All in all, PR is an industry that entails a lot of work that stems from different branches of education.  It incorporates critical thinking, communication, research, and creativity.  It isn’t something that is black and white either; it changes face with the times.  Therefore, PR is not something so easily defined, nor will it ever have a concrete definition in my opinion.


PRSA Staff. (2012). Public relations defined: A modern definition for the new era of public relations. Public Relations Defined, Retrieved from http://prdefinition.prsa.org/

Wynne, R. (2013, April 10). What does a public relations agency do?. Forbes Magazine, Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwynne/2013/04/10/what-does-a-public-relations-agency-do/