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/


Corporate PR vs Firm PR

Although the general purpose of both firm and corporate PR is the same, the means by which they do so uniquely differ between the two.

In-house pr has the distinct ability to be in constant communication with the company it represents, since it is part of said company.  The ability to quickly communicate makes information sharing much easier, since it can often occur at a face to face basis, instead of over the phone/email as one would do with a contracted firm.  Also, the additional fact that there is always an expert coworker that can assist the PR firm when necessary is an additional benefit.  This also ensures that information that is shared comes directly from the source to the PR workers, instead of it going from source –to third party- to PR firm, as it sometimes may.  Brian Adams from PR Daily explains that this ability is essential in handling a crisis.  “All of this ties together nicely when a crisis strikes. While agencies can be prepared for layoffs, facility closures, or changes in leadership, the in-house communications leader is uniquely positioned when disaster strikes.  If a crisis strikes quickly, it is extremely beneficial to be on-site. [. . .] I believe that the internal and external communications benefited greatly from time-saved and institutional knowledge” (Adams, 2013)

However, hiring a PR firm offers benefits that corporate or in house PR cannot provide.  When a business contracts a PR firm, they are hiring a group of talented individuals that have vast experiences in the field.  This allows for greater collaboration, and the ability to draw on past experiences to see what has worked.  For example, a fictional hospital in a large, urban area has recently come under fire after it was found that a large number of employees have been selling medications from the hospital on the streets.  The hospital’s in house PR firm would have a hefty work load in order to clear this up, and have never been presented this issue before.  With a PR firm, this may not be an issue.  The workers of a PR firm would be able to draw from their experiences and discuss how they have successfully handled similar issues, minimizing the damage.  Patrick Ward, the CEO of PR firm 104 West, said it best when describing this benefit, stating “when you hire an employee, you only get that individual’s personal experience. When you hire an agency, you get the whole team’s perspective and background,” (Ward, 2013)

Since both of these systems have pros and cons, the inevitable question arises: “which one is better?”  Bloggers, PR specialists, and business owners alike have all drawn their own conclusions based on their own standpoint.  From a small business firm point of view, it may be more cost efficient to go with in house Public Relations because of a limited budget.  However, there isn’t much that can top hiring a firm consisting of elite of Public Relations professionals.  PR firm workers are often highly trained in crisis management due to diverse experiences, making them an invaluable asset during times of trouble.

There is no objective way to really analyze the two and deem one superior over the other.  Since each has their own benefits and downfalls, one must make the decision based on their individual interests.  Also, a good compromise to get the best of both worlds (if you have the budget) is to hire both and reap the benefits.


Adams, B. (2013, January 16). 5 major differences between agency and in-house pr. Retrieved from http://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/5_major_differences_between_agency_and_inhouse_PR_13582.aspx

Ward, P. (2013, May 10). Here we go again: 5 reasons hiring a good pr firm is smart business. Retrieved from http://venturebeat.com/2013/05/10/5-reasons-why-hiring-a-good-pr-firm-is-smart-business/