Personal Relations: Issues of Definition and Distinction

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What is
Public relations?
Johanna Fawkes
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This chapter introduces several definitions of public relations in an attempt to clarify the parameters of the discipline. Distinctions are made between public relations and the fields of marketing and advertising. The evolution of public relations is recounted to give context to the profession. Four models of public relations communication are explained, with historical and current examples.

Most students – and, indeed, practitioners – are familiar with the problem of trying to explain what they are studying or how they are earning their living:
‘Public relations? Is that working with people? You know, like an air hostess, shop assistant?’
‘No, more problem solving, really. And working with the media.’ ‘Oh yes, all those parties.’ ‘Well . . .’
Somewhere along the line words like ‘spin doctors’ are likely to crop up, replacing the more traditional ‘gin-and-tonic’ shorthand for PR. And, of course, everyone has heard of Max Clifford. But, how to explain that he doesn’t call himself a PR practitioner but a publicist – especially if the distinction isn’t all that clear to the speaker?

This chapter aims to cover the issues of definition and distinction of PR from related activities, but a word of warning. These will not solve the dilemma of trying to ‘explain’ public relations in a phrase. The fact remains that it is a complex and hybrid subject; it draws on theories and practices from many different fields, such as management, media, communication and psychology. These links will be explored more fully in this book. Readers are more likely to have an understanding of the subject and an ability to evolve their own definitions when they have reached the end of the book, rather than the end of this chapter.

In 1976, Rex Harlow scoured through 472 definitions of public relations to come up with the following paragraph:4
Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and co-operation between an organisation and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasises the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilise change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.

(Harlow, quoted in Wilcox et al. 2003: 7)
Although this is useful – it contains many key concepts – and saves us ploughing through hundreds of definitions, it describes what PR does rather than what it is. Or, indeed, should be. L’Etang (1996b: 16) described the attempts to define public relations as largely ‘constructed in an attempt to be all things to all people simultaneously’.

Since then, however, there have been many more attempts to capture the essence of public relations.
The 1978 World Assembly of Public Relations Associations in Mexico agreed that:
Public relations is the art and social science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organisation leaders and implementing planned programmes of action which will serve both the organisation’s and the public interest.

(Wilcox et al. 2003: 6)
The words ‘art’ and ‘social science’ are helpful in explaining the continuing tension between understanding PR as a measurable, science-based application of communication tools and the affection of many practitioners for the looser, more creative, aspects of the work....
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