‘Get a clean shirt’: The challenge to define public relations

by Derek Logan, communications advisor

Classic movie lovers might remember this scene from the 1956 Gregory Peck drama The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

Peck plays a middle-aged Wall Street type looking for a change in his job. A fellow co-worker tells him there is an opening in the public relations department which will pay more salary.

“But I don’t know anything about public relations,” Peck responds.

“Who does?” replies the co-worker. “You get a clean shirt, bathe every day, and that’s all there is to it.”

Sixty years since the film was released, the conversation hasn’t changed much. The same question is asked with the same vague remarks. A popular impression is that public relations campaigns magically manifest during cocktail parties.

Defining public relations hasn’t been something that can be easily solved over drinks. The debate is surprisingly complex. In fact, we recommend setting aside a little time to read up on the debate to define public relations. PR Conversations has posted on their website a 2010 document offering informed global opinions and debate on just what public relations is. It’s a solid read that should help you gain a better insight in what public relations is and isn’t.

But if a quick definition is needed, one could say that public relations is a management role that builds and manages relationships within and outside an organization, using communications as the tool.

It’s all about relationships

Bear in mind the particular kinds of public relations are defined by different groups of people an organization interacts with. Some interactions are intentional, such as customers, clients and staff. Some are less intentional, like the community an organization operates in. Regardless, public relations has to consider all the different possible relationships that develop from these interactions, and develop plans that use a variety of different communication tools to build positive relationships.

Public relations and marketing

Another common misunderstanding is that public relations is the same as marketing. There are reasons for the confusion. Both professionals share many of the same skills and techniques, and some companies merge the two together while others keep them as separate departments. Traditional marketing tends to interact with people as consumers, by communicating the value and benefits of products.

However, the line between marketing and public relations has always been a blurry one. Meanwhile, many businesses realize a person does not have to buy a product or service from them in order for a relationship to exist. Not everyone buys Coke-Cola or Apple products, but these companies have impact far beyond their customers. Therefore, public relations is as necessary as marketing for these organizations.

Obviously, there is more to public relations than just coming to work in a clean shirt.