Redefining Public Relations: Streamlining the Scope of PR for the 21st Century

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At the recent 2019 International Public Relations Association (IPRA) board meeting, a new definition of public relations was adopted after many members reportedly said that the old definition was dated and lengthy. Agreeing that it was time to update it, the new definition is aimed to fit three guidelines:

  1. Embrace brevity (the new definition is just 30 words).
  2. Explain what PR professionals do and why.
  3. Illustrate how public relations is performed.

The final approved definition of Public Relations in 2019 reads:

“Public relations is a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organizations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.”

By redefining public relations, it makes clear that PR professionals strive to build relationships on behalf of their clients with the public by providing information to the media for dissemination. Note that there is no exchange of money involved in the relationship building, which is why PR is considered “earned” media coverage.

Earned Media vs. Paid Media

Many people don’t understand the difference between earned media and paid media. In short, earned media is when a publication includes you in their story without payment being made to them, whereas paid media is when you pay a publication to run your ad or editorial piece.

Examples of earned media include: press releases, awards and rankings, guest article opportunities and media pitches that have a story idea the media is interested in sharing with their readership (AKA newsworthy). The information may warrant media coverage for myriad reasons. It may showcase the particular expertise of a firm or agency; it may relay important laws or legal rulings; it may help keep audiences safe; or it may address a topical, timely issue. The content may simply be unusual or unique news, thus making it appeal to audiences. But all public relations efforts result in media coverage from an editorial perspective.

Moreover, unlike an advertisement where a business pays for placement on television, radio, or in print, in public relations, no money is paid to media outlets to print a press release, air a story, or host an interview. These are earned media placements.

Another key difference between paid media (advertisements, advertorials) and earned media (public relations) is that the purchase and sale of advertisements will be facilitated by advertising sales representatives, while press releases, guest articles or media pitches will be handled by editors, reporters, journalists, producers, news anchors and radio or podcast hosts.

Positive PR vs. Crisis Management

Likewise, per the new IPRA definition, public relations is not crisis management. After all, trying to mitigate press coverage of a crisis is very different from building relationships with the public using the media as a conduit. PR professionals seek to build positive relationships for clients through being a proactive partner with the media. By sharing news about your company, PR specialists proactively reach out to the media, instead of reacting to media inquiries following a firm crisis

The decision to redefine public relations by explicitly stating the nature of the work performed by PR professionals was smart and necessary for this ever-evolving industry. There are many affiliate fields, such as advertising and marketing and crisis management, and it’s not uncommon for individuals to assume that all loosely related fields fall under the umbrella of public relations. By contrast, the new definition helps to reinforce the fact that the field of public relations is highly specialized, allowing those who work in the field to hone the very specific skills necessary to help build these vital relationships between firms, organizations and their respective publics.

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