Public Relations

by Debbie Leven

What is PR?

Many people understand PR, or public relations, as being concerned with securing press and media coverage. Often, PR and publicity are used as interchangeable terms. Achieving press and media coverage is certainly part of it, but not all. Fundamentally, PR is about conveying messages, in a planned way, to selected audiences (the people you want to communicate with) to achieve identified objectives.

While press and media relations and communicating to the wider public may be important, an organisation may also need to (and in many cases should) communicate with a number of other audiences, such as staff, suppliers, local interest groups, other business people, investors, donors and membership/governing/representative bodies. PR skills will be used to communicate with these audiences, although the tools and channels may vary. For example, a presentation to a local interest group, and giving members the opportunity to put forward their views, can generate considerable goodwill. Regular and effective communication with staff via newsletters and intranet services can help to ensure they stay informed and feel valued within the organisation.


Public Relations

The planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.

What is publicity?

PR and publicity tend to be used as interchangeable terms. Purists would argue that publicity, particularly when celebrities are involved, is more concerned with generating profile and creating awareness than conveying messages as such.

Any publicity is good publicity – isn’t that right?

A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.

Joseph Hall

The answer is a categorical ‘no’. Unfortunately, many organisations have found this to their cost. Consumers and the general public have long memories, so bad publicity or PR can damage the reputation of an organisation beyond repair. If an organisation behaves in a way that is not acceptable – not revealing information, deceiving customers or even putting them at risk – then their reputation will be damaged quite seriously.

Advance planning

‘Planned’ is an important element of the definition of PR. Even when a crisis erupts, the chances are that if the right processes have been put in place, the PR department/press office or your PR advisers will have been planning how to manage communication with key audiences when the crisis becomes public.

Ideally, PR plans will be tied in with business objectives. PR needs to fit into the wider context of the organisation’s marketing activity. It is essential, therefore, that other departments have a good understanding of PR – the value it can bring, its limitations and how best to highlight opportunities that provide scope for positive PR.

As with many other business activities, a sustained effort to develop and nurture relations with key stakeholders will help to build credibility. Even when things don’t go quite according to plan, what the organisation does to put the situation right (and manage an issue or a crisis) can earn enormous goodwill from customers as well as win over potential customers. It can take considerable time to build a reputation, but all that good work can be shattered in a moment if the crisis is mishandled.

Image and PR

Image and identity are key in any PR programme. Image is chiefly about perception, while identity is the way an organisation tries to present a specific image. Identity is more than a logo. The organisation’s premises, the uniforms staff wear, the culture that pervades an organisation, the communication within an organisation and the behaviour of staff are all elements of identity.

The meaning PR people give to the word image tends to vary, but in general it is used as another term to mean reputation – how an organisation and its products/services are perceived. Image is the impression an audience gets of an organisation. This may be via reading about the organisation or seeing/experiencing behaviour at first hand (in other words, customer service). A positive image often comes from consistency in messages conveyed – in other words what people read and see in the press and media, backed up by personal experience.

Often, PR activity starts with seeking to identify current perceptions or image compared to the desired image the organisation wants. A PR strategy is then designed to move from the current to the desired perception.


As image and identity are so crucial, PR is essentially concerned with managing reputation – the impression held of an organisation. Regarding that perception, PR will generally be concerned with

It is generally much more shameful to lose a good reputation than never to have acquired it.

Pliny The Elder
  • Creating a perception
  • Building on a current perception
  • Changing perception.

Those activities are usually focused on promoting, highlighting or endorsing a reputation at one end or protecting and defending it at the other.