How do you define PR?

With the public relations landscape constantly evolving, PR has often struggled to define itself. Mumbrella's Abigail Dawson speaks to some industry heavyweights on how they explain the work they do.

The public relations and communications industry has been battling to come up with a single definition of the practice, with questions growing around what exactly PR can offer and what it actually is.

According to the Australian dictionary, PR “is the professional maintenance of a favourable public image by a company or other organisation or a famous person,” but as the industry evolves and PR professionals add more skills to their remit, is this definition still relevant?

Below, some of PR’s most senior professionals give their own definition.

Vuki Vujasinovic, founder and CEO of Sling & Stone, says:

Vujasinovic said PR is about helping a company, cause or individual to tell their story

If I was talking to university students, I’d say public relations is working with an individual, company, or cause, to help tell their story to the people that matter. If I was chatting to my mum, I’d tell her we get our clients in the media. Speaking with you, I can go into a little more detail.

“It’s hard to have one all-encompassing definition of PR because how and why you do it can differ so much, depending on the client and the goal. For us, it’s all about working with high-growth, ambitious companies that are doing things no one else has done before. They are having a big impact on the future of how people live, work, and play. It means our role is to parse and transmit these new ideas, communicating change in an empathetic and exciting way to the right audience through any relevant channel. That’s our definition of PR, but it’s not everyone’s.”

Kieran Moore, CEO of WPP AUNZ PR and GR, says:

Moore says PR is about building relationships which leads to trust and respect

“All the prevailing research says that people have become so deeply cynical and hip to being ‘sold to’ that they cannot be manipulated emotionally into a sustained attitude or behaviour change.

“In this context, PR is of vital importance because we understand behaviour, persuasion, relationship building and the dynamics of genuine influence. Genuine influence starts with building a relationship, that leads to trust and respect and allows each party to change each other’s mind or behaviour. This pays off in tangible ways including encouraging people to recommend you, engage with you, buy from you, work for you, support your cause or policy or invest their money in you. This is how we drive measurable communication and business results.”

Tom Hunter, communications manager at PayPal, says:

Hunter says the traditional PR definition has started to blur

“Over the last few years, the traditional definition of PR has definitely started to blur and with this, there has been a shift in what agencies and comms professionals deliver for their clients or stakeholders.

“However while there is definite change to what PR is and isn’t, there’s certain part of the trade that always has and will remain consistent. That is, the work that PR professionals do to form and cultivate relationships with people who influence a brand’s key audience, be it the consumer, end user, government, other businesses, etc. And that influential group of people has grown significantly beyond the more traditional set that PR professionals usually work with, such as journalists, media commentators etc.

“Now, we’re seeing people who wield influence in different ways, such as social influencers, content creators, bloggers, vloggers and more, and it is important that brands build relationships in these newer areas to tell their stories to a broader but highly engaged audience. This is exciting for me because it allows PR practitioners to tell more dynamic and more authentic stories, in more ways and formats than ever before.”

Jenna Orme, general manager at FleishmanHillard, says:

Orme argues PR is about telling brand stories

“PR has come a long way, but the power of authentic brand stories cannot be undervalued.

“This year alone we saw the rise of #fakenews and #metoo – calling for more truth, openness and engagement in the world.

“PR is a force to be reckoned with. It’s the secret ingredient to genuinely connecting brands to consumers.

“PR is so diverse – as the media landscape changes, so does the way people consume information. PR has to be nimble, stay relevant and constantly evolve. It’s a collaborative process between brands and influencers – from media to online key opinion leaders and key stakeholders.”

Michael Pooley, CEO of PPR, says:

Pooley says PR isn’t just about relationship building but building a human connection between businesses and the community

“We believe that organisations, like people are organic and multidimensional. Their ambitions and aspirations go beyond building transactional relationships and today there is a new, more human, currency between businesses and their communities. A currency of trust, integrity, advocacy, authenticity and shared value.

“PR is the most effective discipline in enabling brands to build this positive currency with their publics. At PPR we apply this philosophy as we live our purpose of building bonds between organisations, brands and communities through our approach to PR that we call community marketing.

“We start by understanding what makes the communities we are targeting tick. We understand their hopes, their fears and their beliefs. Every community is different, so every communication strategy needs to be tailored and nuanced across every geographic market and every interest group.

“Only then can we build a communications strategy that is more pull than push, that is more authentic, more relevant and that sits more naturally in a person’s everyday life.

“When it all comes together and that bond is created or strengthened between a brand and a community it can demonstrate the true power of PR.”

Fee Townshend, director of Curve Comms, says:

Townshend says PR now covers what was once defined as media buyers and creative agencies

“PR is the business of influence. And our skill set is so broad now it covers off what once may have been deemed the business of media buyers or creative agencies.

“The thing that keeps ‘PR’ as an industry of its own that we typically seek third party endorsement to drive this influence – via media, an influencer or a commercial or community partnership. We do this to heighten the level of authenticity; our message has already been reviewed by someone else before it reaches you.

“A decade ago a company I worked for used to tout this anonymous definition: ‘if advertising is what you say about yourself, PR is what other people say about you.’

“I think this still rings true. We set out to shape or shift people’s opinions, behaviours and/or purchasing decisions through 3rd party influence.”

Carl Ratcliff, CEO of One Green Bean, says:

Carl Ratcliff Mumbrella CommsCon Conference

Ratcliff says PR is all about reputation

“It is said that PR is all about reputation. One that can be earned or lost on the basis of multiple moments in time. A small moment can triumph over adversity. And a triumph of scale and dominance can be brought down by the merest ankle tap. In the world of modern marketing, this is never more true. Today, PR plays (or should, where it doesn’t) a leading, strategic role in helping brands earn attention and gain trust – as evidenced in the latest WARC 100 – for the long term, not just the short.”

Dena Vassallo, managing director and founder at Society, says:

Vassallo says PR is about creating honest connections between brands and people

“Ultimately, we believe that PR is about everything that creates honest connections between brands and people. Great PR focuses on our society and what inspires them and motives them, and is actionable. The beauty is in that is both timely and timeless. PR plays a critical role in building public trust, respect and relevancy. But it shouldn’t just stop there… we should always look at the business impact of our public relations too.

“What does this all mean? Media relations and public relations were interchangeable terms when the only way to reach your public was through the media. Today the discipline is dynamic, and it creates a multitude of opportunities to integrate across channels in both below and above the line communications. Stop and ask yourself – do I need to talk to my customers about this? If the answer is yes, on any level (from how you talk to your customers in a call centre to how you engage with them on social media) then the answer is you should seek the involvement of PR.

“I think it is the ultimate discipline at the heart of marketing today. If you approach everything with the sensibility of public relations, you will discover that your entire marketing communications plans have the opportunity to create an honest and actionable result with your consumer AND with your business. And who wouldn’t want that?”

Annalise Brown, managing director of Hidden Characters, says:

Brown says the definition of PR is forever changing

“For the whole of my career my mum has asked me the same question. And when I try to describe it to her, it’s different every time. It’s part persuasion, positioning, protecting while equally cajoling, schmoozing, hand-holding, at the same time as storytelling, thinking, educating and influencing. All to ensure that the people and brands we work with are the heroes.”


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