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Many scholars and practitioners have presented various definitions of public relations, based on their knowledge, experience and perspectives. These definitions would assist you to appreciate and evaluate the role and functions of public relations. One thing common to these definitions is that public relations is undertaken to create and sustain goodwill and harmony among the various entities and institutions of society.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  Recall accurately two or three definitions of public relations 
  2. Explain the basic ideas common to all these definitions 
  3. Come up with your own definition of public relations derived from the ones stated below. 


3.1 Definition of Public Relations

Cutlip, Centre and Broom, in their classical book, Effective Public Relations, (1994) defines public relations as “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends”. This definition clearly underlines the fact that public relations is a two-way process between an organization and its identified publics that is meant to benefit both parties. In other words, mutual understanding requires by definition, two-way communication. We shall explain the term publics in another unit.

The British Institute of Public Relations (BIPR) defines public relations as “the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics”. This definition suggests that public relations is not a haphazard endeavour. It is a process that is deliberately planned to achieve a given goal or objective, which is mutual understanding between an organization and its publics and must be planned. “Sustained effort” means that a process does not end until it has achieved its objectives. This means that as a public relations officer, you must always endeavour to carry our plans to a logical end, despite any difficulties you may encounter in the process.

Another definition of public relations is given by a Frank Jefkins British author: who says that “public relations consist of all forms of planned communication both inward and outward between an organization and its publics for the purpose of achieving objectives concerning mutual understanding”. In this definition “inward and outward communication” consists of a two-way communication that involves the organization and its internal and external publics.

The Mexican statement defines public relations as the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences counselling organization’s leaders as well as implementing a planned programme of action which serves both the organization and the public interest. This definition was adopted at the First World Congress of National Public Relations Associations held in Mexico in 1978. This definition is accepted to be broad, all-embracing and multidisciplinary. It suggest that public relations takes expertise and knowledge from the social sciences and arts. For instance, the survey method has become very useful in public relations to find out peoples’ opinions, attitudes and beliefs in order predict human behaviour.

Public relations monitors and researchers issues in the environment and tries to align the policies and programmes of the organization in such a way that it will favour both the organization and the publics so that there will be a mutual outcome.

Rex F. Harlow a renowned American public relations expert provides us an excellent and exhaustive definition of public relations as “a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics, involves the management of problems or issues, helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public, defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest, helps the management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends, and uses research and sound and ethical communication as its principal tools. In acknowledgement of this definition, some authors have referred to public relations as “Corporate Meguard” in Nigerian parlance.

Canfield in his book, “Public Relations: Principles, Cases and Problems, sees public relations as a social philosophy of management expressed in policies and practices which are communicated to the public to secure its understanding and Goodwill.

Finally, the definition we offer you is given by Public Relations News of New York, the industry Newsletter. It defines public relations as the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a programme of action to earn public understanding and acceptance. This definition implies that both individuals and organization need public relations in their interactions with various segments of society.

A notable public relations practitioner referred to in one of our earlier definitions summarized most of the public relations definitions as “Good Performance that is publicly appreciated”. In other words, public relations can be seen as doing good and then getting credit for it. He observes that public relations could succinctly be expressed as;

P = Performance
R = Recognition

That is good performance that is publicly appreciated: That is public relations consists of all actions taken to promote a favourable relationship with the publics of an organization.

From these various definitions you should note some key and important terms for formulating a good public relations.

  1. Deliberate – a public relations event or action is intentional. It is designed to influence or gain, understanding as well as providing information so as to gain feedback or reaction from the people or groups affected by the activity. The public needs information to be carried long in what the organization is doing, particularly as it concerns their interest. For instance a major market leader must create good image and reputation which public relation information provides. 
  2. Planned – Public relations activities are organized in a systematic sequence, which is expected to culminate in solutions to identified problems. The problem must be analyzed by systematic research. You should note that effective public relations is planned in advance it is proactive and not reactive. 
  3. Process – Public relations is a process. Effective public relations must be viewed as continuing process of a series of organized actions, activities, changes or functions expected to bring about a successful end result. On the other hand, public relations is not a one-time affair, engaged only occasionally as a fire brigade method or remedial action. You should note that preventive public relations is a continuous process of discovering problems or opportunities, solving the problems when they are small instead of when they are full blown. Effective public relations is not communicating promises alone. It is based on the practices, performances, good deeds and past record of the organization. No amount of good public relations will generate acceptance or patronage for an organization with bad image or that is not responsive to public interest. According to Chester Burger (1998) “the best public relations campaign in the world can’t build trust while reality is destroying it. In other words, reality limits what public relations can accomplish. 
  4.  Mutual interest – Public relations should be mutually beneficial to the organization as well as the publics. The primary reason for establishing any public relations activity should be to serve the public interest and not benefit the organization. Good public relations aligns the interests of the organization with the desires and interests of the public. 

Self Assessment Exercise

From the various definitions of public relations you have studied in this unit identity three common terms that describes the similarities and differences of public relations.

3.2 Components of Public Relations

Public relations is a very complex activity, with different areas of specialization. Daramola (2003) has identified such areas to include:

Employees Relations: Building better relationships between employees and management, especially in complex organizations where the lines of communication between management and workers become stressful as the workforce of a company expands.

Industrial Relations: Providing advice to management to improve mutually beneficial relations between a company and other businesses within the same industry and related ones and in the areas of suppliers, distributors, competitors and labour unions.
Community Relations: Planned activity to create a relationship of good neighbourliness between an organization and other companies as well as groups within the community in which it is located.

Customer Relations: Involves developing better relations with the massive consuming public and sustaining the goodwill of customers in particular and consumes in general.

Financial Relations: This involves improving understanding through better communication with shareholders stockbrokers, stock exchange market, fund managers, investors, banks and insurance agencies.

Press Relations: This involves working with the members of the press to maximize the free publicity that can be obtained for a newsworthy corporate event so as to create public knowledge and understanding and respond to press enquiries as it relates to their organization.

Government Relations: Lobbying government agencies such as the legislature and regulatory agency on behalf of the organization.

Special Events: This is used to stimulate interest in a product, person or organization through activities designed to interact with public through staged events.

Counselling: Advising organizations about how to understand and mobilize the public as well as interprete themselves. This will reduce criticisms and hostility from the press and pressure groups in society.

Research: To determine attitudes and behaviours of relevant publics through research so as to plan public relations strategies. Research can be used to generate understanding as well as influence and persuade publics.

Publicity: This involves the dissemination of planned messages using selected media to promote the organization’s interest.

Self Assessment Exercise

  1. Why is public relations referred to as a very complex activity? 
  2. Mention two areas of specialization in public relations and the service they render. 

3.3 Public Relations as a Function and Philosophy of Management

The philosophy of public relations is the creation, building and maintenance of mutual understanding and respect based on truth and effective two-way communication process for the betterment of corporate institutions and enhancement of social and economic development. This philosophy postulates that an organization should do right, pursue the greatest good of the largest majority and support only those things that will improve the welfare of humanity. In public relations, it is believed that in the event of any observable weakness or error of judgement in any area, an organization should be sufficiently courageous to admit it and indicate preparedness to rectify it.

Ogunsanya (1991) is right in observing that public relations is an inalienable lubricant in the wheel of strategic management. It demands from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) an open management system, the installation of a responsive information management system, preparedness to share power without abdicating responsibility and a decision-making machinery that accommodates the overall interest of the society and ensure equity/justice in all ramifications.

To be effective, a public relations philosophy must be expressed in action. Good public relations involve acting in the public interest. There can be no escape in today’s world from the effects of public opinion and public attitudes. The increased power of public opinion (both domestic and international) and recognition of that power constitute one of the mainsprings propelling the function of public relations. As you can observe, we now live in an era of “The public be pleased” “the customer is always right”. It is clear that in today’s business environment, no individual or institution can prosper in the long term without public support or at least public approval.

Institutions are judged by what they do, not by what they say. For as one of the definitions of public relations explain that public relations can be seen as good performance that is publicly recognized.

Public relations is the philosophy of doing things people like and doing them the way they like. In other words, the doing is more important than the saying, but there must be saying after the doing. This requires publicity.

In the words of Daramola, “publicity should cloth institutions with acceptable personality”.
All the publicity in the world is of no value unless the organization being publized does good works and acts in a positive and responsible manner.

Public Relations as Management Function

Public relations is an instrument of management and its consideration should be taken into account when formulating policy. For this reason, public relations should be placed at top management level of an organization, the public relations director or manager should be responsible to the Chief Executive and the Board of Directors.

As the head of the organization the chief executive officer is the leading spokesperson for the organization. According to Daramola, the place, position or role of the public relations function is defined and re-determined by the CEO and a set of top management officials or members of the board of directors whose views and statements must be based on the organization’s changing needs, problems, opportunities and values as well as standards”. He explains further that a public relations department will only be useful to management as the administrators want it to be, in other words, management sets the pace or tune that public relations follow. 
In any organization that values the place of public relations, the public relations officer should be in a position to advise and participate in major policy decisions. He should be in a position to represent the public viewpoint on the organization’s policies and problems. He should be at the same level of authority as the heads of other principal departments, to as to be able to understand their problems and gain their cooperation in carrying out public relations programmes. To be effective, public relations must be an important arm of top management.
Seitel (2001) advises that for public relations to work, its advice to management must be unfiltered, uncensored and unexpurgated. This he maintains can only be achieved if the public relations department reports to the CEO, since public relations promotes the entire institutions, unlike marketing for instance that promotes a specific product.

Self-Assessnment Exercise

  1. Give two reasons why public relations function should be a management concern. 

3.4 Misconceptions of Public Relations

In Nigeria as well as in other parts of the world, the profession of public relations has been subjected to wrong perception of what a public relations person actually does. To make matters worse, some of the practitioners themselves do not have a clear idea of what public relations actually is. This situation has created credibility problems for the profession in general and the practitioners in particular.
Daramola (2003) and Nwosu (1997) have identified some of these misconceptions to include:

  1. Courtesy: Some people view public relations as consisting of good manners or being polite or respectful to others. But good manners alone does not constitute public relations. 
  2. Protocol: Even institutional officials erroneously believe that good public relations is about protocol or the proper procedure of conducting official ceremonies. 
  3. Goodwill: Every individual or organization needs the cooperation of others to be able to achieve any mission or vision because no one is an island by himself. 
  4.  Fine Appearance: A lot of persons and companies assume that public relations is equivalent to a fine appearance, an attractive face or glamorous front. For this reason, such people and institutions maintain a strict dress code or policy. While a good cover is essential a good book cannot be judged by its cover. 
  5. Free Gifts: Many company executives in Nigeria in particular and around the world in general, believe in projecting their organizations as charitable and benevolent through the giving of free annual gifts such as Christians hampers and Sallah rams. Effective public relations does not begin and end with gifts. 
  6. Annual Parties: The yearly staging of grand get-togethers such as Annual Dealers Dinner, Staff Children, Christmas Fun Fair, Employees New Year or end of year party is another popular method of generating goodwill and friendship among both internal and external publics of an organization. 
  7. Public relations is not about employing pretty ladies to woo men into acting against their wishes.
  8. Public relations is not about lying and selling falsehood about your organization and product. Equally, it is not about denying every statement that does not favour your organization. Public relations is about telling the truth and not prevaricating or what an Israeli government spokesman once described as “Strategic Ambiguity” (neither denying, nor admitting). 
  9. Public relations is not about being a yes-boy or a bag carrier for year boss madam or relations. Instead, it is a dignified and noble profession that attracts knowledgeable, self-confident, intelligent and self-respecting women and men. 

The display of professionalism and ethical conduct by public relations practitioners in their relationship with their organization and the public will go a long way to correct some of these misconceptions.


The discipline of public relations has attracted many definitions from scholars and practitioners alike. But one thing is common to all the varied definitions: they all agree that the aim of public relations is to create and sustain mutual understanding between an organization and its numerous publics. Publics relations is an activity that is very complex, has many areas of specializations and components and to be effective, the function has to be placed at the highest levels of the management of the organization.


In this unit, we have learnt that public relations has many definitions as there are practitioners and academicians in the field. Inspite of the different perspectives, the sum of their definitions is that public relations aims at creating and maintaining mutual understanding between an organization and its publics the various components of public relations include, employee relations, industrial relations, community relations, customer relations, financial relations press relations, government relations, special events, counselling, research and publicity, e.t.c.


Make a strong case for the placement of the public relations function at the top management level of an organisation.


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