3.3 Definitions of Public Relations

What are Public Relations? This question touches on one great challenge that Public Relations has had to confront: it is blessed with so many definitions, a circumstance that has turned out to be a double-edged blessing. On the one hand; the plethora of definitions can always be cited to show what a dynamic discipline – cum – profession Public Relations is. On the other, the plethora of definitions may be partly (but only partly) held responsible for the confusion of the uninitiated about the true essence of Public Relations.

The ignorance or confusion was at one time so much in Nigeria that some funny employer thought a beautiful lady with ‘hot’ legs should be public relations officer. That was why they had the guts to advertise for a female “Public Relations officer” with excellent spoken English, which was unexceptionable – but also with, guess what? Good Legs! All this probably explains why virtually all those who have tried to put pen to paper on the subject of Public Relations in Nigeria usually begin with a long list of what Public Relations is not. Otto Lerbinger, was constrained to emphasize in some of his disquisitions that PR is not just about seeking good publicity, which is a common perception.

According to Lerbinger, that may have been true when he started teaching and when most people working in PR were former journalists lured by higher paying jobs. But now, says he, PR people, who typically have communication degrees, are involved in marketing, management and policy-making. They also manage crises, which many organizations don’t handle well, because they don’t listen to their PR people. The hardest part of PR, according to Lerbinger, is to convince those in power to do the smart thing and acknowledge that there is a problem, an impending crisis. ‘Often, management won’t listen’. Public relations is seen as an interdisciplinary field, encompassing management, economics, psychology, sociology, and politics—that is, besides the mainstream communications disciplines. This was the view espoused by a Nigerian professor of PR/Marketing, Julius Onah, the International Public Relations Association [IPRA] in its Gold Paper No.4 of 1982.

Further, according to Lerbinger, Public Relations persons are trained to listen to people, to seek input, and to study social trends. According to him, PR reflects what happens in the world, and that’s what makes it always vital and interesting.  Scholars have a partiality for definitions proffered by groups of experts or associations, in keeping with the age-long adage that two[or more] heads are better than one, provided of course that they are mostly good heads. There is a set of four definitions that comes in handy from that perspective. By far the most succinct and most popular of those group proffered definitions is the one by the British Institute of Public Relations [IPR] which presents public relations as;
— the deliberate and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.

The American Public Relations Association, on its own part, once described public relations as:

— the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an organization with the public interest, and executes a programme of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.

The earlier mentioned International Public Relations Associations [IPRA], meeting in the Hague in May 1960, arrived at a definition of PR as:
— a management function of a continuing and planned character through which public and private organizations and institutions seek to win and retain the understanding, sympathy and support of those with whom they are or may be concerned, by evaluating public opinion about themselves, in order to correlate as far as possible their own policies and procedures to achieve by planned and
widespread information more productive co-operation and more efficient fulfillment of their common interests.

The final of our four group definitions of Public Relations is the one that has become more or less immortalized as the ‘Mexican statement’, because it was fashioned at the World Assembly of Public Relations Associations in Mexico in 1978. It projects public relations as;

— the art and science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programmes which will serve both an organization’s and [its] publics’ interests.

Much as scholars prefer definitions forged by groups to those emanating from individual reflections, one must at the same time acknowledge the efforts of a British expert, Dr. Rex Harlow who, presumably eager to put some restraint on the label of extant definitions, is reputed to have studied 472 definitions and interviewed 84 PR professionals, mostly veterans, to arrive at his own definition which, as you must have rightly guessed, was for the purpose of his Ph.D thesis. At the end, he states that;

Public relations is the distinctive management function which helps to establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, acceptance and co-operation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the
public interest; helps management to keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.

From all these group ‘Rex Harlow came up with certain glaring facts about the principal preoccupations and attributes of public relations. Some, of which are:

  1. Public Relations is preoccupied with establishing and maintaining mutual understanding and goodwill between an organization and its public, a government and its subjects, a ruler and the ruled, a statesman and his compatriots, etc. 
  2. Public Relations is largely a communication discipline or profession with its tentacles in various other branches of knowledge or, put simply, it is an interdisciplinary field. 
  3. Public Relations is at once a science and an art. 
  4. Public Relations is primarily a management function, even though-like other management functions-it has its technician operations. 
  5. Public Relations activities are planned and deliberate, not whimsical or fortuitous. 
  6. Public Relations activities are sustained or continuous, not adhoc or tied to the expedient: in other words, they help to build a constant reservoir of goodwill which we can readily tap in times of need. 
  7. Public Relations is essentially proactive and predictive, though it is often compelled to be reactive and backward-looking. 
  8. Public Relations thrives on dialogue and persuasion but is antithetical to social monologue and whimsical. 

The following specifically clarify PR:

  1. PR is deliberate – the activity is purposeful and intentional 
  2. PR is planned 
  3. PR is a process 
  4. In PR, corporate performance speaks louder than company’s voice 
  5. PR involves the mutual interests of an organisationa and its public 
  6. PR is a management function 
  7. PR is two- way communication 

Public Relations Activities

  1.  Publicity – the practice of getting media coverage for the client. 
  2.  Communication; PR involve communicating with target public and advising clients in their interaction with them.
  3. Public Affairs: It includes interacting with officials and leaders of the various power centres with whom a client must deal 
  4. Government Relations: working with government agencies. E.g. lobbying-interacting to influence government regulations and agents.
  5. Community Relations. It focuses on the communities in which the organization exist 
  6. Minority Relations: targeting specific racial minorities. 
  7. Financial P.R: Involves communication between companies and their shareholders, financial community and the public. 
  8. Industrial Relations. Involves interaction with other companies in line of business, both competitors and supplier 
  9. Press Agency: Means attracting attention to the client, usually through planning or staging some activity. 
  10. Promotion: It involves creating support or goodwill for the client as opposed attention getting of press agency. 
  11. Media Relations: Maintaining good relationship with media professionals, as well as understanding their peculiarities. 
  12. Issue Management: Involves campaign to shape opinion on a specific issue. 
  13. Crises Management: Resolving organization crises. 
  14. Propaganda: The generation of more or less automatic responses to given symbols. 
  15. Advertising: The use of controlled communication to build an image or to motivate action. 


Take a look at the definitions of Public Relations described above, coin your definition.

3.4 Philosophy and Perceptions of Public Relations 

3.4.1 Perceptions and Misconception of Public Relations 
Public Relations had often been referred to in less than endearing terms. But that should not be unduly surprising. In the United States where modern Public Relations was more or less inaugurated (as a profession, by Ivy Ledbetter Lee, and as a University discipline, by Edward Barnays roughly a century ago (precisely in 1919 and 1923 respectively), the general level of contemporary understanding of the essence of the Public Relations discipline and profession is scarcely anything to write home about. Thus, distinguished Professor of Public relations, Otto Lerbinger of Boston University College of Communication, had this to say during his pre-retirement engagements in the summer of 2004.

I’ve been subject to abuse for fifty years. I’m so used to it that it doesn’t bother me any more. If there are stereotypes attached, then that’s bad. But we’re fighting by trying to create greater understanding of what PR really is.
Otto Lerbinger, who had taught PR since 1954, had earlier recounted his gratifying experiences in teaching and counselling on Public Relations including the satisfactions of seeing his products put to successful practice what they had been taught on “how to extinguish fires”, and more important, “how to prevent them from starting”. It was after that that he conceded “the other side of the story”, rattling off pejorative terms often associated with his life’s work. Sometimes, he says, he wasn’t even sure he should keep the title, “Professor of Public Relations”, since to some skeptics, that’s akin to being a “Professor of puffery”. But he decided he should do what he does best: teach people about PR.

3.4.2Layman’s Notions of PR

The perception of PR from the layman’s angle steth not totally incorrect, they are individually incomplete views of PR. They are unprofessional or amateur concepts of PR. Such views are that PR is synonymous with the following:
5.Fine appearance
6.Free gifts
7.Annual Parties
8.Cash Bonuses etc.

3.4.3Branches of PR

PR has the following specialisations:

  1. Employee Relations 
  2. Industrial PR 
  3. Financial PR 
  4. Community Relations 
  5. Customer Relations 
  6. Press Relations 
  7. Government Relations
  8. International PR

3.4.4 Purpose and Philosophy of Public Relations

The purpose of PR in an organisation is of pivotal importance to the continued existence of that organisation. PR can make important contributions to forming an organisation’s ideas about itself- what it should do and what society wants and expects from it. Charles Steinberg describes this aspect of PR as the “structuring of company philosophy and carrying out of that philosophy in practice so that what the institution says is not at variance with what it does”.

The duties of PR practitioners are basically to assimilate and communicate information between an organisation and its environment. PR helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring the public and public policies into harmony.

Succinctly, PR is hinged on humanistic ideology, a social philosophy that places the broad interests of the people first in all matters pertaining to the conducts or operations of an organisation. This philosophy equally holds that an institution’s primary function is to serve the basic needs of its public, who are dependent upon it for employment, income , wages, products and services as well as social goods and spiritual satisfaction.

The following are most specific principles of PR.

1.PR deals with facts, not fiction
2.PR is a public service instead of a personal endeavour
3.PRO is not a yes- man
4.Honesty is the best policy in PR
5.PRO is a mediator
6.PR is not a guessing game
7.Institution is not enough in PR
8.PR is an inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary field
9.PRO is a corporate Vigilante
10.A PRO is as good as his image


Many people know more of what Public Relations is not than what it is. Discuss


The understanding of the concept of Public Relations has not been really there, especially, among the so called practitioners who take Public Relations to be something else. To them, giving gratification or bribe is Public Relations. The concept of Public Relations has been thoroughly misused with the appellation: PR. The misconceptions about Public Relations have threatened to undermine its very essence as well as diluting its guiding philosophies on the minds of the people.


The beginning and concept of Public Relations have been discussed in appreciable details in this unit. The unit started from the origin of Public Relations and the connection the First World War 1 had with it. The unit pointed out that layman’s notions of Public Relations are unprofessional or amateur concepts of Public Relations. Such views according to the unit are synonymous with Courtesy, Protocol, Goodwill, Friendship, Fine appearance, Free gifts, Annual Parties, Cash Bonuses etc.

The unit also enumerated the branches of Public Relations to include: Employee relations, Industrial PR, Financial PR, Community Relations, Customer Relations, Press Relations, Government Relations, International PR.

Having discussed thoroughly the various definitions of Public Relations, the unit enumerated the most specific principles of PR to include: PR deals with facts, not fiction; PR is a public service instead of a personal endeavour; PRO is not a yes- man; Honesty is the best policy in PR; PRO is a mediator; PR is not a guessing game; Institution is not enough in PR; PR is an inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary field; A PRO is a corporate Vigilante; PRO is as good as his image


Public Relations is not recognised as a management function in most Nigerian organizations. Discuss the validity of this statement


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