1 What Is Public Relations?

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the four models of public relations and the four stages of a typical public relations campaign.
  2. Analyze the role of public relations in media and culture.
  3. Analyze the ways public relations is taking the place of traditional advertising.
  4. Explain the concept of branding.
  5. Describe the uses of public relations in politics, government, and news media.

According to the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals and serve the public interest.” Practically, PR campaigns strive to use all forms of media and communication channels to encourage favorable media coverage and to build beneficial relationships with stakeholders.

This short video, titled “What is public relations?” helps to visualize public relations (note, this is also a shameless plug for the PR Diploma program I teach in):


In their book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, Al and Laura Ries make the point that the public trusts the media far more than they trust advertisements. Because of this, PR efforts that get products and brands into the media are far more valuable than a simple advertisement. Their book details the ways in which modern companies use public relations to far greater benefit than they use advertising (Ries & Ries, 2004). Regardless of the fate of advertising, PR has clearly come to have an increasing role in marketing and ad campaigns.

The Four Models of PR

Table 12.1 Grunig and Hunt’s Four PR Models

Type of Model



Traditional publicity model (the press agentry model)

Professional agents seek media coverage for a client, product, or event.

Thong-clad actor Sacha Baron Cohen promotes Bruno by landing in Eminem’s lap at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.

Public information model

Businesses communicate information to gain desired results.

Colleges send informational brochures to potential students; a company includes an “about” section on its website.

Persuasive communication model (the two-way asymmetric model)

Organizations attempt to persuade an audience to take a certain point of view.

Public service announcements like the one that shows “your brain” and “your brain on drugs.”

Two-way symmetric model

Both parties make use of a back-and-forth discussion.

A company sends out customer satisfaction surveys; company Facebook groups and message boards.

Source: James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt, Managing Public Relations (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1984).

Todd Hunt and James Grunig developed a theory of four models of PR. This model has held up in the years since its development and is a good introduction to PR concepts (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).

Traditional Publicity Model

Under the traditional publicity model, PR professionals seek to create media coverage for a client, product, or event. These efforts can range from wild publicity stunts to simple news conferences to celebrity interviews in fashion magazines. P. T. Barnum was an early practitioner of this kind of PR. His outrageous attempts at publicity worked because he was not worried about receiving negative press; instead, he believed that any coverage was a valuable asset. More recent examples of this style of extreme publicity include controversy-courting musicians such as Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson. More restrained examples of this type of PR include the modern phenomenon of faded celebrities appearing on TV shows, such as Paula Abdul’s long-running appearances on American Idol.

Public Information Model

The goal of the public information model is to release information to a constituency. This model is less concerned with obtaining dramatic, extensive media coverage than with disseminating information in a way that ensures adequate reception. For example, utility companies often include fliers about energy efficiency with customers’ bills, and government agencies such as the CRA issue press releases to explain changes to the tax code. In addition, public interest groups release the results of research studies for use by policy makers and the public.

Persuasive Communication: Two-Way Asymmetric

The persuasive communication model, or the two-way asymmetric, works to persuade a specific audience to adopt a certain behavior or point of view. To be considered effective, this model requires a measured response from its intended audience.

Figure 12.12


Edward Bernays created campaigns using the persuasive communication model.

chrisch_ – Rule the World! – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Government propaganda is a good example of this model. Propaganda is the organized spreading of information to assist or weaken a cause (Dictionary). Edward Bernays has been called the founder of modern PR for his work during World War I promoting the sale of war bonds. One of the first professional PR experts, Bernays made the two-way asymmetric model his early hallmark. In a famous campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes, he convinced a group of well-known celebrities to walk in the New York Easter parade smoking Lucky Strikes. Most modern corporations employ the persuasive communication model.

Two-Way Symmetric Model

The two-way symmetric model requires true communication between the parties involved. By facilitating a back-and-forth discussion that results in mutual understanding and an agreement that respects the wishes of both parties, this PR model is often practiced in town hall meetings and other public forums in which the public has a real effect on the results. In an ideal democracy, government representatives strictly employ this model. Many nonprofit groups that are run by boards and have public service mandates use this model to ensure continued public support.

Commercial ventures also rely on this model. PR can generate media attention or attract customers, and it can also ease communication between a company and its investors, partners, employees and other stakeholders. Controversial development projects often see developers and/or project agencies seeking to consult extensively with stakeholders (e.g. Port of Vancouver terminal expansions). The two-way symmetric model is useful in communicating within an organization because it helps employees feel they are an important part of the company. Investor relations are also often carried out under this model.

PR Functions

Either private PR companies and agencies, or in-house communications staffers carry out PR functions. A PR group generally handles all aspects of an organization’s or individual’s media presence, including company publications and news releases. Such a group can range from just one person to dozens of employees depending on the size and scope of the organization.

PR functions include the following:

  • Media relations: takes place with media outlets and includes news releases, news conferences, interviews, op-eds and editorial board meetings
  • Organizational communications: occurs within a company between management and employees, and among subsidiaries of the same company
  • Business-to-business: happens between businesses that are in partnership
  • Public affairs: takes place with community leaders, opinion formers, and those involved in public issues (includes government lobbying)
  • Investor relations: occurs with investors and shareholders
  • Strategic communication: intended to accomplish a specific goal
  • Issues management: keeping tabs on public issues important to the organization
  • Crisis management: handling events that could damage an organization’s image and reputation1

Anatomy of a PR Campaign

Figure 12.13


Anatomy of a PR campaign

PR campaigns occur for any number of reasons. They can be a quick response to a crisis or emerging issue, or they can stem from a long-term strategy tied in with other marketing efforts. Regardless of its purpose, a typical campaign often involves four phases.

The Canadian Public Relations Society often references a similar model of campaign development called the R-A-C-E formula (Research, Analysis, Communication, Evaluation). See how Electra Communications applies it to their work in health marketing.

Initial Research Phase (Research in the RACE formula)

The first step of many PR campaigns is the initial research phase. First, practitioners identify and qualify the issue to be addressed/problem to be solved. Then, they research the organization itself to clarify issues of public perception, positioning, and internal dynamics. Strategists can also research the potential audience of the campaign. This audience may include media outlets, constituents, consumers, and competitors. Finally, the context of the campaign is often researched, including the possible consequences of the campaign and the potential effects on the organization. After considering all of these factors, practitioners are better educated to select the best type of campaign.

Strategy Phase (Analysis in the RACE formula)

During the strategy phase, PR professionals usually determine objectives focused on the desired goal of the campaign and formulate strategies to meet those objectives. Broad strategies such as deciding on the overall message of a campaign and the best way to communicate the message can be finalized at this time.

Tactics Phase (Communication in the RACE formula)

During the tactics phase, the PR group decides on the means to implement the strategies they formulated during the strategy phase. This process can involve devising specific communication techniques and selecting the forms of media that suit the message best. This phase may also address budgetary restrictions and possibilities. In the RACE formula, this phase include the actual implementation of tactics in the form of communication.

Evaluation Phase (Evaluation in the RACE formula)

After the overall campaign has been determined, PR practitioners enter the evaluation phase. The group can review their campaign plan and evaluate its potential effectiveness. They may also conduct research on the potential results to better understand the cost and benefits of the campaign. Specific criteria for evaluating the campaign when it is completed are also established at this time (Smith, 2002).In the RACE formula, evaluation is conducted after communication has taken place to determine results and improve future efforts.


While advertising is an essential aspect of initial brand creation, PR campaigns are vital to developing the more abstract aspects of a brand. These campaigns work to position a brand in the public arena in order to give it a sense of cultural importance.

Shift From Advertising to PR

Pioneered by such companies as Procter & Gamble during the 1930s, the older, advertising-centric model of branding focused on the product, using advertisements to associate a particular branded good with quality or some other positive cultural value. Yet, as consumers became exposed to ever-increasing numbers of advertisements, traditional advertising’s effectiveness dwindled. The ubiquity of modern advertising means the public is skeptical of—or even ignores—claims advertisers make about their products. This credibility gap can be overcome, however, when PR professionals using good promotional strategies step in.

The new PR-oriented model of branding focuses on the overall image of the company rather than on the specific merits of the product. This branding model seeks to associate a company with specific personal and cultural values that hold meaning for consumers.

Recently Toyota faced a marketing crisis when it instituted a massive recall based on safety issues. To counter the bad press, the company launched a series of commercials featuring top Toyota executives, urging the public to keep their faith in the brand (Bernstein, 2010). Much like the Volkswagen ads half a century before, Toyota used a style of self-awareness to market its automobiles. The positive PR campaign presented Toyotas as cars with a high standard of excellence, backed by a company striving to meet customers’ needs.

Studies in Success: Apple and Nike

Apple has also employed this type of branding with great effectiveness. By focusing on a consistent design style in which every product reinforces the Apple experience, the computer company has managed to position itself as a mark of individuality. Despite the cynical outlook of many Americans regarding commercial claims, the notion that Apple is a symbol of individualism has been adopted with very little irony. Douglas Atkin, who has written about brands as a form of cult, readily admits and embraces his own brand loyalty to Apple:

I’m a self-confessed Apple loyalist. I go to a cafe around the corner to do some thinking and writing, away from the hurly-burly of the office, and everyone in that cafe has a Mac. We never mention the fact that we all have Macs. The other people in the cafe are writers and professors and in the media, and the feeling of cohesion and community in that cafe becomes very apparent if someone comes in with a PC. There’s almost an observable shiver of consternation in the cafe, and it must be discernable to the person with the PC, because they never come back.

Brand managers that once focused on the product now find themselves in the role of community leaders, responsible for the well-being of a cultural image (Atkin, 2004).

Kevin Roberts, the current CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, a branding-focused creative organization, has used the term “lovemark” as an alternative to trademark. This term encompasses brands that have created “loyalty beyond reason,” meaning that consumers feel loyal to a brand in much the same way they would toward friends or family members. Creating a sense of mystery around a brand generates an aura that bypasses the usual cynical take on commercial icons. A great deal of Apple’s success comes from the company’s mystique. Apple has successfully developed PR campaigns surrounding product releases that leak selected rumors to various press outlets but maintain secrecy over essential details, encouraging speculation by bloggers and mainstream journalists on the next product. All this combines to create a sense of mystery and an emotional anticipation for the product’s release.

Emotional connections are crucial to building a brand or lovemark. An early example of this kind of branding was Nike’s product endorsement deal with Michael Jordan during the 1990s. Jordan’s amazing, seemingly magical performances on the basketball court created his immense popularity, which was then further built up by a host of press outlets and fans who developed an emotional attachment to Jordan. As this connection spread throughout the country, Nike associated itself with Jordan and also with the emotional reaction he inspired in people. Essentially, the company inherited a PR machine that had been built around Jordan and that continues to function long after his retirement (Roberts, 2003).

Branding Backlashes

An important part of maintaining a consistent brand is preserving the emotional attachment consumers have to that brand. Just as PR campaigns build brands, PR crises can damage them. For example, the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 became a PR nightmare for BP, an oil company that had been using PR to rebrand itself as an environmentally friendly energy company.

In 2000, BP began a campaign presenting itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” rather than British Petroleum, the company’s original name. By acquiring a major solar company, BP became the world leader in solar production and in 2005 announced it would invest $8 billion in alternative energy over the following 10 years. BP’s marketing firm developed a PR campaign that, at least on the surface, emulated the forward-looking two-way symmetric PR model. The campaign conducted interviews with consumers, giving them an opportunity to air their grievances and publicize energy policy issues. BP’s website featured a carbon footprint calculator consumers could use to calculate the size of their environmental impact (Solman, 2008). The single explosion on BP’s deep-water oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico essentially nullified the PR work of the previous 10 years, immediately putting BP at the bottom of the list of environmentally concerned companies.

Other branding backlashes have plagued companies such as Nike and Starbucks. By building their brands into global symbols, both companies also came to represent unfettered capitalist greed to those who opposed them. During the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, activists targeted Starbucks and Nike stores for physical attacks such as window smashing. Labor activists have also condemned Nike over the company’s use of sweatshops to manufacture shoes. Eventually, Nike created a vice president for corporate responsibility to deal with sweatshop issues.2

Blackspot: The Antibrand Brand

Adbusters, a publication devoted to reducing advertising’s influence on global culture, added action to its criticisms of Nike by creating its own shoe. Manufactured in union shops, Blackspot shoes contain recycled tire rubber and hemp fabric. The Blackspot logo is a simple round dot that looks like it has been scribbled with white paint, as if a typical logo had been covered over. The shoes also include a symbolic red dot on the toe with which to kick Nike. Blackspot shoes use the Nike brand to create their own antibrand, symbolizing progressive labor reform and environmentally sustainable business practices (New York Times, 2004).

Figure 12.16


Blackspot shoes developed as an antibrand alternative to regular sneakers.

Geoff Stearns – Black spot sneakers – CC BY 2.0.

Relationship With Politics and Government

Politics and PR have gone hand in hand since the dawn of political activity. Politicians communicate with their constituents and make their message known using PR strategies. An early example of political PR that followed the publicity model is Benjamin Franklin’s trip as US ambassador to France during the American Revolution. At the time of his trip, Franklin was an international celebrity, and the fashionable society of Paris celebrated his arrival; his choice of a symbolic American-style fur cap immediately inspired a new style of women’s wigs. Franklin also took a printing press with him to produce leaflets and publicity notices that circulated through Paris’s intellectual and fashionable circles. Such PR efforts eventually led to a treaty with France that helped the colonists win their freedom from Great Britain (Isaacson, 2003).

A recent and notable Canadian political PR effort is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s daily press conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic (a mix of crisis communication, issues management, and publicity). The photogenic Trudeau has combined his strength in public speaking and projection of empathy  (though not in making occasional gaffes e.g. “Speaking Moistly”) with the medium of daily live video press conferences to help his government dominate the airwaves, and be seen as taking action, thereby bolstering his government’s reputation in the eyes of voters, and improving its future election prospects.

Lobbyists also attempt to influence public policy using PR campaigns. In 2013, I worked with the Coastal First Nations to produce a television and online ad campaign to sensitize viewers to the dangers of an oil spill. The Coastal First Nations were actively opposing the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline which would bring oil tankers to the north coast of British Columbia, and were seeking to sway the federal government to cancel the project. Using archival footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill from the Alaskan government archives, and pairing it with an iconic song from Simon & Garfunkel (The Sound of Silence). We created a commercial that visualized the horrors of an oil spill and connected with our target audience (baby boomers). The message was this is the sounds of an oil spills (silence) after marine life and ocean-dependent industries are closed. The ad racked up significant views on YouTube, but even more significantly, earned additional media coverage from television, newspapers, radio, and social media, helping us to reach a much larger audience on our small budget. The Globe and Mail called it a “hit” and it won an award. 

Key Takeaways

  • The four models of PR include traditional publicity, public information, persuasive communication, and two-way symmetrical models.
  • PR campaigns begin with a research phase, develop objectives during a strategy phase, formulate ways to meet objectives during the tactics phase, and assess the proposed campaign during the evaluation phase.
  • Branding focuses on the lifestyles and values inherent in a brand’s image as opposed to the products that are manufactured. It can be quickly undone by PR crises such as the BP oil spill.
  • PR has always been an important part of political campaigning and activity. In recent years, branding has become an important part of national political campaigns.

1Theaker, 7.

2Klein, 366.


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