Chapter 1: A Brief Introduction to Public Relations

As surely as “HR” means “human resources” and “FB” means “Facebook,” the letters “PR” refer to “public relations” and that is how the professional world and this textbook refer to it: PR. The craft of public relations has some stigma and negative connotations attached to it, owing in large part to the pervasive sentiment that there is something dishonest, manipulative, self-serving, or unethical to the practice. While there are always examples to reinforce that unfortunate image, the best practitioners of PR prize honesty, ethical behaviour, and building of mutually beneficial relationships.

Most PR practitioners work on behalf of their employers or clients; fewer act as their own agents. If we’re willing to categorize top executives, politicians, and other leadership positions into the category of PR practitioners, those would be examples of practitioners acting as their own agents; however, those people usually have skilled PR practitioners supporting them behind the scenes. The overarching goal of PR practitioners is to build and maintain honest, ethical, and mutually beneficial relationships between their client/employer and the stakeholders upon whom they rely, whether those are customers, investors, governments, employees, journalists, or even competitors (among many other types of stakeholders).

The origins of PR are historic, with study of the craft dating as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. The professionalization of PR emerged in the early 20th century and, by the late 20th century, it was an established function of most major organizations. Now in the 21st century, the craft is evolving for a digital world; PR practitioners are increasing in number and their role is increasing in scope, especially as the profitability of traditional media (namely newspapers, but also radio and television) is challenged.

So, how would one define “PR”? Here are a few definitions.

Perhaps the most famous definition among PR scholars, James Grunig and Todd Hunt (1984) defined public relations as “the management of communication between an organization and its publics” (p. 4.). (The word “publics” is akin to “audiences” or “stakeholders” in the world of PR.)

Here’s another noteworthy definition of PR: “The management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the public on whom its success or failure depends” (Cutlip & Center, 1982).

The Public Relations Society of America defines the term as follows: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (n.d.).

Regardless of which definition one prefers, there is one constant: PR is about the relationship between a communicator and its audience(s), so the craft is aptly named. And what does one want from their relationships? Mutual benefit, trust, longevity: these are the desired outcomes of quality PR practice.

Today, the practice of PR ranges from small organizations spending little or no money to connect with the local community to multinational campaigns spending millions of dollars to push for global change. A PR campaign can be fully digital or fully real-world or any blend of the two. The craft is highly sensitive to changes in society, culture, politics, and technology, adapting constantly, and far too often forgetting important lessons from the past.

This OER textbook introduces students to the past and present of PR, looking at theories and models on the way to studying the comprehensive communication process. The book discusses the PR environment, audience analysis, how to develop a PR strategy, and what tactics to deploy to send carefully crafted messages to targeted audiences. Finally, the book emphasizes specific—but critically important—niches in media relations and crisis communications, along with other specializations such as government relations, investor relations, entertainment and sports PR, and grassroots campaigns.

In all, this OER textbook is designed to give students the primer they need to speak and understand the language of PR, as well as understand the fundamental methods used by PR practitioners to establish and maintain “mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the public on whom its success or failure depends” (Cutlip & Center, 1982).

Public Relations Versus Marketing Versus Advertising

Many people confuse public relations with marketing and advertising. Although there are similarities, there also are key differences.

Probably the most important difference between marketing, public relations, and advertising is the primary focus. Public relations emphasizes cultivating relationships between an organization or individual and key publics for the purpose of managing the client’s image. This can be confusing because an organization depends on its relationship with its customers and communicating with customers is the work of marketing. Marketing is the process of getting a product to a customer for a profit. The so-called “marketing mix” traditionally includes the “4 Ps”: products (what is being sold), prices (how much a customer must pay), promotion (motivating the customer to make a purchase), and placement (creating availability for the customer to complete the purchase). The most common tool used to promote a product is advertising. Advertising is a communication tool used by marketers to create awareness of products and to motivate customers to buy them, but it can also be used by public relations professionals to communicate non-sales messages.

In short, if a communicator is trying to get a product to a consumer for a profit, it’s probably marketing. If a communicator is managing a relationship with a target audience or other stakeholder group, but not in the immediate process of selling a product, it’s probably public relations.


Cutlip, S. & Center, A. (1982). Effective public relations. Prentice-Hall.

Grunig, J. & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. Wadsworth.

Public Relations Society of America. (n.d.). About public relations.


Parts of this chapter were adapted from Writing for Strategic Communication Industries by Jasmine Roberts, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


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Public Relations: From Strategy to Action Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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