Chapter 6: Contemporary PR Practice

Public relations is a large discipline that can be subdivided into five functional areas:

  1. Corporate public relations
  2. Agency public relations
  3. Government/public affairs
  4. Nonprofit/NGO/activist public relations
  5. Independent consulting (freelance)

These primary functional areas differ, but also draw on the same strategies, tactics, and PR models (though which models and tactics they prefer and the budgets to deploy them can vary wildly). Within each of these functional areas, there are a variety of professional specializations, some of which are common across all four areas, such as media relations, and some of which are specific to one or two, such as investor relations. Other interesting specializations include litigation PR, campaign management, crisis communications, community relations, employee relations, publicists, social media management, customer relations, and political work.

6.1. Corporate Public Relations

Corporate public relations departments exist by many names and in many configurations, often grouped together with marketing departments and/or reporting to the same vice president. Names such as “Communications and Public Relations” or “Marketing and Communications” are common places to find corporate public relations departments. Equally, the name of the person running the department may vary, from “chief communications officer” to “director of communications” or “vice president-marketing and public relations.”

The functions of these departments are varied and can include media relations, investor relations, internal communications (i.e., employee relations), digital communications, issue management, crisis management, and other functions. Added specific functions may include organizing conferences and trade shows, leading media tours, liaising with politicians and VIPs, hosting large employee gatherings, and managing the public profile of key organizational leaders (namely the president and/or CEO). These departments are frequently responsible for an organization’s overall brand and may liaise extensively with the marketing department (if they aren’t already a part of it).

Media Relations

Although not every organization is newsworthy or wishes to be, most larger organizations seek ongoing relationships with local, national, and/or international media. These relationships facilitate the flow of information to and from the organization to audiences.

The size of the media relations staff is relative to the amount of news coverage the company receives or expects. For example, a major firm with its headquarters in a major city will probably have a more active relationship with the press than a smaller organization located in a small town.

Due to their level of controversy or public interest, some industries generate more media attention than others. Organizations with highly visible chief executive officers (CEOs) also tend to attract more media interest, and many CEOs have a presence on social media forums, such as Facebook or Twitter, to facilitate public interest. Such CEOs may have a dedicated press secretary who is part of or liaises with the communications/PR team. The chief communications officer or director of communications normally has some hand in managing these communications, as well as preparing executives for major media appearances, key industry speeches, employee meetings, testifying before government entities, and participating in community events. This facet includes speechwriting, ghost writing op-eds, and rehearsing key messages and delivery for media interviews.

Investor Relations

Some companies integrate investor relations into PR/communications. Investor relations involves communicating with the company’s shareholders and the financial analysts who follow and report on the company. In a publicly traded company, the investor relations function must comply with a number of securities regulations regarding the company’s disclosure of its financial information. These activities involve the release of quarterly and annual financial results and providing timely information to shareholders regarding any event that meets the definition of materiality, an event that could have a positive or negative impact on the company’s share price. In fulfilling these requirements, the investor relations function works closely with the finance and legal departments, as well as the company’s outside auditing firm.

Employee/Internal Relations

Though sometimes undervalued, a company’s communication efforts with its own employees can yield the highest returns. Employees often feel they are the last to hear of major developments within their organizations, but the most successful organizations are now placing greater emphasis on keeping employees well informed, conducting an ongoing dialogue with internal audiences, and incorporating their views into management policy in a symmetrical manner. Much of the focus in internal communication is now centered on the role of frontline supervisors. When that individual does a good job of communicating about issues, employees are more willing to pay attention to organization-wide initiatives.

Digital Communications and Reputation Management

Increasingly, companies are prioritizing social media as a vehicle for customer relations, media relations, and even employee relations. In all cases, these can be problematic interactions.

Communications/PR departments often have a dedicated social media team to push content out and to manage the inbound traffic. The professional communicators in these roles must be well trained on how to communicate in the “corporate voice” (on brand) and must be able to exercise tact, diplomacy, sensitivity, and often humour (tastefully and cautiously).

Unlike traditional media relations staff who typically work regular business hours, social media teams are often broken into irregular shifts, with some people starting earlier than normal business hours and some finishing much later. Major global brands will sometimes have social media staff handling their accounts 24 hours per day.

Social media is now where corporate brands are often most quickly tarnished and also most aggressively defended, so this function is intimately involved in reputation management. A single ill-advised tweet from a corporate social media account can have disastrous consequences (especially for the sender’s short-term job security). This aspect of corporate communications is also linked to issue management and crisis communications.

Issue Management and Crisis Communications

Industries that are prone to hazards, risks, or product failure (such as the airline industry, the petroleum industry, pharmaceuticals, and so on) usually have dedicated crisis communications plans and personnel in place. When not managing a crisis, they’re training everybody else to be ready and updating their crisis communications plans.

The key to issues management is providing wise counsel to the organization’s senior leadership team whenever major decisions are debated. Organizations face many choices in the course of business and virtually all the major ones have a communication dimension. An effective corporate communication function counsels the organization of potential risks, predicts and interprets stakeholder reactions and behaviours, and helps the organization translate strategy into action.

Liaising with Marketing Departments

Many corporate chief communications officers spend a great deal of time interacting with the chief marketing officers (CMOs), or marketing heads, of their organizations. Although the marketing function usually has primary responsibility for selling products and services, the corporate communication function normally manages the corporate or organizational brand, as well as the overall reputation of the organization for quality, customer service, and so on. This activity may include corporate advertising that speaks to the attributes and values of the entire organization rather than of a specific product or service. It also includes participation in industry coalitions, leadership forums, and academic panels. Research by Stacks and Michaelson (2009) found parity between public relations messages and advertising messages, meaning that public relations should be equally incorporated into the marketing mix alongside, rather than as subservient to, advertising.

6.2. Agency Public Relations

In addition to in-house departments, many organizations—from small firms to huge global entities—work in partnership with public relations agencies to develop and implement communication programs. These agencies generate billions of dollars in revenue, employ thousands of communications specialists, and serve as the source of training and development for hundreds of young entrants to the field each year.

Agency Definitions

There are various types of public relations agencies. They range from full service agencies to specialists who fill a particular organizational or client need. Further, they range from being units of larger, umbrella organizations to individually-owned agencies. Some organizations specialize in areas such as corporate social responsibility, offering strategic counsel during critical corporate events (such as during mergers, hostile takeovers, or other major public transitions), or crafting organizational branding.

Full Service Agencies

Some of the largest agencies offer a full spectrum of services, from traditional media relations and event planning to highly specialized research, training, and social media expertise. Some of these large agencies, such as Ketchum, Burson Marsteller, Weber Shandwick, Porter Novelli, and Fleishman-Hillard are part of large media conglomerates like Omnicom, WPP, and Interpublic. A number of large agencies, most notably Edelman, have remained independent.

Public Affairs Agencies

Agencies such as APCO Worldwide are recognized primarily for their expertise in public affairs. These agencies focus on developing advocacy positions for or against legislative initiatives, organizing grassroots campaigns, lobbying members of Congress and other government leaders or coaching their clients to do so, and participating in and often leading coalitions that link like-minded members.

Agency Life Versus Corporate Life

The resumes of many practitioners often include experience in both agency and corporate positions, and many of the management responsibilities of the corporate CCO are also conducted by agency professionals. Agency professionals oftentimes build an area of expertise with long-term service for a client or within an industry, and offer niche expertise in resolving problems and crises.

The agency world offers the opportunity for varied assignments with multiple clients. A career path through the agency can provide opportunities in a wide range of areas, including media relations, issues management, crises management, brand building, event planning, and corporate reputation work. To some, one of the negative aspects of entry-level jobs in agencies is that they are highly focused on conducting events, publicity, and media pitching.

On the corporate side, most employees, especially at the entry level, are focused on a single industry or line of business. Since corporate departments are often smaller, the career path may be more limited, whereas agencies may have a diverse client list and numerous opportunities for travel. On the other hand, corporate communication positions can provide a more strategic focus, depending on the company.

Having said that, the line between corporate and agency roles is becoming less distinct. With the use of virtual teams increasing, clients are more focused on results than on the demarcation between the agency and the corporation.

6.3. Government Relations, Public Affairs, and Issues Management

Government relations and public affairs are the types of public relations that deal with how an organization interacts with the government, with governmental regulators, and the legislative and regulatory arms of government. Government relations and public affairs are discussed together in this section; the two functions are often referred to as synonyms, but there are minor differences.

Government relations is the branch of public relations that helps an organization communicate with governmental agencies.

Public affairs is the type of public relations that helps an organization interact with the government, legislators, interest groups, and the media. Public affairs are often issues of public concern that involve grassroots initiatives, meaning that everyday citizens organize and create a movement in favour of a certain issue or perspective. In that case, public affairs specialists would work to resolve conflict or negotiate on behalf of an organization, working with these groups to create solutions.

These two functions often overlap, but government relations is often a more organization-to-government type of communication in which regulatory issues are discussed. In public affairs, communication is directed to governmental representatives, including lobbying efforts.

In some organizations, the governmental relations arm or public affairs unit is coupled with issues management or it can even be the same public relations executive responsible for both roles. Issues management and public affairs are extremely close in their responsibilities, goals, and activities. Both issues management and public affairs seek to facilitate interaction between organization and the government or governments with whom it must deal. However, issues management is the larger function because it deals not only with governmental and regulatory publics, but also many other audiences. The governmental relations or public affairs function is more narrowly focused on legislative, regulatory, and lobbying issues.

In most organizations, especially in corporations, issues management and public affairs are inextricably linked. Organizations must manage public policy issues that they create as a consequence of their doing business. Organizational policy must continually be revised and updated to reflect the current regulatory environment, as well as the demands placed on it by stakeholders.

Issues management is the process through which an organization manages its policy and identifies potential problems, issues, or trends that could impact it in the future. The issues management process is a long-term, problem-solving function placed at the highest level of the organization. Issues management allows the top professional communicator to interact with government and stakeholders, advising the CEO about the organization’s reputation with those groups.

When public affairs and issues management fail, an organization can lose much of its autonomy, meaning that key decisions are legislated and regulated, rather than made by top management, often costing the organization a great deal of money or resources. Ideally, the organization would know how to best allocate its own resources and would manage issues in a more efficient and effective way than having those legislated and standardized across an industry, so maintaining its autonomy is generally the goal of issues management.

In issues management, PR practitioners not only look for emerging issues that can affect an organization, but also seek to build long-term, trusting relationships with stakeholders, both governmental and not. Issues management should be collaborative and based on the available research. However, not all problems can be resolved through communication and not all decisions will be mutually beneficial.

Issues management is normally conducted on a continual, ongoing basis in which the manager is monitoring, researching, advising, and communicating about a number of concurrent issues at any given time. How many issues are managed will depend on the size of the organization and the turbulence of the industry in which it operates. Successful issues managers are those who hold in-depth knowledge of their industry, problem-solving ability, negotiating skill, and the analytical ability to examine the issue from numerous perspectives. Below, a six-step process for ongoing issues management is provided.

  1. Identify public issues and trends in public expectations

  2. Evaluate their impact and set priorities

  3. Conduct research and analysis, categorizing and prioritizing issues, risks, and needs

  4. Develop strategy

  5. Implement strategy

  6. Evaluate strategy

(Buchholz, Evans, & Wagley, 1994, p. 41)

Arguably, the most important phase of issues management is the issues scanningmonitoringand analysis phase. If an issues manager fails to identify an emerging issue, the hope of creating a proactive plan to manage the issue diminishes.

Once an issue emerges into the public policy arena, the organization loses control of defining the issue and time is of the essence in its management. Monitoring for emerging issues and predicting the future importance of issues is called issues forecasting, which is a bit like fortune telling. We can never accurately predict the future emergence of an issue with all of its nuances and the dynamic interactions of the issue with stakeholders.

Another argument could be made that the research and analysis of an issue is the most important phase for determining priorities and how to best handle the new issue. The more research an organization can gather, the more informed its decisions should be.

A large part of government relations and public affairs is the lobbying process in which the research, knowledge, and policies formulated through issues management are communicated to legislative stakeholders. This communication often takes place while educating elected officials on an organization’s point of view, contribution to society, regulatory environment, and business practices. The legislative process is one in which organizations can collaboratively participate, helping to inform legislation. Oftentimes, lobbyists are hired to advocate for or against legislation that would potentially impact the organization.

6.4. Nonprofit, NGO, and Activist Public Relations

Nonprofit or not-for-profit groups are mission-driven organization that seek to advance some societal, religious, ideological, educational, environmental, or other ethos. They often have programs to further those aims at a grassroots level, such as by providing free or low-cost services, funding projects, or otherwise “acting locally while thinking globally.” For example, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) often has local animal shelters and takes government contracts to help with local animal control bylaws, all while advancing the cause of animal rights through public education and political engagement. Public relations efforts on behalf of nonprofits generally involve disseminating public information, persuading stakeholders to adopt the ideas of the organization through the use of press agentry and asymmetrical public relations, and the use of symmetrical public relations to increase donor funding and governmental funding of the initiative.

Nonprofit public relations often relies heavily on member relations, meaning that it seeks to maintain and develop relationships with supportive publics who can distribute the organization’s message and often pay a membership fee or give donations to assist in providing an operational budget for the nonprofit. Member relations is often conducted through the use of internet websites, magazines, newsletters, and special events. Fundraising (or “development) is the final, vital part of nonprofit public relations. Development is tasked with raising funds from both large-fund donors, writing grants for governmental support, and conducting fundraising with smaller, private donors.

Activist groups are special interest groups that arise around an organization in order to establish some type of change around their particular issue of concern. Activist groups normally arise from a “grassroots movement,” meaning that it comes from everyday citizens, rather than those who work in government. That fact makes it slightly different from an NGO and oftentimes activist groups are less official in the formal structure of their organization and its nonprofit status, compared to nonprofits or NGOs. Activist groups can be small and informal, such as a local group of parents banding together to protest a school board decision or they can be large and more organized, such as Greenpeace.

Activist groups can differ in their purposes and reasons for existing, and in the amount of action-taking behaviour that they undertake. Activist groups exert power on organizations in many forms of pressure, such as appearances at “town hall” type meetings, rallies and demonstrations, boycotts, anti–web sites, e-mail campaigns, letter-writing campaigns, phone calls to legislators, lobbying, and events designed specifically to garner media attention. Activist groups are usually filled with young, educated, and motivated ideologues with a strong devotion to acting on behalf of their cause. These groups are normally quite effective in their efforts to have organizations integrate their values into organizational policy.

One concept of note is the growing phenomenon of astroturfing. This is a corporate effort to simulate a grassroots organization that advances political positions favourable to the corporation funding the campaign. These campaigns are not truly grassroots in any respect, but companies go to great lengths to simulate the notion that there is broad, popular, activist appeal to whatever political position they are advancing, as opposed merely to their own self-interest. Such odious practices are perhaps most commonly seen coming from the fossil fuel industry.

How to Respond to Activism

Organizations might attempt to “ignore” activist pressure, but that approach simply does not work because it often prolongs or exacerbates the activist group’s campaign. When the organization stonewalls, activist groups normally approach elected officials and ask for the organization to be investigated, fined, and/or regulated. Activists also employ various forms of media that can both influence legislators and change public opinion, building support for their perspective that can be used in creating turbulence for the organization.

The most effective way that public relations can deal with activist groups is to engage them in a give-and-take or symmetrical dialogue to discover their issues of concern, values, wants, and priorities. Collaborative efforts to resolve conflict normally lessen the damage resulting from conflict for organizations; refusing to deal with activist groups protracts the dispute. The efficacy of activist groups cannot be underestimated.

6.5. Independent Consulting (Freelance)

Sometimes freelance PR consultants incorporate themselves and operate as a corporation of one; some stay small enough that formal incorporation is unnecessary. However, this is usually a one-person show that either works in a very particular niche or with a very select group of clients (or both). Clients frequently include local/regional businesses, start-ups, mid-sized non-profit organizations, and other specialized groups, such as labour unions or trade associations.

In terms of job security, this is about as low as it gets, but this type of work is often “feast or famine” in its revenue stream. A skilled PR practitioner can command billings competitive with other professional experts, such as lawyers, and securing a retainer or contract with a client can be very lucrative. However, long stretches without steady income can occur. During such times, an independent consultant needs to market their services to new clients and pay their living expenses out of pocket (meaning that those previously secured lucrative contracts need to be directed towards savings more than spending). Before embarking on this as a career path, one would be wise to have at least six months of living expenses in pocket to allow time to secure paying clients. Anything less could pose a serious risk to personal financial security.

From the above, being a freelance consultant most closely resembles agency PR, except that the freelance consultant is an agency of one, with no support, no backup, and nobody else’s specialization to draw on when needed. The primary challenge for independent PR consultants—other than securing clients—is understanding the needs of each unique client and catering the service provided to meet those needs, ensuring that the service delivered achieves the needed results. This can be easier said than done, as client needs, wants, and expectations are not always in alignment and may need to be managed with tact, skill, and diplomacy.


Buchholz, R.A., Evans, W.D., & Wagley, R.A. (1994). Management responses to public issues: Concepts and cases in strategy formulation (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Stacks, D.W. & Michaelson, D. (2009). Exploring the comparative communications effectiveness of advertising and public relations: A replication and extension of prior experiments. Public Relations Journal, 3(3), 1-22.


Parts of this chapter were adapted from Public Relations, published by Andy Schmitz in the 2012 Book Archive, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 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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