Public relations is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation (or individual) and its (or their) publics. It's the key to effective communication in all sectors of business, government, academic and not-for-profit.
It is a management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organisation with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.
While the term seems rather simple, the craft of public relations has evolved to cover a myriad of tasks on behalf of governments, enterprises and individuals.
At its core, public relations is the key to effective communication.
Unfortunately, the term 'public relations' is still often misused and misunderstood - despite the profession turning 60 in 2009 (in Australia). This is largely because it encompasses such a broad range of philosophies and techniques being conducted by a range of practitioners.
The definition of public relations used by the PRIA is: "The deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation (or individual) and its (or their) publics."
However, with the massive change in the communication process brought about by the information era, public relations could be described easily as: the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organisation with the public interest, and plans and executes a programme of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.*
Philip Lesly's Handbook of Public Relations and Communication describes public relations simply as: helping an organisation and its publics adapt mutually to each other.
What is significant is that public relations people are pivotal to the communication process between an organisation/individual and their publics. They must understand the needs of an organisation and they must be attuned to the needs of the publics.
It is the job of public relations practitioners - whether they are individuals, in-house employees or in consultancies - to fully understand the communication process and to develop strategies, which ensure that any form of communication is clear, honest and unambiguous so that the messages are easily understood by the respective target audiences.
In many cases, an enterprise can have a number of audiences or stakeholders. A stakeholder is any individual or body who believes they have a stake in, or is relevant to a government, enterprise or individual.
This can range from media, shareholders of a company, the employees of an organisation, constituents of a politician, customers of an organisation, to the general public.
In this information era, the methodology used to carry the messages to the various audiences has expanded exponentially and are still expanding.
Experience has shown that many enterprises, and in many instances senior executives, are very poor at communication. Therefore, they look to public relations practitioners to perform this vital function. As well, they look to the PR industry for training in effective communication.
Critics of the public relations industry often refer to public relations practitioners as "Spin Doctors" - a pejorative term that implies a twisting of the facts to suit an organisation or individual and, somehow, bamboozle the audience.
It is for this reason that the Public Relations Institute of Australia has set down a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct to ensure that Members always behave according to the highest standards of our industry.
While there may always be two sides to any message, it is the job of the public relations practitioner to ensure that their messages are put forward in a careful and concise manner to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
The industry comprises consultancy and in-house practice, across a vast range of specialist areas - media relations, internal communication, publicity and events, government relations, public affairs, crisis and issues management to name a few - in all business sectors including healthcare, financial services, information technology, community, consumer and more (you can find a list of the variety of job functions identified through our members here).
Limited data exists regarding the size of the industry in Australia. However, the The Australian Bureau of Statistics put public relations professionals at 14,600. The ABS consider the outlook for the profession over five years is for 31.7% growth against all occupations which is set to grow by 13.3%. **
The Australian Government's Job Outlook site suggests that job prospects in public relations are good and of the 14,600 people employed in public relations around 20% (3,000) are currently members of the PRIA - that is 1 in 5.
* Source: Public Relations News.
** Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) monthly labour force survey and supplementary surveys, and are subject to sampling variability. Relative standard errors (sampling errors relative to the size of the estimates) are very high for small occupations. Occupational and industry data taken from the Australia Government's Job Outlook Website on November 2009.
Last Updated: May 2, 2013