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What Exactly Is Public Relations?

Updated on March 5, 2013

Do you have a clearer grasp on what PR is after reading this article?

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Public Relations is a unique concept and profession. First of all, there are multiple definitions that try to imply what public relations truly is. However, due to its diverse nature, it is extremely difficult to summarize all of the obscure purposes it can entail. Secondly, public relations must recognize groups, groups within groups and the individuals themselves. For example, Toyota had to inform the general public of their recalls for faulty brakes, but additionally had to personally address those who were directly affected. Also, while there are certain strategies and theories that a PR agency, firm or practitioner can implement, there are no specific scientific formulas that will help generate perfect public relations. It is all dependent on the style of who is carrying them out. That is basically what Lattimore, Basking, et al. are referring to when they say, "you will need to build a set of theories to use and refine as you apply professional skill to the test of doing public relations". Essentially, they are claiming that no two public relations efforts can be the same due to varying beliefs and methods, and they are correct. In order to maintain a successful and lasting public relations campaign, each company or individual must distinctly recognize how to effectively inform, influence and communicate with their publics.

There are many communication factors to consider in public relations that could either help or hurt the message given certain circumstances. First is the idea of pyscho-cybernetics presented in a book by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in the 1960's. In essence, pyscho-cybernetics is evaluating a situation and drawing a conclusion based on information received from the sender. Clearly this is relevant to public relations because the reaction of the receiver(s) is dependent on the sender, meaning that they have the opportunity to influence them one way or another. For example, if BP Oil Company decided to deny fault for the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the people living there then they most likely would have been perceived as a company that has no remorse. However, they were able to somewhat save their reputation by showing the citizens in the Gulf that they were actively trying to clean up the disasterous spill that they created. Also, other companies made a point to contribute to helping the people in the Gulf of Mexico, which could be considered by some a good gesture and by others a way to get free media coverage. As it has been implied through these examples, intended messages can be reach the reciever through verbal or non-verbal actions.

The non-verbal actions relate to the concept of kinesics, which is a grouping of movements with meaning. This becomes a factor when body language and gestures are interpreted. It is very important for public relations professionals to be familiar with particular culture's gesture meanings so they can not only somewhat relate, but also not offend them. For example, a "thumbs up" is a good gesture in the United States, but it is considered very offensive in Asian and Islamic countries. It is equally as important to determine meanings of particular facial expressions and body language. Unlike gestures, facial expressions and body language are usually universal, but they are still very beneficial to PR practitioners. In one to one and one to few communications especially, it is critical to be able to notice when people are being influenced negatively, positively or not at all by the comments being made. Facial expressions and body language can sometimes provide more reliable answers to questions than verbal answers do. An example of this could be a public relations practitioner trying to explain the importance of being more environmentally friendly, and throughout the discussion the people listening were yawning and trying to subtly looking at their watches. The practitioner should be able to detect the disinterest through body language and modify the conversation a bit so it becomes more appealing to the audience.

Another factor to consider is that of proxemics, which deals with the issue of distance. Obviously, how close you can get to someone is dependent on relationship, culture, situation and many other things, but proxemics are significant in public relations. Proxemity can reveal information either privately or publicly based on intention and it can also result in peer pressure. Peer pressure may be applied on a PR agency or practioner by the public, or vise versa. For example, a public relations department within a company could be pressured by 50 people yelling and banging on their doors demanding for something to be done about a particular crisis.

It is evident that understanding all of the aforementioned tactics of communication can contribute greatly to establishing a solid individual relationships, as well as with the public. However, as Lattimore, Basking, et al. imply, the strategies that a practitioner uses will vary from one to the next. Still, it is vital to be aware of these methods and be able to utilize them appropriately when the opportunity arises.

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