What is Public Relations, Anyway?

By: Rob Clark

5 minute read

I was visiting home recently when my grandpa asked me, “So, what do you do? What is public relations?” It was a simple enough question. But this question symbolized almost every interaction I have when asked about my major. 

As public relations students, not everyone is going to know what we’re learning. After all, we aren’t studying nursing or accounting – majors that most people understand the duties of. I’ve heard before that as a public relations professional one of the things I’ll need to get used to is people in my life not really understanding what I do. 

I disagree. 

It’s our job as public relations professionals to be able to explain what exactly public relations is and the value it offers. After all, how can we expect others to understand the role and value of public relations if we can’t explain it ourselves? 

It’s my hope this blog post will help you, a young public relations professional, have a better understanding of what differentiates public relations and how being knowledgeable matters in our life and career. 

Public relations is NOT these things

Public relations is not just media relations. While this is a component of the job, there is so much more to public relations than any one thing. (Image via Spin Sucks)

Let’s start with what public relations isn’t in response to some ways people in my life have describe it. 

Public relations is not:

●      Media relations

●      Putting a positive spin on something

●      Advertising for nonprofits  

●      Just talking with people

So, what exactly is public relations? If you’re like me, you probably know public relations when you see it but have trouble putting it into words. It might help to explain what public relations isn’t, based on some common misconceptions. 


It’s not marketing

Sure, marketing and public relations do some similar things. However, there are also key differences.


●      Place attention on the specific product (we focus on the organization as a whole)

●      Only try to reach customers (current or potential)

●      Focus on sales results 

●      Measure success differently

It’s also not another word for advertising

A simple but accurate explanation of the simple differences between marketing, advertising and public relations. (Image via CTES Consulting)

Advertising and public relations are easy to confuse. They do a lot of similar things, but they carry them out in different ways. 

Also, if you’re like me, a lot of your classes cover both public relations and advertising while featuring a mix of AD/PR students. However, there are of course still differences. 


●      Focus more on generating sales

●     Only target external audiences

●      Work toward a shorter-term goal

●      Pay for media coverage

●      Measure success differently

Public relations has its own unique features

Just as marketers and advertisers have things unique to what they do, as public relations professionals we have things unique to what we do. 

Some features that are unique to the practice of public relations are:

●      Unpaid, but more trustworthy media coverage (people tend to believe what others say about you more than what you say about yourself)

●      Managing the image, reputation and promotion of the organization as a whole

●      Internal communication 

●      Communication with all stakeholders (customers, government officials, board members, etc.)

●      Crisis planning and communication 

We also have a range of career options as public relations professionals. The three main options are: 

●      Agency – Working with a range of different clients that hire the agency you work for.

●      In-house – Working for only one client. 

●      Nonprofit – Similar to in-house, you only work for one client. This client is a nonprofit organization

I understand what public relations is. What’s next?

So, you understand and can articulate what public relations is. 


It’s important for us to really understand what we’re doing. We should be able to explain it, how it differs from other fields and the value it offers. However, there’s still a big question that needs to be answered…

Do the people who can hire me understand public relations?

Unfortunately, many small business owners think public relations is only for globally recognized organizations and fail to see how it can also benefit them and their business. (Image via pixabay)

This is the real question. For us to succeed, the people who have the power and money to hire us need to understand what we do and see the value in it. 

Luckily, many bigger organizations’ perceptions of public relations have changed over time. It has gone from being seen as something that’s only needed if times are tough, to being recognized as a critical day-to-day function.  

Many high-level executives have realized that public relations can help raise an organization’s visibility, enhance the organization’s credibility and help diffuse or minimize a crisis.

This shift in attitude can be seen in the job growth public relations has experienced.  

Unfortunately, there’s still a disconnect between perception and reality in some areas. Many small business owners have the misconception that public relations is only for big, globally recognized organizations. 

They fail to realize that public relations can also help them grow their business’ brand image, strengthen brand relationships and provide connections to other resources.

So, what can I do to help?

The good news is that reading this blog post is an example of what you can do to help! We should be able to show and explain to people and decision-makers, big and small, the value public relations has. Part of being able to do this is always trying to learn more and keeping up with industry news and trends.

Being able to explain the value of public relations is good for the profession, which is good for us.But it’s also good for the people benefitting from the services we provide. It’s a win-win-win.

Just as I can clearly explain to my grandpa what public relations is, I can also explain to a business owner the functions of public relations and the value it offers her company. Hopefully after reading this, you’re able to do the same or are inspired to do your own research and reach that point. 

Take the steps to be a knowledgeable, confident public relations professional and do your part to help move your career and the industry forward. 

This way, the next time you’re asked, “What is public relations, anyway?” there’s no reason to sweat it.  

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