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Public Relations

Overview

Public relations is a nearly $9 billion industry with a mission to manage and build the reputations of companies and individuals. It does this by aiming specific information at target audiences, such as the public, investors, partners, or employees, to introduce or maintain a particular perception of the company or individual. Two words closely associated with PR are image and spin. In terms of image, the way a company, brand, or person—and this can be anyone from a celebrity to a corporate executive or political figure—is portrayed in the media and perceived by the public is a strong determiner of popularity. Greater popularity can translate to increased product sales, greater company revenue, more fans, and even more votes. Spin is what happens when PR specialists emphasize information that puts clients into a more favorable light. For example, when a company or person faces a reputation-shaking crisis, it’s the PR representative who strategizes what to write about the situation and where and when to share that message to make the client look as good as possible.

Although most industry sources focus on the origins of public relations starting in the 19th century, the practice dates back to the early days of communication. In 50 B.C., Julius Caesar wrote Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which may be the first-ever campaign biography, to explain to the Romans why he would be the best person to head the state. To this day, political candidates continue to write biographies and accounts of their military activities to promote themselves. In 394 A.D., St. Augustine was a professor of rhetoric in Milan, Italy, delivering regular eulogies (prophecies) to the emperor. His role was similar to that of a minister of propaganda for the imperial court, and he was thus an early public relations manager. Today, his job could be likened to that of a press secretary or communication director to the president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln, known for his honesty and integrity, was an early proponent of the public relations profession. He once wrote: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

The public relations professional works to educate the public, debunk myths and rumors, and alleviate fears. And “the public” is no longer just one public, but rather many different groups, defined by age, ethnicity, interests, and other characteristics. Public relations professionals have long debated the definition of public relations; many believe that people still think of PR as revolving solely around press releases, which is no longer the case. In a March 2012 discussion of the “Public Relations Defined” initiative with New York Times writer Stuart Elliott, Gerard Corbett, chairman and chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), said, “Like beauty, the definition of ‘public relations’ is in the eye of the beholder.” For the initiative, the PRSA solicited the general public for suggested definitions of PR, through its Web site, at the end of 2011. The winning definition was: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

The structure of companies or departments in the public relations industry varies depending upon the size and type of the organization. Large organizations usually have their own public relations departments. There are also stand-alone public relations agencies that represent companies and individuals. Independent public relations specialists manage PR for individuals and organizations. Public relations specialists may work on staff or as freelance consultants for companies, nonprofit organizations, hospitals, colleges, or other institutions. Public relations specialists also work for government organizations, in roles such as press secretary and public affairs officer. Each public relations agency is structured differently based on its areas of expertise. For example, Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm, focuses on five main industries: consumer, financial services, health, technology, and industrial. Its practices range from experiential marketing, change and employee engagement, and corporate social responsibility (CSR), to food and nutrition, litigation, sports and entertainment, and travel. Edelman also has specialty firms within its organization, with specialties in advertising, entertainment, management consulting, medical communications, and research.

Job titles in the PR industry vary but in general the types of jobs include media relations specialists, communications specialists, community relations professionals, press secretaries, spokespersons, account coordinators, PR coordinators, account executives, account supervisors, directors or vice presidents, public relations officers, and independent consultants.

The public relations industry plays an important role in helping companies and individuals promote themselves, boost awareness (and sales) of products and services, and maintain their public reputation. While marketing budgets may be scaled down during a recession or slow economy, people will always find ways to allocate funds for public relations. The private-equity firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson reported that in 2010, spending on traditional and digital (word-of-mouth marketing) public relations services in the United States totaled $5.7 billion. In spite of the recession, this was a 12.8 percent year-over-year increase. Spending on traditional public relations services had also grown to $3.7 billion in 2010, which was nearly a 5 percent increase from 2005. Veronis also predicted that annual U.S. spending on combined public relations and word-of-mouth advertising would grow by about 14 percent between 2010 and 2015, to nearly $11 billion.

Uppers
  • There are tons of career options! You can choose from a wide variety of areas within public relations in which to work. And whether it’s nonprofit, corporate, or independently owned agencies, you’ll find an environment to match your personality and fit your needs.
  • Bring your passion to work. You can do this in public relations by specializing in an industry that interests you. Some examples of niche public relations agencies: The Stunt Company (“Publicizing & Kicking Ass Since 2001”), http://stuntcompany.com, and The MuseBox, http://themusebox.net, are music PR companies; At The Table Public Relations, http://www.atthetablepr.com, specializes in food-related public relations; and Catalyst Public Relations, http://www.catalystpublicrelations.com, “Explores consumer’s passion for sports, entertainment, and active lifestyle.”
  • Public relations work is varied. Each day offers different challenges. The only reason you’ll pay any attention to the clock is to make sure that you’re on schedule to meet your deadlines.
  • If you work for a small agency, you’ll have better opportunities to get more involved in PR campaigns from concept to execution. Small agencies can give you hands-on experience in all facets of the business.
  • PR is a stimulating, creative field. It involves brainstorming with others, pitching story ideas to and writing for various media, coming up with ideas for campaigns, attending events, and more. You may get tired but you won’t be bored.
Downers
  • Speaking of tired…the deadlines can wear you down. The work is often fast paced and overwhelming. The news is a big part of what drives the public relations industry, and as soon as the news hits, PR professionals must be ready to act. Work/life balance is therefore an issue at times.
  • It’s a “dog-eat-dog” world in the public relations field. Competition is fierce and pay is frequently low for entry-level positions. On the positive side, steady commitment and good work will lead to advancement and better paying jobs.
  • Not all clients are easy to work with. Casting the “problem children” in the best light and strategizing ways to effectively promote and publicize them or their company’s brand or product is challenging. Professionalism and diplomacy serve you well here.
  • Information overload! Public relations professionals get hit with it from all sides, 24/7: online news blasts, tweets, Facebook status updates, e-mails, print publications, phone calls, and then there’s TV and radio to cover. It’s all incoming and they have to weed through it quickly to respond. Knowing what’s important and what to disregard is critical. Having a sense of humor helps too.
  • Social media is a blessing and a curse. PR professionals can find information and be in touch instantly with media and target audiences through various outlets, as can their clients—and thus, the curse. A common problem in the business is clients who tweet or post Facebook statuses without considering the readers and the potential for misunderstandings. They may not mean to offend, but it can and does happen. PR reps need to use good judgment and think and act fast to clear the damage.