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Public Relations


Public relations is a $20+ 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 communications 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 discussion of the “Public Relations Defined” initiative, Gerard Corbett, then 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. 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, among the world's largest public relations firms, has expertise in many industries: aerospace and defense, consumer packaged goods, education, energy, financial services, food and beverage, health, industrial equipment, and numerous other sectors. 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. Marketing budgets vary depending upon the state of the economy, but even during a weak economy, people will always find ways to allocate funds for public relations. For example, in 2010, on the heels of the recession, spending on traditional and digital (word-of-mouth marketing) public relations services in the United States totaled $5.7 billion, which was nearly a 13 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. The pandemic stalled growth in the global PR industry, dropping it to about 3 percent growth in 2020, compared to the 5.3 percent growth the previous year. The industry is on the rebound, however, with more than 8 percent growth in 2022.