Why is public relations difficult to define and why is theory important

It is widely recognised that public relations is a complex and varied profession that, because
of its infancy, continues to fight to find its place at many management tables.
The complexities associated with dealing with a variety of stakeholders only add to the
murkiness surrounding the definition of public relations (PR) and highlight the need for
practitioners to study and implement theory to ensure best practice.
In recognising the chaos surrounding public relations practice, Grunig et al (1992) perhaps
best summed up the reasons why theory and research are so important to PR:
Many leading communication professionals look to the scientific method to
produce a body of theoretical knowledge that will instil order on the chaos that
seems to exist in public relations. Communication professionals often seem to
flounder without direction in their work. In actual practice, public relations has no
consistent definition. Realistically, it can be defined as little more than “what
public relations people do”. The work of public relations people varies
tremendously from one organisation to another or from one practitioner to another.
To many critics, that work seems unprincipled, unethical, and atheoretical. (Grunig
et al 1992, p. 32)
This paper will argue that public relations is difficult to define because of its variety and
continuing evolution and also because its core reason for being – to establish and enhance
relationships – is itself a shifting thing. It is also because of these reasons that theory is
integral in ensuring best practice and effective public relations campaigns and also to give
practitioners an understanding of their role.
The role of a PR practitioner is varied and changing and requires detailed understanding of
many different fields, including management, media, communication and psychology
(Theaker 2004, p. 3). The complexities of dealing with human relationships and
communication and the differing practical outcomes of those relationships ensure that a
practitioner’s everyday activities typically include research, strategic planning, publicity,
community relations, government relations, internal relations, investor relations, stakeholder
relations, charitable causes and communications training (Yaverbaum, Bly and Benun 2006).
Those activities are physically evident in items such as media releases, company newsletters,
customer databases, events, lobbying and funding applications.
However, as well as the day-to-day variation of the PR practitioner’s job, there is also
variation within the industry. Botan and Hazleton (1989, p. 18) recognise that the
professional practice of PR is fragmented, saying ‘practitioners have no common body of
knowledge or even a common set of skills’. Their view is supported by Gregory (Theaker
2004, p. 61) who highlights that public relations practice varies between organisations.
Gregory states there is ‘no single blueprint for either the structure or the range of activities
that should be undertaken, and priorities will differ in every organisation’.
Bernstein’s wheel of communication (cited in Theaker 2004, p. 60) further cements this
recognition of PR’s variation. The wheel suggests there at 81 basic combinations of
communication channels and audience, as well as numerous ‘intra-channel’ choices –
highlighting the complexities of dealing with a variety of stakeholders while utilising a range
of communication methods (cited in Theaker 2004, p. 60).
As highlighted above in the excerpt from Grunig et al (1992), public relations is most often
defined by the practical outlets of practitioners’ work – ensuring that a consistent, industrywide definition of the whole profession is beyond reach.
A new profession constantly evolving
Compared with many professions, public relations is still in its infancy. Where law and
journalism have been a part of society, and an integral part of business, for generations,
public relations (PR) was only recognised as a profession in Australia in the 1940s (Public
Relations Institute of Australia website). On an international level, Cutlip (1994, p.xi)
highlights that PR is still a young profession that only began gaining ground in the USA in
the mid 1900s.
Giving public relations a set of defining characteristics is also made more challenging by
the fact that the profession itself has changed dramatically in its short history. PR has
changed from being message or publicity orientated to focussing on research, planning
communication and evaluation. This focus then changed again to organisational relations
before altering to a view in the late 1980s that practitioners should be focussed on
organisations and the social fabric of which they are a part (Brody 1987, p. 1). Current
practitioners and theorists now note that perhaps the most turbulent change within the
industry has taken place within the past two decades:
It is worth noting that the internet is reducing the gatekeeper role of the journalist,
as organisations can post whatever materials they choose on their own website,
and create direct links with their key audiences. Likewise the behaviour group is
no longer dependent on the mass media for information and can access events in
the environment directly (Theaker 2004, p. 24).
The youth and continual evolution of public relations makes it difficult to pigeon-hole the
profession into a simple definition. Technology, which continues to evolve at a fast rate, has
limited PR’s ability to settle into itself – the act of communication is almost completely
unrecognisable today as it was during the industry’s development in the 1940s.
People are unpredictable
The fact that public relations is centred about developing, enhancing and ensuring
continued positive relationships only clouds matters of definition. Swann (2008, p. 2) notes
that the emphasis of public relations is to build relationships with specific groups of people as
‘organisations and entities cannot exist on their own’. The intrinsic nature of relationships –
as shifting things that need constant attention – is both complex and subjective (Chia 2006, p.
1). Just as a marriage cannot be defined by one attribute, neither can the professional
relationships developed through public relations (Swann 2008).
Grunig et al (1992, p. 32) liken the nature of public relations to the social and behavioural
sciences, saying PR is ‘especially susceptible to human subjectivity because its practitioners
try to understand and explain the behaviour of people’. Chia (2006) states that the
characteristics of relationships, such as commitment, trust and satisfaction:
...are so subjective that attempts to measure them have been extremely difficult as
they change with each situation, with different clients and organisations and with
varied perceptions and interpretations of those in a relationship.
A working knowledge of public relations theory is important to practitioners for exactly the
reason discussed above – public relations is difficult to define. As stated in the introduction,
theory assists in bringing order to the chaos of public relations (Grunig et al 1992, p. 32).
Understanding what we do
Botan and Hazleton (1989, p. 12) believe that ‘better theories describe adequately the
activities and processes that constitute public relations.’ They argue that theories enhance
practitioners’ understanding of the reason and purpose behind public relations practice and
that they allow those in the profession to make accurate predictions about the influence of
outside factors on various stakeholders:
(Theories) suggest how, within ethical and legal boundaries, practitioners might
control the outcomes that derive from public relations activities (Botan and Hazleton
1989, p.12).
As well as providing PR practitioners with goals and desired outcomes in an otherwise illdefined profession – Heath and Coombs (2006, p. 198) state that theory suggests guidelines
for behaviour – theory also forces practitioners to think logically and systematically about the
things they observe and experience (Grunig et al 1992, p. 32).
To ensure best practice through an understanding of human behaviour
It is only through an understanding of the audience that public relations practitioners can
effectively and efficiently undertake their work. Smith (1993, p. 177) states that it is not
enough for PR practitioners to only use technical skills in their work. Instead, he says public
relations practitioners should ‘move beyond gut-level instinct’ to identify ‘predictive factors
that can lead to more effective communication between an organisation and its publics.’
Open models of public relations, such as Grunig and Hunt’s two-way symmetric (cited in
Smith, 1993), are defined by their sensitivity to stakeholders’ needs and can therefore benefit
from an understanding of psychology (Smith, 1993, p. 178). Smith states that psychological
type theory leads to a ‘clearer understanding of individuals who comprise both organisations
and publics.’ His own research has also shown that PR practitioners often approach
communication differently to the general public. Thus, he argues, by applying the insights to
be gained from type theory, public relations practitioners are more likely to communicate
with their publics effectively. (1993, p. 179).
An understanding of human behaviour and psychological theory also assists practitioners in
remaining responsible and accountable to their clients’ publics. Theaker (2004, p. 30) gives
the example of the effect of very thin models on young girls to highlight that public relations
is a powerful and influential tool.
Meanwhile, Turnbull (2007) also argues that an industry-wide interest in implementing
theory leads to best practice via an alternative avenue. He states that:
When everybody seeks to gain competitive advantage by tapping into existing
research the ongoing source of gain will come from supporting more and even
better research – to the mutual advantage of academic and practitioners.
As a young profession, particularly in Australia, public relations is still establishing itself at
both a scientific and management level. The technological boom of the past two decades has
already seen the profession change a great deal, making a set definition difficult to establish.
The youth of the profession, its variety and its people-based nature, means that practitioners
must be educated about and implement public relations theory to ensure they continue to fine
tune the profession and, as argued throughout this essay, create order from chaos.
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