I majored in journalism, with a public relations emphasis, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This was before e-mail. I was taught by some of the best in the industry how to spot, and write, a good story. We wrote straight news, contrast and staccato leads of 45 words or less. We used the pyramid. We adopted the AP Stylebook as our bible. We answered who, what, when, where, why, and how. We put together the school newspaper by hand. (Give yourself 50 points if you know what a pica pole is.)
We students had it drummed into our heads that “public relations” is not synonymous with “publicity.” It was important to get this straight. Rather, we learned that publicity is just one tiny piece of the vast, and essential, management function that is called Public Relations. Thinking that publicity and public relations are the same thing is like thinking a screwdriver is the whole toolbox. (Related misperception: Advertising and marketing are the same thing.)
The formal definition of public relations, according to the authors of, Effective Public Relations (8th Edition) is:
Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics upon which its success or failure depends.
Note the use of the word, “publics.” There’s no such thing as “the public.” There are many audiences with whom a business must establish “mutually beneficial relationships, i.e. customers (a public for each of their various permutations), shareholders, employees, vendors, local community, the media and more. The well-stocked public relations toolbox is ready for anything: community relations, media relations, government relations, public affairs, crisis communications, strategic planning, research… A PR pro is ready to change the attitudes, behaviors and opinions of any public by disseminating information that achieves an organization’s objectives in a truthful and ethical manner. The tactics are endless.
“Publicity” aims to garner the attention and support of your target audiences, primarily through coverage by traditional and digital media or special events.