What is Public Relations?

Public relations is a set of activities through which organizations build and maintain positive relationships with the public. For-profit business and non-profit organizations use public relations to communicate with customers, suppliers, investors, and the local community. In short, public relations lets the public know who a company is, and what they do.

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Both Fortune 500 companies and small businesses rely on public relations to build support and to protect their reputation when things go wrong. Many large and medium organizations have their own public relations department (sometimes called a corporate communications or press office), while smaller businesses may integrate public relations duties with other managerial roles, or hire public relations firms and consultants.


Areas of focus in public relations include:

  • Media relations: working with news outlets
  • Community relations: participating in local business groups and building a positive reputation for the company
  • Government affairs: communicating with legislators and government groups
  • Financial relations: maintaining relationships with regulatory agencies, investors, shareholders, and industry analysts
  • Trade relations: maintaining relationships with other firms in the same industry

Public relations can be useful at all stages of a company’s life: to build presence and credibility in the beginning years, and to keep the public informed about growth and transitions as the years go on. Nor is this communication necessarily a one-way street: public relations also involves surveys, polls, public meetings, and other techniques that provide feedback for an organization about what their clients consider important. And while corporations rely on public relations to increase sales, non-profit groups also rely on public relations to maintain their image, communicate their message, to raise money. Even politicians, athletes, and celebrities rely on public relations.

Public relations has been part of American life since the early 19th century, and gained importance during the 20th century with the development of the mass media. Journalists are frequently hired in the field, since their writing skills and strategic understanding of the media industry come in handy. In the last few years, the internet has become increasingly important in the industry, as many firms post their public relations materials online or send virtual press releases. Social media has recently presented a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for the field, with more chances than ever to communicate and monitor messages. Opinion polling and surveys have also become an increasingly popular part of the public relations toolbox.

Salary and Occupational Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the following employment information about public relations managers and specialists:

  • 2010 median pay: $27.67 per hour and $57,550 annually
  • Number of Jobs, 2010: 320,000
  • Projected job growth rate 2010-20: 21% (faster than average)
  • Entry-level education: Bachelor’s degree. (8% of public relations specialists have an associate’s degree, 66% have a Bachelor’s degree, and 15% have a Master’s degree.)

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