(A guest post from PR expert Deborah Folka).megaphone-1418072

“So, what is PR exactly?” This is a question that can confound even the most articulate and experienced public relations practitioner. And that’s because it means different things to different people and PR is a very broad field. But let’s try to get some easy definitions into your vocabulary so as a client, you’ll know what it is you want.

Public relations is a very young profession, compared to more traditional vocations such as physicians, architects, accountants, engineers and dentists. With its roots in the hucksterism of P.T. Barnum, it grew up through the middle of the 20th Century branching out alongside its more glamorous siblings advertising and journalism. In the early 21st century, it’s blossomed into a fully-fledged profession with a recognized body of knowledge, a code of professional conduct and a solid place at the management table. In fact, it’s one of fastest growing areas of employment today.

Still though, most people think of PR as ‘dealing with the media’ and that is one aspect, more accurately known as media relations. This can mean pitching a story about your firm to a newspaper or magazine; it can be sending out a press release about a new hire or product or providing training so your firm spokesperson is ready to do an interview with a journalist, as well as responding to calls from media outlets for comment on a story in which your organization is involved.

Internal communications is another well-defined activity within PR. Also called “employee communications” when it only involves messages to those you employ (e.g. via your Intranet, employee newsletter and staff meetings). But if your organization has other closely involved internal audiences – such as the members of a professional association or is a member-funded community organization – those communications could also be considered ‘internal.’

If your organization has customers, clients, patients or donors, communications with them constitutes another form of public relations. You may hear it called ‘marketing’ or even ‘marketing communications’ or ‘customer relations’ and it can take the form of your website, your social media platforms, one-on-one responses, brochures, special events, posters and even direct mail or email campaigns. These tactics are used in ‘sales,’ too and it simply depends on the language used in your industry sector or at your particular firm. Just make sure everyone knows your particular definitions so there’s no confusion.

Another branch of public relations that has been carved out in recent years is investor relations and it’s exactly like it sounds: the ways in which you inform investors in a company that is publicly held. This may be everything from the company website, emails, brochures, documents about the company and investing in it to trade show exhibits and materials for the annual general meeting and for regulatory bodies.

Community relations is sometimes confused with sponsorships, but it’s broader than that. CR refers to everything your organization does as a good corporate citizen – that is, scholarships, sponsoring a local lacrosse team, providing money or assistance for a community heritage project, hosting an open house for the neighborhood and supporting your employees as they serve as volunteers. CR embeds your brand in the community and builds relationships right at the grassroots. This can pay great dividends especially when your organization finds itself at the center of a controversy or crisis.

Speaking of which, crisis communications is the high-wire act of PR. It’s pretty self-explanatory as a title, but poorly understood by most. The advice and coaching provided by crisis communications managers is often dismissed as ‘spin,’ but ethical PR practitioners consider that a four-letter word. Good crisis communications managers always counsel truth, transparency and accountability, and smart companies have come to realize when the storm clouds gather and social media is abuzz about you in a bad way, it’s invaluable to have a calm, steady advisor providing guidance and helping you keep your stakeholders informed during challenging times.

If your organization has a lot of dealings with government – local, regional, provincial or federal – you may need to have someone dedicated to government relations. And that name says it all: building and maintaining relationships with the various levels of government and the regulatory agencies involved in your sector.

In truth, the best way to define PR is to remove the “P” and just think of it as all the work you do to build and improve the “relations” you have with all your stakeholders.

Deborah Folka, APR, is an independent communications consultant based in Vancouver. She can be reached at deborah@dlfcommunications.com.