Posted in Communicating with the World (Academic), Quiet Stories

The Definition of Public Relations

Here’s an academic essay about Public Relations I produced for Auckland University of Technology a few years back. It delves into the true definition of the sector, at least from a New Zealand perspective.

Public Relations is a misunderstood profession for some. The community often see PR’s handiwork when large corporations hope to cover up bad publicity. Meanwhile studies show many senior managers in New Zealand struggle to fully comprehend PR’s place in an organisation (Sterne, 2008b). Are they corporate spin doctors? Are they just a branch of the marketing sector? It can be hard to tell. However it is important for both those in the profession and their many publics to fully comprehend the meaning of public relations.

The Public Relations institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) has defined public relations as, “The deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its target audiences.” The purpose of this essay is to critically deconstruct this definition and determine its legitimacy through the analysis of academic theories, case studies and other definitions.

However, before we can validate their definition we must consider who PRINZ are as an organisation and a source. According to their website PRINZ was established in 1954 to represent the communications management and public relations industry within New Zealand. After World War 2, PRINZ was one of the first steps into the professionalization of this occupation (Trenwith, 2010). In 2016 PRINZ had over 1300 Public Relations practitioners who followed their code of ethics (, n.d.).  The code of ethics regulates the manner in which they interact with both other PR practitioners and clients. There are also certain moral obligations that must be followed when interacting with the public. PRINZ have been and still are an important representative of PR practitioners. The ethical and professional manner in which they conduct themselves supports their credibility in defining what PR is.

Systems theory has been firmly established as a guide within public relations practice (Mehta & Xavier, 2009). “Systems theory provides a framework through which to view organisations and their relationships with the environment” (Mehta & Xavier, 2009, p.193). These systems, which can be closed or open, respond to changes in environmental pressures through communication (Mersham, Theunissen & Peart, 2009) The systems theory model consists of several stages. Input, throughput, output, outcome and feedback. For example, an organisation wishes to gather public interest in their product through an event. The input is researching how to go about this. The throughput is planning the event. The output is the event itself. The outcome is the public’s reaction to the event. While the feedback allows the organisation to learn by listening to the public’s opinion.

This feedback if taken on board relates to J. Grunig’s research into the two-way symmetrical model. The model states that organisations should use communication to realign their own opinions and behavior with their publics, rather than trying to manipulate how others think (Grunig & Grunig, 2008). These ideas seem to link pretty closely to PRINZ’s idea of establishing, ‘mutual understanding between an organisation and its target audiences,’ in a planned and deliberate manner. The systems model seems to indicate that for effective public relations, deliberate research and the planning of campaigns and events are an integral part of the process.

To show the importance of planning and deliberateness, key words in PRINZ’s definition, we only need to look at Cadbury. In 2009 Cadbury made the ill informed decision to replace cocoa butter with cheaper but less environmentally sustainable palm oil. From an economic standpoint it seemed to be a strategic way of managing the global recession. However there was a clear lack of planning from the public relations side. When Cadbury were exposed, ‘the mutual understanding,’ that is so crucial to maintaining a positive relationship was tarnished. Cadbury was forced to take on feedback and remove the use of palm oil from its products. In 2010 Cadbury fell from the number one spot on the New Zealand’s most trusted brands list, to number thirty six (Adams, 2012). This is a prime case study of poor public relations management, validating to some extent the importance of key words such as, ‘planning,’ and, ‘deliberate,’ in PRINZ’s definition.

Another academic theory to be considered is Relationship Management Theory. Within this perspective, public relations is seen as, “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the publics on whom its success or failure depends” (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 1994, p. 2). Center and Jackson (1995) have also observed that the desired outcome of public relations is public relationships. Effective public relations equals positive public relationships. Once again we can see how another academic theory seems to share similarities with PRINZ’s definition. PRINZ’s definition focuses entirely on the manner in which you create, ‘mutual understanding.’ Which is another way of discussing the manner in which you establish and maintain relationships.

The final theory we will consider, is the Excellence Theory. Over the course of 15 years the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation integrated a collection of middle-range theories into what is now known as the Excellence Theory (Grunig & Gruing, 2008). Grunig, Grunig and Ehling (1992) defined excellence as a set of practices that helped to, “build quality, long-term relationships with strategic constituencies” (p. 86). PRINZ’s definition of public relations states the, ‘sustained effort to establish and maintain,’ relationships defines what public relations is. It seems that Excellence Theory therefore aligns itself fairly strongly with PRINZ’s definition.

In 2010 Child Matters decided to align themselves with HMC communications. Child Matters had an interest in trying to create child abuse awareness. So HMC Communications devised an event known as buddy day. Hundreds of life sized cut out cardboard children are distributed throughout the community to help adults realize the social responsibly they have to associate themselves with this topic. HMC helped ‘establish’ a ‘mutual understanding between an organisation and its audiences.’ However PRINZ also states a PR practitioner should, ‘maintain,’ this relationship. HMC has continued to strategically manage the communications side of this event every year to sustain the understanding they created. This led to them in 2013 winning the PRINZ award for the country’s best PR campaign for a not-for-profit organisation, showing how important it is to maintain understanding once it has been established (www., n.d.).

PRINZ’s definition in a broad sense meets many of the criteria that public relations theories discuss. However to build further credibility it is important to compare this industry definition, to academic definitions of public relations.

In 1976, after the examination of 472 existing definitions, Harvard academic Rex Harlow came to a conclusion on what he believed public relations was (Mersham, Theunissen & Peart, 2009). “Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and co-operation between an organisation and its publics,” (Harlow, 1976, p. 36).

Both definitions share key words with one another. They both view public relations as a medium to establish and maintain understanding between an organisation and its publics. Although Harlow’s definition goes into slightly more detail with how this relationship should be managed. One thing Harlow adds however is that public relations is a distinctive management function. Similarly to Excellence Theory, Harlow’s definition seems to highlight the importance that public relations be understood as an important function within an organisation. Instead of being seen as a small part of the marketing function. For effective PR to take place it is crucial they be involved in the management and decision making process. PRINZ doesn’t specifically mention this in its more succinct definition, but this does not disprove PRINZ’s definition either.

Harwood L. Childs a Princeton University professor, wrote in An Introduction to Public Opinion (1940) that public relations should, in the interest of the public, help adjust corporate and personal behavior which may potentially have a social significance. Child’s definition looks slightly different to that of Harlow and PRINZ. The latter focused on the construction of a healthy two way relationship while the former focuses more on how organisations need to have their behaviors moderated and adjusted for the good of their publics. The three definitions all share a similar goal, that of having organisations appear in a positive light to their publics thanks to effective public relations. However Child’s definition feels far more separated and corporate. Childs seemed to believe positive publicity comes from modification of an organisations behavior. While Harlow and PRINZ seem to understand this but also understand that a realignment of behavior and ethics is just a facet of building a relationship with publics. And that the maintenance of this relationship between the two is what effective public relations is.

PRINZ clearly aligns itself with key aspects of the Systems Theory and Excellence Theory while supporting the two way symmetrical model. By analyzing key parts of their definition while considering other scholarly definitions, case studies and several theories one could align PRINZ’s definition with how a professional and successful public relations team would conduct themselves.


Reference List:


About PRINZ. (2016). Retrieved from


Adams, C. (2012, April 7). Cadbury fights for bigger bite of chocolate market. The NZ Herald. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from


Center, A. H., & Jackson, P. (1995). Public relations practices: management case studies and problems (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Childs, H. L. (1940). An introduction to public opinion. New York, United States of America: J. Wiley and Sons.


Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H., & Broom, G. M. (1994). Effective public relations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Grunig, J. E., & Grunig, L. A. (2008). Excellence theory in public relations: Past, present, and future. Public relations research (pp. 327-347). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.


Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Ehling, W. P. (1992). What is an effective organization? In J. E. Grunig (Ed.), Excellence in public relations and communication management (pp. 65-90). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Harlow, R. (1976). Building a public relations definition. Public relations review, 2(4), 34 – 42.


HMC – Communications. (n.d). PR campaigns case study #1: Buddy Day. Retrieved from


Mehta, A., & Xavier, R. (2009). Public relations management in organisations. In J. Chia & G. Synnott (Ed.), An introduction to public relations from theory to practice. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.


Mersham, G., Theunissen, P., & Peart, J. (2009). Communication management and public relations: An Aoteroa/New Zealand perspective. Auckland, NZ: Pearson Education.


Sterne, G. (2008b). Business perceptions of public relations in New Zealand. Journal of Communication Management, 12(1), 30 – 50.


Trenwith, L. (2010). The emergence of public relations in New Zealand from 1945 to 1954 – the beginnings of professionalisation. New Zealand journal of applied business research, 8(1), 51 – 62.

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