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What is PR? A little of this, a little of that…

This is a guest post by PR Columnist, Alison Kenney.

Many folks smarter than me have struggled to answer the question, “What is PR?” (Heck, I can’t even explain it to my mom.) Last year, PRSA attempted to define public relations once and for all. Since it’s a new year, I propose a new attempt at solving this dilemma and respectfully suggest that the reason we can’t see ourselves to a clear definition of this profession is because the lines around it are so blurry.

Take the buzz around ‘content marketing.’ To me, much of what content marketing purports to do sounds a lot like PR. Creating content – whether it’s a white paper, a book, a video, shareable research or a forum for customers – has been a staple in the PR pantry for years. Only now, marketers are using technology to assign analytics to these efforts so they can be linked more directly to lead generation, further blurring the line between PR and other members of the sales team.

Sometimes, there’s so much content already out there that we PR folks are tasked with side jobs like editing and curating. We comb through this content, select the best pieces for our needs and incorporate it in our pitches and social media efforts.

When it comes to the ‘relations’ part of our name, we know we can’t afford to focus solely on the media. As most of us know, there are many ‘publics’ that we need to be concerned with. What’s new is a practice of communicating directly with customers, which means the line between public relations and customer service can get blurry.

Some will argue that PR is best suited to managing an organization’s social media efforts (whatever that means!), but that isn’t likely to end up being the last word. Since the sales, customer service, HR, etc. roles also invested in social media efforts, PR’s involvement in managing the process could end up blurring the lines between PR and those various functions.

Along with this, many PR pros are becoming more involved as an advisor and managing conversations and interactions between brands and customers. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I wonder if this ‘trusted counselor’ role could mean that the line between PR and legal teams is getting fuzzier? Will we see an increase in PR firms hiring staff with legal expertise?

There have always been people who have confused PR with advertising and new terms for different forms of advertising aren’t helping the matter. Gini Deitrich recently blogged about a new form of advertising, native advertising, that is subtle and blends with other content in this post about how native advertising will affect public relations (read the comments, too). Gini’s description of native advertising sounds like the ‘branded content’ campaigns that Ad Age covered in this article 7 Branded Content Campaigns that Got it Right in 2012. And they all sound like ideas that a PR team could have worked on.

What other roles have you seen morph with PR’s responsibilities lately?

Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on You can find her at Learn more about Alison Kenney.


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