The formal practice of what is now commonly referred to as “public relations” dates to the early 20th century. In the relatively brief period leading up to today, public relations has been defined in many different ways, the definition often evolving alongside public relations’ changing roles and technological advances.
The earliest definitions emphasized press agentry and publicity, while more modern definitions incorporate the concepts of “engagement” and “relationship building.” The PRSA National Assembly adopted the following definition in 1982: "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."
In 2011‒12, PRSA led an international effort to modernize the definition of public relations. PRSA initiated a crowdsourcing campaign and public vote that produced the following definition:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Simple and straightforward, this definition focuses on the basic concept of public relations — as a communication process, one that is strategic in nature and emphasizing “mutually beneficial relationships.”
“Process” is preferable to “management function,” which can evoke ideas of control and top-down, one-way communications.
“Relationships” relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders.
“Publics” is preferable to “stakeholders,” as the former relates to the very “public” nature of public relations, whereas “stakeholders” has connotations of publicly-traded companies.
As a management function, public relations also encompasses the following: