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Glossary of Terms

The building blocks of understanding public relations programs

The business of communications is built on key concepts and terms. Expand your understanding of the industry’s parameters and purpose with these definitions.

Key Definitions

Excerpted from the “Study Guide for the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations” (Third Edition). For additional definitions, see the Study Guide.

Advertising: Paid communication; information placed in a communication delivery vehicle by an identified sponsor that pays for time or space. Advertising is a controlled method of delivering messages and gaining media placement.

Brand: A product, service or concept that is publicly distinguished from other products, services or concepts so that it can be easily communicated and usually marketed. A brand name is the name of the distinctive product, service or concept.

Branding: The process of creating and/or disseminating the brand name. Branding can be applied to the entire corporate identity as well as to individual product and service names.

Community relations: An area of public relations with responsibilities for building relationships with constituent publics such as schools, charities, clubs and activist interests of the neighborhoods or metropolitan area(s) where an organization operates. Community relations involves dealing and communicating with citizens and groups within an organization’s operating area.

Controlled communication channels: Communication channels, media and tools that are under direct control of the sender. Examples include paid advertising, newsletters, brochures, some types of emails, organizational websites and blogs, leaflets, organizational broadcasts and podcasts, intranets, teleconferences and videoconferences, meetings, speeches and position papers.

Counseling: Advising management concerning policies, relations and communications.

Crisis communication: Protecting and defending an individual, company or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. These challenges can involve legal, ethical or financial standing.

Employee relations: Activities designed to build sound relationships between an organization and its employees. Employee relations is a critical element in fostering positive opinions and behaviors of employees as ambassadors for the organization.

Financial relations: An aspect of public relations responsible for building relationships with investor publics including shareholders/stockholders, potential investors, financial analysts, the financial markets (such as the stock exchanges and commodities exchanges), and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Also known as investor relations or shareholder relations.

Goodwill: An accounting term for the value of a business’ intangible assets. The goodwill amount equals the difference between the value of a company’s net tangible assets (total assets minus total liabilities) and the company’s market value. The asset is closely related to reputation. International Financial Reporting Standards require businesses to calculate goodwill value annually to determine how it has changed. The public relations management function may be responsible for protecting and enhancing goodwill.

Government relations: An aspect of relationship building between an organization and government at local, state, and/or national levels, especially involving flow of information to and from legislative and regulatory bodies. The goal often is to influence public policy decisions compatible with the organization’s interests. Government relations involves dealing and communicating with legislators and government agencies on behalf of an organization.

Grassroots organizing: An activist practice for creating social change among average people. Grassroots organizing is based on the power of the people to take collective action on their behalf. This public relations technique is often used to sway public opinion and move legislators to action. “Grasstops” organizing uses the same strategy but involves community influencers.

Issues management: The proactive process of anticipating, identifying, evaluating and responding to public policy issues that affect organizations and their publics now and in the future.

Lobbying: The specialized area of public relations that fosters and maintains relations with a government or its officials for the primary purpose of influencing legislation and regulation.

Marketing: The management function that identifies human needs and wants, offers products and services to satisfy those demands, and causes transactions that deliver products and services in exchange for something of value to the provider. Targets customers.

Marketing communications: A combination of activities designed to sell a product, service or idea. These activities are designed to maintain consistent brand messaging across traditional and nontraditional communication channels. These channels include advertising, collateral materials, interactive communications, publicity, promotion, direct mail, trade shows and special events. Sometimes called “integrated marketing communication.”

Media relations: Mutually beneficial associations between publicists or public relations professionals and journalists as a condition for reaching audiences with messages of news or features of interest (publicity). The function includes both seeking publicity for an organization and responding to queries from journalists about the organization. Maintaining up-to-date lists of media contacts and a knowledge of media audience interests are critical to media relations.

Press agentry: Creating newsworthy stories and events to attract media attention and gain public notice (although not all this attention may be positive).

Proactive public relations: Taking the initiative to develop and apply public relations plans to achieve measurable results toward set goals and objectives.

Promotion: Activities designed to win publicity or attention, especially the staging of special events to generate media coverage. Promotional activities are designed to create and stimulate interest in a person, product, organization or cause.

Propaganda: Messages specifically designed to shape perceptions or motivate actions that an organization wants. The word was coined in the 17th century by the Roman Catholic Church and originally meant “writing to propagate the faith.” The word took on negative connotations in the 20th century and is usually associated with lies, deceit and misinformation.

Propaganda devices:

  • Glittering generalities (broad statements)
  • Name calling (vilify opponents)
  • Transfer (guilt by association)
  • Bandwagon (everybody’s doing it.)
  • Plain folks (anti-elitism)
  • Testimonials (Cite a celebrity, an authority figure or “plain folks” to endorse a cause)
  • Card stacking (one-sided arguments)
Public: Any group of people tied together by some common factor or interest. Public relations practitioners identify and foster relationships with publics essential to the success or failure of organizations or clients. Some publics, such as residents of a specific neighborhood, advocates of certain issues or fans of a sports team, are self-defined. Members are aware of their connection to others in the group. Other publics are identified by public relations practitioners. They often use demographics, psychographics, motivating self-interests, status of current relationships with an organization, location or other characteristics to define these publics (for example: retired residents 60–75 who live within five miles of our store and want to maintain an active lifestyle). Members may not be aware that they are part of such a public. They may, however, acknowledge certain opinion leaders who influence their thinking on some topics. Publics differ from “audiences.” An audience is a group of listeners (or spectators) who may receive a message but otherwise have no common connection with one another.

Public affairs: A specialized area of public relations that builds and maintains mutually beneficial governmental and local community relations. Also applies to public relations practices by the military and governmental agencies because of the 1913 Gillett Amendment.

Public information: Information open to or belonging to the public. In government agencies, nonprofit organizations, or colleges and universities, the task of disseminating information from the organization to the public. The process is usually done through mass or social media.

Publicity: Information from an outside source that is used by news organizations because it has news value. Publicity is an uncontrolled method of placing messages because the source does not pay the media for placement and cannot guarantee if or how the material will be used.

Reactive public relations: Response to crises and putting out fires defensively rather than initiating programs. Reactive public relations is practiced in various degrees. Some situations require implementation of an organization’s crisis plan.

Relationship: A connection or association between entities. Relationship is the central organizing principle of public relations scholarship. Human relationships are often described in terms of interactions, transactions, exchanges of influence or shared communication between individuals or groups.

Reputation management: Systematic actions and messages designed to influence what people in key publics think about an organization. Reputation management has long been a function of public relations and is often a priority in crisis management. The increased use of the internet and related social networks has given added urgency to the practice. The immediate and anonymous nature of the web increases the risk of communications that can damage an organization’s reputation. Online reputation management is a growing specialized segment of public relations.

Special events: Stimulating an interest in a person, product or organization by means of a focused “happening.” Activities designed to interact with publics and listen to them.

Uncontrolled communications channels: Uncontrolled communications channels refer to the message-delivery methods that are not under direct control of the company, organization or sender of messages. These channels include newspapers and magazines, radio and television, external websites, externally produced blogs and social media commentary, and externally developed news stories.