The purpose of public relations

Welcome to the very first chapter of #FuturePRoof, the go-to guide for managers of agencies and communications teams. #FuturePRoof brings together a community of 35 contributors and is edited and curated by Sarah Hall.

In Chapter 1, Mike Love talks about the purpose of public relations: what it’s for, why we do it and how PR can contribute to the success of organisations and the people who work in them.

We’ll be revealing a new #FuturePRoof chapter every day. Find us on Twitter @WeArePRoofed to join the discussion and read new chapters as they’re released.


You’ll learn:

·         About public relations today and its role in achieving organisational success

·         The value of building trusted relationships

·         How public relations will remain an important function where campaigns support the organisational goals and have purpose

What has public relations [1] done for us?

Mixing two literary references, the time has come to ask what has public relations done for us [2]. I asked some friends, and they said: Apart from…

Promoting, protecting and managing reputation; increasing brand awareness; creating memorable events and experiences; publicising products and services; helping employees to be more productive; bridging gaps between audiences; managing crises, issues and incidents; lobbying, briefing and educating; supporting business leaders and those who want to be leaders; guiding organisations through business transformation, restructuring and turnaround; putting things in the best light; mitigating reputational damage; and finding, writing and telling compelling stories.

Apart from all of that: Nothing!

Wisdom of crowds

This list is a snapshot of opinion crowdsourced from a diverse group of esteemed international PR practitioners who I asked to share definitions of the purpose of PR for this article.

Additionally, some mentioned audiences and channels, narratives, and my least favourite PR-y thing ‘messaging.’ Nearly all referenced storytelling in some way and a few mentioned ideas and creativity.

Most encouragingly, some included making and using connections, influencing, lobbying and persuading, facilitating debate and my favourite – ‘creating conversations.’ Many included references to digital communications, using social platforms and the ‘new’ mix of earned, unearned, paid and owned media. Nearly all of these definitions are concerned with the mechanics of PR, a list of what it does and how it is done.

The many, and strikingly similar, published definitions from the PR professional bodies on both sides of the Atlantic go beyond these mechanics. But they still talk of PR output and not organisational outcome. With variations on a theme, they define PR as a ‘discipline’ and a ‘process’ concerned with earning goodwill by building trusted relationships between organisations and stakeholders.

Beyond mechanics

This is all helpful, as far as it goes, but there is still no mention of personal, organisational, or societal goals. Is building a trusted relationship an end in itself? Does any organisation, whether commercial, political or cause-driven really have being trusted in relationships as a corporate purpose - is that it?

Definitions of purpose, in any context, should perhaps be more concerned with ‘why,’ than with ‘what’ or ‘how.’

Organisations and people in them should want to earn trusted relationships because trust helps communication flow and business work best. But are trust and relationships ends in themselves or is this thinking simply about the means and not the end, the output and not the outcome?

The difference between output and outcome is best explained from my own experience by the moment when as a political campaign manager, my candidates in an election (nearly) all lost. The next day I was repeatedly told that we had “fought the best campaign.” Clearly we had not. The campaign was simply output, the outcome was our defeat.

With a higher purpose

Only a very few members of the crowd defined the purpose of PR in terms of end goals, objectives, or outcomes and only two saw ‘purpose’ in the sense of a broader benefit. They spoke of PR as a way to make the business and life ‘better places.’

Such aspirations could sound more spiritual than business or professional, although many a multinational corporation now includes a variation on ‘making the world a better place’ as part of its corporate vision, no doubt drafted by their PR people.

More spiritual and high-minded considerations aside, ‘better’ can also mean being more successful in achieving corporate, political or cause-related aims, making higher profits, employing and retaining better people, producing better returns on investment.

Businesses aim to be more profitable and sustainable. Politicians want policy to improve the effectiveness of government for their people. Employees might see better employment in terms of reward, recognition and advancement – as well as the contribution made to corporate objectives.

My take on this is that the purpose of PR is to help people and organisations to achieve these objectives, whatever they are. Helping them to be better at it and making the world or at least their world better is a practical and grounded definition to run with.

Business disciplines

Public relations work is a means to this end, and an ever-increasingly more important means in an ever more interconnected and interdependent world.

In this context, the twentieth century marketing maxim that every touch with a brand counts is a good way to think about the power of PR in the twenty-first century. Every touch can guide opinion, influence decision-making, shape organisations, and crucially - change behaviour.

The purpose of PR is to support the achievement of the organisational purpose.

This is why PR’s place should always be in the room if not at the table when organisations are making critical choices. That place, recognised, consulted and included as a business discipline, has to be earned but it is essential to have for PR to fulfil its purpose.

This is probably self-evident when considering the place of executive and corporate communications counsellors, but it should apply to all disciplines of PR and communications. From consumer and brand PR, through corporate and public affairs, and issues and crisis management, to internal and leadership communication.

Speaking the same language

To be a business discipline, PR has to understand and use the relevant language of business sometimes literally finding the lexicon and mind-set which best suit an organisation.

I experienced this when as an in-house communications director I once attempted and failed to get the buy-in to my right-brain originated and presented plan to a board comprised of Six Sigma Management disciplined – no doubt binary dreaming - left-brainers.

Pictures met numbers. History and English collided with maths. We were talking different languages. After a re-think I returned with a plan consisting of Gantt charts, flow diagrams and gateway decision points. The plan was adopted.


Eschewing the much used ‘finger in the air’ school of PR theory, acceptance as a business discipline requires PR practice to be evidence-based.

PR provides decision-makers insight and intelligence with informed inspiration.

These are hopefully evidence-based and increasingly drawn from more complex data analytics to interpret an ever changing matrix of global relationships, connections, influences and stakeholder wants and needs.

The key insight is usually to be able to identify “what’s in it for me” for each of the players, to determine relevance, timing and best ‘chemistry’ for the people involved.

In the long gone analogue world simple two-dimensional stakeholder mapping usually considered familiarity and favourability of brands, organisations, leaders, products, policies or actions. Now that PR is the key provider of more multi-dimensional stakeholder mapping it can show how every touch counts towards the end-game and how PR work can demonstrate real business value.


The future of PR as a business tool is best secured when non-PR people in an organisation appreciate that value. PR people often cite moments in time when successful crisis management of one kind or another earned that response from colleagues: “so that’s what you do!”

#FuturePRoofed PR is best assured by not waiting for moments of crisis or opportunity, but by making them through being part of decision-making, ahead of and not following the next big thing.

The purpose of PR is to be a leader of change.


Mike Love has counselled cabbages and kings to be better at what they do through a nearly 40 year career in political campaign management and international corporate communications. He started his career with Shell, and has since held “in house” roles with the Conservative Party, McDonald’s, Microsoft, BT, and G4S. He is now a PR adviser with, and UK chairman of, a leading international PR consultancy. Mike is a past PR Week “PR Professional of the Year”.

Twitter: @therealitygap


[1] Public relations or PR refers to and includes all communications sub-disciplines [2] Apologies to Lewis Carroll and Monty Python