What are Public Relations?

There are as many different definitions of public relations as there are public relations professionals. No two public relations jobs are the same. According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), job descriptions can include responsibilities such as media relations, marketing communications, social media, community relations, special events, crisis management, research, and employee communications.

The PRSA National Assembly adopted the following definition in 1982: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

The Princeton Review notes: “A public relations specialist is an image shaper. Their job is to generate positive publicity for their client and enhance their reputation … They keep the public informed about the activity of government agencies, explain policy, and manage political campaigns.”

The Oxford English Dictionary added the term in their 1993 draft addition, and defines it as such: “A political press agent or publicist employed to promote a favorable interpretation of events to journalists.” However, that is just when it entered the dictionary—surely people were using it before then. The PR professional is also one who puts a biased spin to the message. One that will attain the desired effect.


PR is about communication. It is about influencing, engaging, and building a relationship with key stakeholders across a myriad of platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization, person, political party, or politician.

Colleges and universities offer varying degrees in public relations, communications, and journalism. A liberal arts and/or English degree also can provide a great background to enter into the public relations field. A desirable candidate needs to be a good writer and an effective communicator.

Associate’s Degree

You could begin with an Associate of Science in Public Relations. This would be a more expeditious and less costly route to start your career. A typical degree adheres to the principle that communication is paramount.

An example is a course in Interpersonal Communication. This course will focus on skill development in key areas such as self, perception, listening, verbal messages, conversations, relationships, conflict management, persuasion, and public speaking. These skills will enhance the students’ personal and professional relationships and endeavors.

PR also stresses the importance of writing skills. Your chosen program should include coursework in business and professional writing. You will learn about the various aspects of writing within business and professional environments. Coursework may also include analysis, revision, and research exercises, as well as substantial practice in composing business correspondence.

Bachelor’s Degree

You may select either a Bachelor of Arts or Science in Public Relations. The programs focus on developing your critical skills in thinking, writing, research, strategic planning, and execution. Courses in Electronic Public Relations, Writing for Public Relations, Media Ethics, and Law, and the Public Relations Campaign Planning Seminar enhance your communication degree.

The advantage of an undergraduate degree is that it will provide a more rounded education than an associate’s degree. In your first year, you may cover statistical methods, American Public Policy, and college rhetoric. The latter requires students to write extensively in a variety of modes and styles.

Of course, there will be coursework concentrating on your major. For example, a class in public relations strategies analyzes the PR process as it relates to PR theory and practice. You may also encounter a class in digital public relations that examines online, mobile, and social media tools in public relations practice. This involves the consideration of issues related to crisis and relationship management.

Since PR work is primarily communication, there are programs offered within the university’s School of Journalism and/or Communication. One example is a School of Journalism and Mass Communication that offers four undergraduate degree options for students interested in public relations. One of the majors is in Public Relations and Mass Communication. This program emphasizes communication. The coursework involves media writing, media law, writing for public relations, college writing, editing, and public relations campaigns.

Master’s Degree

At this level, you will see more specialty programs in this discipline. For example, a Master of Arts in Strategic Public Relations. Typically, this is a 16 to a 20-month program designed to educate leaders in public relations and strategic communication. You can gain skills in advocacy communication. This refers to the use of communication skills and tools to advocate on behalf of any brand, organization, social cause, entertainment property, celebrity, or candidate.

A master’s degree builds more than writing proficiency through the study of courses, such as:

  • Strategic Public Relations Research, Evaluation, and Insights
  • Legal, Ethical and Social Foundations of Strategic Public Relations
  • Business and Economic Foundations for Public Relations

Similar to Bachelor’s programs, some universities offer their Master’s degree within the College of Journalism and Mass Communication. This provides more opportunities to shift your concentration to advertising, journalism, mass media studies, or public relations. All of which will benefit your career in PR.

Some of the graduate schools offer a thesis and non-thesis option. One school has 12 to 15 hours in the M.A. thesis option with all courses dealing with Public Relations Management, Opinion, and Theory. The non-thesis option is 18-21 hours with the same concentrations.