Public relations involve the communication of intentional messages to the public in order to influence the opinion or perception of an organization by the public at large. According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRA, 2012, para 1), "Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics." Coombs (2004) argues that public relations have a function to "manage the relationships between an organization and its stakeholders" (p. 106). For Botan and Taylor
(2004), the function of public relations is to build "relationships with publics that constrain or enhance the ability of the organization to meet its mission" (p. 654). Cheney and Christensen (2001) argue that public relations encompass:
- Organizational communication: Communication in organizations and between organizations to further the organization's goals
Rhetoric: Study of audience adaptation, situation analysis, and message content in order to craft appropriate, effective messages
Interpersonal communication: Building and maintaining relationships between the organization and the public, and consequently emphasizing the importance of the making or breaking of those relationships
Intercultural communication: Study of how messages are crafted and interpreted in different cultures and, as a result, crafting messages that are appropriate for various cultural audiences
Public relations is a key communication practice for organizations, including nonprofit organizations. According to Gibson (1991), effective public relations imply that "organizational or individual needs are identified as informative, persuasive, or refutative, and when appropriate strategies and tactics are implemented based upon socially responsible, theory-based professional communication" (p. 177). Some of the common public relations communications include, but are not limited to press releases, media advisories, public service announcements, and press conferences, which are used as strategies to present information to the public, including constituents. Public relations may aim to persuade the public in order to change attitudes, beliefs, and behavior on a particular issue. Public relations can be in the form of refutation to mitigate the damage of a crisis or situation that can generate negative perception or a bad reputation about an organization or entity.
As previously indicated, nonprofit organizations are publicly supported entities. They have a responsibility of accountability, which is for organizations to use their resources as promised to the constituencies or donors (e.g., individuals, groups, institutions). One aspect of accountability is to build and maintain good relationships with constituents and the public. From a public relations perspective, maintaining good relationships with constituents and the public implies that people experience a positive image of a nonprofit organization. A positive image is more likely to generate monetary and nonmonetary support to further the mission of a nonprofit organization. Maintaining a positive image is a challenge for a nonprofit organization because people's perception and experiences can change rather quickly based on what Vasquez and Taylor (2001) call "situational perspective of publics." They argue that the public is not "a permanent collection of individuals with enduring characteristics; rather, it is viewed as a collection of individuals, identified by social-psychological variables, that emerges in response to a problem" (p. 144). The outcry when the Susan G. Komen Foundation decided to cut funding for Planned Parenthood illustrated how quickly public perceptions can change about an organization.
Some constituents are apathetic about what nonprofit organizations do. Others are concerned only about some facets of a nonprofit organization's activities. Some people are concerned about every aspect of the management and operation of a nonprofit organization.
Public relations can be used as a means to implement advocacy initiatives that aim to mobilize individuals, organizations, and the media to participate in support of matters of social or political importance. Public relations communications can help increase community awareness, build coalitions, and increase lobbying on an issue that is of interest to both a nonprofit organization's vision and the welfare of its constituents.