What is public relations? If you ask three PR pros that question, you’re likely to get four different answers. The profession is in flux as it strives to catch up with (and get ahead of) the swift evolution of today’s media and information markets.

However, if you step away from the swirling amalgam of earned media, digital content, social networks and online influence and instead focus on the audience, the answer to that question – what is PR? – becomes clearer for your organization.

The whole point of public relations is influencing audience behavior, wherever those audiences live crafting a brand image that ultimately inspires desired outcomes. Twenty-five years ago, the primary means of communicating with audiences was fairly limited – advertising, direct marketing and mass media were the core channels.

Today’s information reality requires more communications tools

Obviously, today, it’s a much different story. Audiences are in control of what information they consume, and when, and how – at least, to the extent the algorithms dictating what people see on media sites, search engine results and social media feeds allow.

This environment has given rise to a whole variety of new influence factors, targeting opportunities, content formats and a seemingly infinite array of digital channels and environments where the brand’s publics live.

Viewed through this lens, public relations looks a lot more like marketing than it ever has. It’s also inherently more measurable, too: web analytics and other measurement tools make it entirely possible to correlate and connect outbound messaging activity with audience behavior and business outcomes.

Clearly, if the charge of public relations is to influence audiences, the PR practitioner needs to orchestrate strategies and campaigns the reach far beyond traditional channels. Practically speaking, communicators need big toolboxes and the ability to tailor the tactical approach for different messages. On a tactical level, this means making specific decisions about the treatment of different messages and campaigns, starting with the required business outcome, identifying the related audience and engineering the communications strategy accordingly. Important business stories absolutely merit the full PR treatment, with pitches to A-list media and a full court PR press. However, the PR pro also needs to use strong news judgment and find ways to tell brand stories when media coverage is less likely, which in turn requires the communicator to have an ever-larger tactical toolbox at hand.

A new strategic imperative for PR

These changes have ushered in an important new strategic requirement, as well. The days of running a calendar full of episodic PR campaigns are over. Digital content has a long lifespan, and the content a brand publishes has an accretive effect, meaning brands need to make developing a coherent and connected digital presence that builds (and continually reinforces) the brand’s credibility, reputation, visibility and relevance to the audience a strategic priority.

On the macro level, “public relations” starts to look a lot more like marketing at this juncture. Developing compelling content that tells the brand story, cultivating relationships with influencers, developing and growing the digital audience, earning credible media visibility and tying these activities to hard business outcomes are all part and parcel of public relations today. Furthermore, the expansion of the PR remit also requires communicators to integrate their efforts (and calendars) tightly with the wider marketing organization, to gain marketing efficiency and create longer runways for important brand initiatives, generate leads and continually build the business.

Ultimately, this means the brand’s PR and marketing lead needs to have an innate feel for the audience, an understanding of the mechanics of influence, real social media fluency, digital marketing know-how and the ability to translate visibility into quantifiable results.

Digital influence is a big job – and an even bigger opportunity – for PR pros and the brands they represent. Maintaining clear focus on the audience is the key to delivering meaningful marketing and communications results.