Public relations professionals place articles in newspapers.

©iStockPhoto/Vladimir Jovanovic

In today's media-saturated culture, effective PR is a crucial part of any public undertaking. Image and public opinion mean everything, especially in the increasingly influential realm of social media. The individual or group who wins the media race will win the ultimate goal: the trust of the people.

Public relations, better known as PR, is the art and science of making people, governments and organizations look good. PR professionals work behind the scenes -- sending press releases, courting journalists, researching public opinion -- to position their clients as positive role models, ethical businessmen, concerned public officials, or at the very least, not criminals.

It can be difficult to tell public relations apart from advertising. Advertisers strive to sell a product or service, and public relations focuses on shaping an image. PR and marketing are even more related. Marketing uses research and targeted communications to achieve a desired action while public relations professionals strive to gain unpaid publicity from newspaper articles or TV news segments.

In this article, we'll start by defining exactly what public relations is, followed by what PR professionals do and the different areas in which they work.