Re-Defining Public Relations

An effort is starting today to re-define “public relations” in response to changes in the communication landscape owing largely to social media. The New York Times yesterday had a nice overview of the effort.

A web site to solicit suggested definitions has been opened by the Public Relations Society (and numerous PR association partners) with a word cloud used to show common terms emerging. PRSA hopes to announce an updated definition of “public relations” by the end of the year.

Well, good luck with that! As most introductory textbooks in public relations will point out, there are more than 500 definitions of public relations. There’s even a Wiki page of PR definitions to try to make some sense of it all. In fact, talk to anyone practicing PR and they’ll seem to have their own definition. I am not entirely unhappy with the “old”definition from Cutlip, Center and Broom in their 1984 textbook: “public relations is the management function that seeks to identify, establish, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depends.” I like this definition because it has all the right emphases–management function (not a tactic), organizations (not just business or agency work), all publics (not just consumers),  mutually beneficial relationships (not just one-way communication). This works even in a social media era.

Nevertheless, I applaud the effort and have already submitted my suggestion. But I’m less interested in a new definition than the attention the effort will get to provide a more accurate view of PR in the minds of several of PR’s own “publics.” First there are current practitioners, many of whom do not have a degree in PR nor are members of an association. As such they have little knowledge of the breadth of PR, see it as a tactic (i.e. media relations) as opposed to a diverse discipline, and have little comprehension of an ethics code.

In addition to this “internal public,” a re-definition effort would hopefully seize the attention and respect of other functions in organizations who, as the academic literature calls it, have “encroached” on public relations functions. Such is the case when lawyers act as spokespersons, or human resources tries to own all employee communications, or marketing tries to steer branding efforts entirely from a consumer  perspective. On the latter point, maybe a new definition could force even some of the industry’s own trade  publications to stop referring to public relations as a “marketing discipline” (are you listening PRWeek?).

Of course, the public at large needs to have an accurate picture of public relations, which they currently get from stereotype, criticism of the “spin” of politicians, and popular culture’s unflattering insinuations. See my earlier post about PR in pop culture and the public opinion of the profession for more on that point.

As the project progresses, I would hope all contributors also consider the following:

  • History of Defining PR. The term “public relations” first came into popular use in the 1920s. But then, early practitioners like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and Arthur Page worked to move away from being called “press agents” or “publicity men.” For example, Lee wrote in a 1917 article in the Electric Railway Journal “The advisor in public relations should be far more than a mere publicity agent.” Eleven years later, in a letter to his largest client, John D. Rockefeller, he pointed out that publicity was not his business: “My job is assisting in dealing with the public.” In 1927 Edward Bernays took out a full-page ad in the January 29th Editor & Publisher to stress that a practitioner of the budding profession be called “Counselor on Public Relations” whose job could be described as “he interprets the client to the public and the public to his client.” So, in an era when radio was “new media,” practitioners were broad minded in defining PR. (See more about the history of PR and its description in my paper “First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s” in the Journal of Communication Management.) So, I hope the new definition will have a long view, both backwards and forwards, and not just respond to the social media moment.
  • Philosophy vs. Tactic.  I’ve had arguments with PR bloggers like the appropriately named Strumpette who say “PR is media  relations because that’s what the client pays for.” Maybe for some, but far from true for all. Note that Strumpette’s last post was in 2008. It lasted a long time with that publicity definition given what Lee said in 1928. I hope the new definition will emphasize the philosophy of mutual relationships with multiple stakeholders and not get bogged down in tactical duties. 
  • Aspirational, not Empirical. A definition of a field like public relations should not be merely empirical, i.e. based on observations of what its practitioners actually do. Instead, it should be aspirational in the sense of  setting the bar high and encouraging anyone who dares to call themselves a public relations practitioner to hew to that definition, and not drag the definition down. Lots of so-called “PR professionals” are doing it wrong, either by lack of ethics or limited scope. We need a definition to enable a separation of professionals from pretenders.
  • Breadth of the Field. Defining public relations will be a challenge because of the diversity of the field. For that reason it will necessarily have to be in general terms. The breadth could be considered in three ways: 1) roles.  Different PR professionals perform different roles at different times for different clients and in different organizations. These roles include boundary spanning, relationship management, public information disseminator, and vary from tactical technician to managerial counsel.  2) models. Roles could also be considered as models of PR. The classic four models of PR from James Grunig are publicity, public information, two-way asymmetrical, and two-way symmetrical. 3) sectors. While some indicate PR is all about business, or only practiced by agencies, the reality is that PR practitioners are plentiful in all three labor sectors: private (business), non-profit, and government. So I hope a new definition is inclusive of all the ways and contexts PR professionals can and will practice the profession.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on defining PR as well.

2 thoughts on “Re-Defining Public Relations

  1. Thank you for sharing the information and I agree with this as the term “public relation” has numerous meanings and definition but, it is used for only one purpose. To promote the business products or services to the target customers.Now a days, there are number of firms who are providing the service of public relation and while surfing on internet, I came across a site named as 3a world wide who is providing media buying services in Hispanic.


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