I recently read an article in a local business publication about public relations professionals adapting to social media. In an early paragraph, the article was framed by pointing out that public relations firms “are charged with portraying the image of its clients in an optimistic light to its targeted audience.”
I reached out to the young reporter, new to the publication and to a beat that includes public relations. It will be great to have more stories explaining what public relations professionals do to an audience of business professionals in other disciplines. I’m all about educating people on public relations.
But that’s why I reached out to the reporter. As an educator, I said, I don’t have a hidden agenda or anyone I’m representing. I just want to represent the profession of PR, and help her coverage by providing a more complete, honest and ethical definition of it. She responded with thanks, and I hope she’ll call on me in the future.
I also spoke with some professionals about the article at an event shortly after it was published. One, who came into PR from another field, seemed indifferent and said “Look, I work in the field but I don’t understand its nuances like you do.”
But this is more than nuance. Journalists and professionals need to have a proper conception of what public relations is. Without that, the frame and foundation will lead to shaky assertions and unfortunate conclusions about what public relations is, and what it is not. We’ll have media portrayals that stereotypically minimize or demonize the profession. We’ll have people doing PR incompletely and unethically, giving more fodder to the misperceptions of the field.
I’m not some persnickety academic. I know many professionals who agree passionately about this. Of course people have debated the definition of public relations for years, but we left behind “image” and “optimistic light” in the 1920s. I know this from my own PR history research, including “First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s.”
Here are some points about the developing definition and practice of public relations over the years that need to be understood today by both journalists who cover the field and people who aim to practice it:
- Ivy Lee, an early practitioner, wrote in 1906 a “declaration of principles” and gave an address in 1925 to journalism educators called “Publicity: Some of the Things It Is and Is Not” asserting that public relations is honest and has a responsibility to the people beyond that of the client.
- Arthur W. Page was an early practitioner and the first to hold a vice president of public relations position (at AT&T in 1927). From his many speeches and writings other professionals gleaned a set of 7 principles. These are touted today as the Page Principles by the Arthur W. Page Society named in his honor. I often tell my students to memorize the first two–tell the truth and prove it with action. This directly contradicts the old and suspect “positive light” definition.
- Jump ahead to 2012 when the Public Relations Society of America re-defined the field as “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Read about the definition process online.
So, rather than equate PR with “image”, which can be created and deceptive, we should stress that PR is about “reputation” which must be earned and is based on actual public experience and is inherently honest. Rather than talk about “positive light” we should talk about relationships between organizations and their stakeholders that benefit all. PR is about more than “reaching publics,” it is about dialogue, listening and what we call “two-way symmetrical” communication. It is way beyond mere publicity. It is about counseling management not just on what they say, but what they do.
The definition of a field is not nuance. It is vital. It is the philosophy that informs and guides practice. It is the difference between being a mere practitioner and being a professional.