Blind Men, Elephants, and Public Relations

UnknownThere’s an old proverb about  blind men describing an elephant. One strokes a leg and says “it’s a tree.” One touches a tusk and says “it’s a spear.’ A third grasps the trunk and declares “it’s a snake.” And so on.

All are offering somewhat correct descriptions of what they experience. But they don’t see the big picture. No one points out they are touching only a part of an elephant.

Such is the nature of describing and defining the field of public relations.

The problem has existed for years, but I’ve noticed it in increasing instances recently:

  • a dialogue with a practitioner on LinkedIn who characterizes public relations as pitching reporters;
  • a New York Times article about Facebook’s “PR firm.” But upon upon careful reading  the firm, Definers Public Affairs, is NOT a PR firm but a political opposition research firm. They do talk about earned media, but even so it’s only a limited aspect of PR.
  • An article in Forbes that purports to predict the future of PR, only to characterize the profession as merely media relations and the future as digital storytelling. Most professionals and academic programs are well into the digital future, and storytelling is one aspect of what PR professionals do.
  • a business publication article characterizes PR as “putting your organization in a positive light,” which is cringe-worthy for its unethical implications and the ability to be synonymous with “spin.”

In short, characterizations of public relations–by the news media and, sadly, even by some who work or claim to work in the profession–either demonize what we do as dishonest or minimize what we do as mere publicity. They are blindly describing the only aspect of something huge, the one thing they touch.

What is really frustrating about all of this is that we are 100 years beyond PR being hucksterism or mere publicity seeking. I wrote a journal article about this some years ago, recounting how early practitioners like Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and Arthur W. Page proclaimed they were beyond news releases and focused their time counseling management about their relationships with their publics. This was in the 1920s!

We still have a media-cultivated view of PR. The articles I mentioned above are bereft of any reporting that seeks out a comment from a PR professor or a professional organization such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Arthur W. Page Society, The PR Council, the Institute for Public Relations, or others. These organizations would provide a much more accurate and complete characterization of the profession of public relations. They would describe the whole elephant, you might say.

So what is PR? It is many things. That’s the point. But here’s the key–don’t define “PR” by a tactic, but by the publics and the objectives. Public relations is essentially about relationships between an organization and ALL of its publics, also called stakeholders. “Stakeholder Theory” is a model taught in many public relations programs to stress the ethical nature of public relations being responsive to all people affected by an organization.

So public relations could be called any of the following focused on specific publics–consumer relations, investor relations, employee relations, donor relations, and yes, media relations–the media are both a public and a channel to other publics.

Public relations also involves all aspects of communication tactics, including but not limited to media relations or ‘earned’ media. Many in PR discuss the PESO model to emphasize that a PR campaign could use any and all tactics available–Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned. PR writing classes in the curriculum where I teach cover all of them.

Here are some more body parts of the elephant:

  • PR is a management function, all about counseling the CEO and others in the C-suite about the organization’s relationships with its various publics, all in keeping with organizational  mission and objectives.
  • PR is two-way–it is more than “getting the word out” or “raising awareness.” It involves emphatic and ethical listening to publics and adjusting to maintain mutually beneficial relationships.
  • PR is strategic. See above bullet. Many communication theories are vital to not just informing but developing understanding, positive attitude and motivation to action among publics with whom PR professionals communicate.
  • PR is inherently ethical. There is growing research that asserts that many PR professionals embrace the role of the ethical conscience of their organization, because PR is the one management function that considers ALL publics in terms of mutual relationships.

I could go on. But suffice it to say that PR is–and has been for a century–far more than many journalists and even current practitioners make it out to be. It’s not that hard for self-proclaimed gurus in the industry to take off the blinders of their solitary experience and see the whole elephant. My hope for the future is that people who don’t will be laughed at, or stepped on.

Definition of PR More Than Nuance

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.

Defining PR a Challenge Amid Dishonest Media Cultivation

It happened again. A major PR association set out to define “public relations”, and the media responded by calling the profession “spin.”

This is getting old.

But to get up to date on the current matter, here’s a rundown. The Council of PR Firms has rebranded itself and in so doing taken it upon itself to re-brand the entire public relations industry. You can see more about this effort in their “manifesto.” (I immediately cringe when they position public relations within marketing, but that’s the subject of another post).

 This follows on the tails of PRSA’s work to come up with a new common definition of public relations in 2012. The resulting definition pleased some but critics remain.

But, as always, the news media covering the PR industry couldn’t resist resorting to diminishing the effort with smug references to PR as “spin.” Witness the effort of New York Times scribe Stuart Elliott, whose column is touted as about advertising, but he lumps public relations within it, thus broadcasting some professional ignorance or at least courtesy as to what public relations people actually do.

Industry trade PR Week took on Elliott and the Times directly with a commentary by editor Steve Barrett. I appreciate the effort and agree with the perspective. But this won’t be the end of it.

In a paper I wrote in 2008 for the Journal of Communication Management (“First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s”), I point out how the media persistently refused to give a complete view of the profession in the decade it was first commonly called “public relations.” Pioneers from Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and others argued and demonstrated that public relations work was already evolving to be more than publicity and was about honest relationships with multiple publics on behalf of organizations. Time Magazine and Editor & Publisher were wickedly scathing in their assessment of the “new” profession of PR, hypocritically resorting to subjective commentary over objective reporting.

So this latest kerfluffle with the Council of PR Firms and the New York Times take on their efforts is more of the same.

I know Stuart Elliott. He graciously came to speak at Grand Valley State University at my invitation in 2003 when our School of Communications celebrated its 20th anniversary. He was a delight to spend a few days with, and he enjoyed seeing neighborhoods of Grand Rapids as I drove him to and from a TV interview about the history and future of advertising, the subject of his speech to us. It may have gone so well because, ahem, the New York Times PR office assisted in the trip.

But I wonder if his resorting to casting PR as “spin” in his recent article is the tired habit of trying to find an engaging lead over an honest and balanced report. Or kit could be laziness in falling on a cliche or stereotype rather than really listen to the subjects of the story and report it, even if it means interviewing several sources in the field to show a balanced perspective. I worry that Elliott lets his opinion out, and his opinion is not well formed, as evidence by some passages in his article that assert attempts to influence are at odds with transparency and honesty. I would love to ask his opinion of newspaper editorials.

None of this is to say that PR should be without criticism. There are, as in any profession, bad apples who should be called out for bad practice. But journalists should not over-generalize or stereotype entire professions. A little reporting might actually reveal, as I’ve noted previously, that some of the worst offenders with regard to unethical PR practice come from journalism, or are non-PR people doing PR, or have no education in PR.

But no, this media cultivation and framing of PR by journalists will likely continue. The hope comes in that many journalists, especially when you get out of the biased bi-coastal media centers, have more full and productive relationships with PR professionals. Witness a recent event sponsored by the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA in which morning news producers or anchors from all four area network affiliates stressed their need for help discovering content for their programs.

In the end, I think it best that PR people don’t get too morose about select examples of journalists putting forth opinions of our field as if factual. They over-generalize PR people, let’s not as PR people over-generalize journalists.

I am launching a study about this next semester. I’ll be working with an undergraduate honors student looking at journalists’ opinions about news releases and pitches they receive and associating their assessment of them as helpful or annoying and looking for variance based on the sender’s PR credentials, actual job function and other factors.

I can’t wait to report the honest results.

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.