Backgrounder — Public Relations Defined Initiative
BackgrounderSeptember 8, 2011 Modernizing the Definition of Public RelationsI. Representative Sample of Current DefinitionsA Google search on “definition of PR” yields more than 64,000 results; some of the moreprominent definitions include:PRSA: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS): “Public relations is the strategic management ofrelationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use ofcommunication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve thepublic interest.” (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR): “Public relations is about reputation — theresult of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Public relations is thediscipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support andinfluencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish andmaintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”“Effective Public Relations” (Cutlip, Center and Broom): "Public relations is a managementfunction that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between anorganization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends."Paul Holmes/Holmes Report: “Public relations is the business of helping organizations createpolicies, craft messages, and engage in conversations that enhance the relationships betweenthe organization and its key stakeholders in order to maximize the benefits of thoserelationships to both parties.”Dictionary.com: “The actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promotinggoodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc.”Merriam-Webster: “The business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwilltoward a person, firm, or institution.”
II. Sample Industry & Mainstream Media CommentaryFrom Jayme Soulati’s “Help PRSA Define Public Relations”: “Sadly, the current PublicRelations Society of America website adopted a definition of PR in 1982, and it has neverchanged! (Do you realize this definition below pre-dates the fax machine?) In my post, I calledupon PRSA to update the definition (others agreed), and here’s what the highly confusingexplanation states: ‘Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to eachother.’”From HeidiCohen.com’s “31 Definitions of Public Relations”: “Say PR, as in publicrelations, particularly during a conversation about marketing and/or social media, andparticipants are liable to have vastly different perspectives on the topic.”From The Economist (“Rise of the Image Men,” Dec. 16, 2010): “After a century of spinning,PR Man remains uncertain of his proper role. Is he a master manipulator? Is he the devil’sadvocate (as long as Satan pays his fees)? Or is he a benign bridge-builder between thecorporate world and the public?”From Jack Shafer at Slate.com: “Most PR campaigns are "smear campaigns.” … “Everyreporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PRpeople were being paid to push the truth, theyd be called reporters.”
III. Why Update the Current DefinitionPRSA’s definition of public relations has not been updated since 1982, though in 2007, PRSA’sAdvocacy Committee, and a 2003 special Committee to Define Public Relations, discussed thatpossibility, without issuing a formal recommendation to the PRSA Board of Directors orotherwise moving forward. The 2003 PRSA Committee to Define Public Relations formallyagreed to a new definition (see below), though it was never formally adopted by the PRSAmembership.Recommended definition from the 2003 PRSA Committee to Define Public Relations: Public Relations is the professional discipline that ethically fosters mutually beneficial relationships among social entities.Recent discussions, blog posts, tweets and mainstream articles have suggested that (1) publicrelations professionals (and, thus, the audiences we serve) continue to struggle with thequestion: “What is PR?”; (2) many industry professionals are unhappy with the currentdefinitions; and (3) no one definition is considered “the” de facto industry definition.PRSA staff have been listening to and engaging in many of these conversations.There is a modern dynamic at work, as well. Changes in technology have created a new set ofexpectations with regard to whom should “own” the definition. Professionals from all corners ofthe public relations industry seem to want greater involvement and ownership with how theirwork is defined. They don’t want to live by someone else’s definition; they want something theycan own.
IV. What the Future HoldsTopics such as the definition of public relations tend to be cyclical, though there may be causeto believe that industry interest in this topic is continuing unabated. One reason is that thediscussion has moved beyond public relations professionals to include professionals from othercommunications disciplines, as well as media, bloggers and other industry influencers.V. Questions to Consider• What is public relations? What should it represent in the digital age and in the future?• How has public relations changed since 1982 (when PRSA’s definition was last revised)?• How has public relations remained the same since that time?• How would you define public relations?• How would your clients, employers or employees define PR?• Why do you think misperceptions and confusion among the public, media and business community about public relations’ role still exist?