When I took my first PR class in ’74 — one of only two offered at my alma mater then — I didn’t know a damn thing about the field. By the end of Week #1, I’d had memorized Cutlip & Center’s definition — one that’s as relevant today as it was then. More on that later.
Search the literature and you find about 500 definitions for the term “public relations,” which may explain why this field is so misunderstood. Ironic, isn’t it? The very people charged with shaping the organization’s reputation can’t project a unified picture of themselves.
It’s a problem all PR professionals wrestle with. When asked at a cocktail party what you do for a living, how do you respond? Too often I resort to examples of PR activities, since most of our definitions are so abstract. The concept of “building and maintaining relationships” is tough to articulate (depending on how long I’ve been at the cocktail party).
The fact that we debate the differences between “PR” and “marketing” (used interchangeably by far too many bloggers who should know better) shows just how misunderstood PR has become.
Below are six definitions introduced over the past 40 years. I’ve tried to update this list a few times, but new definitions tend to repeat the older ones. As I’ve said in previous posts, the tools of public relations have changed radically in the past 25 years, the business not so much.
Foundation for Public Relations Research & Education (1975)
Public relations is a distinctive management function which (sic) helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance, and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.
Try delivering that one after your third martini! It’s more positioning statement than definition, boldly asserting PR’s place at management’s table — something not all that common in 1975. The definition also emphasizes formal research in a time when far too many PR initiatives used none.
Public Relations News (1982–ish)
Public relations is the management function which (sic) evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and the procedures of the organization with the public interest, and executes a program of action (and communication) to earn public understanding and acceptance.
PRN’s definition emphasizes the need for organizations, after careful research and analysis, to align with the interests of their publics. Organizations must do more than communicate, they must adapt. (If you’ve ever been married, this concept should be easy to grasp.)
Statement of Mexico (1978 )
Public relations practice is the art and science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which (sic) will serve both the organization and the public’s interest.
It’s concise enough to deliver at a cocktail party and it contains references to research, policy/action and counseling — key elements of the practice. Like the other definitions, it references the need for organizations to align with the public interest. I’d give it four of five stars, though it’s still too abstract for my tastes, and it lacks a clear reference to communication.
Grunig and Hunt (1983)
Public relations is the management of communication between the organization and its publics.
So simple it’s almost too simple, and without interpretation could be seen as relegating PR people to the management and production of messages. I’m all for being concise, but you could send this definition in a 140-character Twitter message. Like most tweets, it lacks the substance needed to create real understanding.
PRSA Assembly (1988 )
Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to one another.
By 1988 the “relationship” model of PR practice had taken shape, and this definition captured the “give and take” that constitutes those relationships. It positions the relationship as an umbrella concept and leaves out the details. The definition evolved from Grunig and Hunt, who planted the seeds with their two-way symmetrical model (1983).
Use this definition at the cocktail party and even the most sober guest would get confused. You mean you get paid to help organizations and publics get along? Where can I get a job like that?
To show that the core principles of our business haven’t changed all that much in 40 years, I offer you an old standard from the 4th edition of Cutlip and Center’s “Effective Public Relations,” published in 1969. Although nearly every definition of PR post-1975 centers on the relationship, Cutlip & Center include the 4 key elements of PR that make the relationships work.
Cutlip and Center (1969)
Public relations is a planned effort to influence opinion through socially responsible performance based upon mutually satisfactory two-way communication.
- a planned effort — Public relations efforts are a deliberate part of the management function. A plan requires research, objective setting and strategy.
- to influence opinion — Cutlip and Center’s definition recognizes that PR people are advocates for their clients and employers. The others definitions cited overlook this important fact, as advocacy is inconsistent with the idea that PR promotes the needs of clients and key publics simultaneously. While some scholars and practitioners may not want to acknowledge the advocacy role, it’s part of what we are.
- through socially responsible performance — Cutlip and Center emphasized ethics and social responsibility, and several years later, PRSA adopted its first Code of Professional Standards. Read any introductory PR textbook today and you’ll find an entire chapter dedicated to ethics & social responsibility, the building blocks of trust. Out of this grew the idea that PR can and should serve as the “corporate conscience” and champion of the public interest.
- using mutually satisfactory two-way communication — This last phrase emphasizes the need to listen in a way that serves both organization and publics. Remember the feedback loop from communication theory? And while Cutlip & Center’s definition makes no mention of relationships, 2-way communication tells us they understood concept long before many others. Missing from the definition is the idea of adapting the organization’s policies to align with the public — perhaps the only weakness I can find in this 40-year-old definition.
Cutlip, Center & Broom, in later editions of “Effective Public Relations,” added the relationship focus to clarify the definition. This one comes from the 1994 edition — the most recent one on my home library shelf. I’ll update when I can lay my hands on the more recent texts.
Public relations is a management function that seeks to identify, build, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depends.
PR as “boundary spanner”
If I had more time, I’d hit the books to learn who first identified the “boundary spanning” function of PR. But I have fish to catch and beer to drink, so I’ll plug it in later on.
Simply put, the boundary spanner represents both the client’s interest and the public interest. Boundary spanners have one foot inside the organization and one foot outside, and they have the courage to challenge those in management who sometimes forget the importance of relationships.
As I said here, you must be willing to play the role of “no man” if you want to be a boundary spanner. You must advocate for all sides, no simple task when you consider who’s signing the paychecks. But serving as boundary spanner is easy, and it’s smart. The best business deals — just like the best relationships — are the ones in which ALL parties benefit. Most of us refer to it as “win-win,” and it’s easy to achieve, provided you don’t get greedy.
While Cutlip & Center’s earlier definition excludes the “relationship” function, it shows that PR has held a consistent view of itself for a long time. So let’s not reinvent ourselves simply because the folks in marketing have discovered just how powerful public relations tools can be. That isn’t to reject integrated marketing efforts when required. It’s part of what we do — but only part.
As we enter a world more dependent on social media, PR has the skill set and the mindset to lead the communication effort in Web 2.0 — one focused on the relationship. Bravo to Jason Falls for highlighting this last week and triggering a lively conversation.
Here’s one more link for good measure: PRSA’s official statement on public relations.
Next week I’ll try to sort out the confusion by discussing what PR is not, and I’ll try to do it more concisely.
Here’s how it starts: PR is NOT marketing! Just keep repeating it, like a mantra.
Not a single idea presented in this post is original to me — not one. If I failed to credit anyone, it was unintentional. My brain doesn’t come with footnotes. And don’t ask me why 3 of the 6 definitions mistakenly use “which” instead of “that.” Where are the grammar snobs when you need them?