PRSA wants to redefine PR — Should we rename it, too?

You’ve probably heard that PRSA is crowdsourcing a new definition for public relations. It’s a clever use of social media, and it has lots of folks talking — even NYT’s Stuart Elliott.

Here’s the current definition embraced by PRSA:

Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

If you accept the reigning paradigm in PR — that relationships are the holy grail — that’s not a bad definition. But from a branding perspective, it stinks.

Put yourself in my shoes, talking to a high school senior and her parents. Jenna tells me she’d like to work in PR. The ‘rents don’t have a clue what PR people do, and PRSA’s definition is no help at all. Can you expect a family to drop $80-$100K so Jenna can learn how organizations and publics relate to each other? Ain’t gonna happen.

So here we are again. The profession charged with shaping public perceptions for its clients has mismanaged its own brand for the past 100 years. I wrote about the problem in 2008 and even presented this “sort of unified definition.” And in the very next post I tried to explain what PR is not. But we still have work to do.

The PRSA “Define PR” Campaign

I applaud PRSA for using social media and allowing us all to submit definitions through its website. I’m not crazy about the submission template, but it does assure uniform input and allows for quick review.

It seems to be working, too. PRSA’s Keith Trivitt tells me the site had draw 762 submissions since Nov. 20. Impressive.

PRSA’s campaign falls short is in the discussion phase. “Define PR” is more of a contest than a conversation. Anyone can submit a definition, but submissions are stored behind the wall with no opportunity for review and debate. We’re only told the input will be considered in further discussions, but we don’t know when those discussions will take place.

Do we really need a new definition?

PRSA said it’s using the “Define” campaign to develop a modern definition for the new era of public relations. But while the tools of PR have changed radically since 1995, PR’s core mission really hasn’t.

Call me a throwback, but this Cutlip & Center from 1969 still works well:

Public relations is a planned effort to influence opinion through socially responsible performance based upon mutually satisfactory two-way communication.

It’s accurate and it’s concise. It identifies PR as management function (a planned effort), as an advocate (to influence opinion) that acts ethically (socially responsible) while also embracing dialogue (two-way communication). All that’s missing is the “R” word.

So how ’bout this?

Public relations helps organizations tell their stories and to build productive relationships with stakeholders and communities.

What in a name?

Let me recast that definition slightly:

Public relations Strategic communication helps organizations tell their stories and to build productive relationships with stakeholders and communities.

Public relations has an image problem. When you see the term in mainstream media reports, it’s generally a pejorative: a “public relations stunt” or a “public relations smokescreen.” Is that true, or is it “just PR?” Ugh!

We’ve been flying the “PR” banner since the 1920s, and the perception of our field remains way too negative. So why fight it? As we develop a new definition, let’s create a new name and a new brand. It’s time.

My suggestion is hardly original. But “strategic communication” might resonate more clearly in the C-suites while also helping us shed the stigma of flacks and imagemakers.

None of this will happen as a result of one babbling blogger in Kent, Ohio. But maybe someone with clout in PRSA circles will take up the fight.

Me? I’m out of ammo.

16 thoughts on “PRSA wants to redefine PR — Should we rename it, too?

  1. Bill, you bring some very valid points to consider especially the ‘strategic communication’ concept. I also really like the structure of your definition that includes telling an organization’s stories as a fundamental aspect of our roles. I know what you mean about the rigidity of the PRSA version, but agree that it could help with the review process. I don’t think an entire industry should (could) be renamed and I think you were probably trying to just make a point about what it is that PR pros really do. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation.

    • Thanks for the note, Richie. I know this name change isn’t gonna happen, but it’s worth a conversation.

      But I’m serious about doing it, and don’t see overwhelming obstacles.

      While we can argue that “public relations” describes what we do, it’s overly broad. I recall meeting one a young man who told me he worked in PR. His job: tour guide. Hmm. That is PR, isn’t it? I’ve heard the same title used for merchandising representatives who set displays in retail stores then staff those displays to gather customer feedback. That’s PR, too. Ditto for the many who toil in customer service. It’s PR, and damned important work.

      The name “public relations” may generally define our mission, but it doesn’t define the work we do. And it comes with all that baggage.

      We can sell this idea! We’re in PR, right?

  2. I like the Cutlip & Center definition, and I like your modification. I rarely refer to what I do as PR. I call myself a “communications consultant” or a “strategic communications consultant.” The truth is, I can back up anything I do. There’s a strategy behind it. And I’m always thinking of the elusive “public” opinion, but the public is defined in my mind. There’s a whole sociology to what we do. I think it’s more scientific than marketing, but I get why people don’t understand the difference.

  3. There’s a decent commentary posted to in the last 24 hours that puts it into one agency pro’s perspective, as well.

    I’m all for a clear definition of PR to pacify parents and product managers alike.
    The Cutlip version was just fine, agreed, though marketing could never stomach it. Not that we’re here to placate the marketers. (After all, they still have a tough time selling the C-suite on their own existence being anything besides an over-glorified sales function.) I, for one, gladly welcome a definition that is somewhat less cerebral. In other words, one I can explain that is simple, concrete and indisputable so a person thinks “I get it, you do this, of course you do, and the value is self-explanatory” versus some vague interpretation of who we are and what we do.

    CIPR is in on the action, too. Smartly so, if you ask me.

  4. Bill, I popped out to the site and offered my two cents, then instantly forgot what I wrote. It seems to me another self-indulgent effort (but who can resist?) that doesn’t really mean anything.

    We cannot define what we are or what we do. The marketplace for our work does that. That’s how we get tour guides and shelf-stockers calling themselves PR!

    The question of name change is fraught – “communications” is still pretty much owned by “Telecommunications.” I get catalogs all the time. IABC has been down this road forever, trying to narrowly define PR as publicity and press agentry, and everything else as “Business Communication.” Feh.

    I use communication skills to help organizations drive business results. That’s PR to me.

  5. And there is of course, the PR definition from the British TV show Absolutely Fabulous: “I PR things: People, places, concepts. I PR them. I make things fabulous. I make the crap into credible, I make the dull into delicious”

    Just thought I’d add a little humor into the discussion.

    • Sorry I didn’t comment here earlier, Jim. I appreciate the levity. I’ve always said that PR takes itself way too seriously. And you remind me with this comment that we may, in fact, be able to polish a turd, contrary to what I said in this post. I stand corrected.

  6. “Communications” is a terrible word. My company’s website allows customers to contact us via email. They can choose to contact any number of departments, from customer service to supply chain to engineering. Also on the list is “communications.” It’s probably no surprise that many, many customers choose communications when they should be choosing customer service. They choose communications because they want to communicate with us. It’s a horrible word to use, and a terrible name for a department.

    If I didn’t work in the field, I wouldn’t know what the communications department was responsible for — do they buy and hook up our phones? Do they dispatch our trucks? Do they oversee our email system? Do they run our website or our mail room?

    If I had to submit a sound bite to explain what I do, it’s probably “strategic reputation oversight.” Relationship-building, writing, media relations, SM, etc., are all just tools that fall under strategic reputation oversight. I feel that description is broad enough to cover essentially all of what I do, and it’s doubtful a CSR or tour guide would mistake it for their job, which is to provide service to individual customers.

  7. How about this?

    Public relations does not define the profession
    for communicators
    to get audiences to understand its value
    for organizations

    I don’t appreciate PRSA pulling a publicity stunt like this regarding what (potentially) could be an important challenge.

    Rather than build bridges to business leaders and faculty, help parents understand why its okay for Suzie (or God forbid, Johnny) to study PR, or attempt to demonstrate how critical communications is to successful organizations, PRSA would rather engage in intellectual masturbation.

    There are serious methods for attempting to address the challenges “PR” faces, but PRSA falls back on stunts like this. You said it all right here: “The profession charged with shaping public perceptions for its clients has mismanaged its own brand for the past 100 years.” PRSA should be disbanded.

  8. Lots of skepticism/cynicism in the comments so far, but I’m not surprised. The public relations profession has earned it by failing to stake out its turf. You reap what you sow, eh?

    Yeah, PR is really, really broad. As Sean points out, this is why tour guides and shelf stockers feel comfortable saying the do PR work. But you know, under the present definition, they do.

    As PR is defined by PRSA, anyone involved in relationship building and maintenance can claim to be in this business. That’s why I applaud any efforts to more specifically define this field. But I can’t see how you do that without changing the name. The term “public relations” doesn’t work. Dump it. Now.

    But, Sean, you are ever the realist. Maybe this whole “redefine” effort is nothing more than navel contemplation. But with all the smart people in this business, can’t we pin down one simple definition that makes sense to outsiders? A brand?

    My definition starts with what we are: communication professionals. I know, we’re “boundary spanners,” and strategists, and problem solvers, too. But so is everyone else who’s knocking on the C-suite door. What we do that others stink at is communication. Storytelling.

    To Bob’s point, yes, PRSA has not found a way to brand the field, and maybe never will. Lord knows, I’ve been waiting 30+ years — 27 of them as a PRSA member. But I can’t put all the blame on one group that represents only about 5% of the people who work in public relations. And because I benefited so much from PRSA over the years, I see another side to it, I guess. (To be transparent, Bob is a colleague of mine and is the academic guru behind the PR master’s programs at Kent State. We disagree on many things, which is why I was the biggest advocate of hiring him.)

    And Bob, I also see your point. The “Define” campaign could easily be characterized as publicity stunt. That was my first reaction. If it were a true social-media initiative, it would post all the entries and invite ongoing discussion. I’m going to withhold judgment until I see what PRSA does with the results. That is, can the society turn what seems like gimmick to some into a meaningful outcome?

    Chris, I hear you. Communication is a label that’s overused in your corporate world. I’d sure hate for someone to call your office asking for telephone repairs. Same time, I worry that the “reputation” concept might be just as abstract as the “relationships” thing. Though I’ll admit that it might be an easier sell in the C-suites.

    I may be asking too much here. But can someone give me a definition and a label I can use with 18-year-old Jenna and her parents? You know, one that a young person can look at and say, “That interests me. I’d like to explore that.”

    I’ve never raised this question before, but I wonder if PRSA has ever considered hiring a top-notch branding agency to solve this problem. What would David Ogilvy do?

  9. How much time do most practitioners spend selling their value to C-suite execs? At least in my career, it’s been rare that anyone above me in the organization didn’t recognize the value of time spent working to increase public understanding of our employer and their activities. And maybe that’s what you tell prospective students and their parents — we work to increase public understanding of our employers and their activities. If you want short and sweet, you have to leave out a lot of stuff.

  10. I looks as though the “object process” for reviewing the user submitted data is going to rely largely on a content analysis of submissions. The PRSA website just posted an overview of the top words present in the submissions and their evolving word cloud of key terms:

    I’m not sure what the “subjective consultation process” will entail, but it does appear that the public will be able to vote on a final definition based on three proposed concepts developed by the PRSA committee. Honestly though, I doubt there is one definition that can encompasses the vast and growing industry. When students question the value of a degree in public relations, I respond that one the flexibility of this industry is one of it’s greatest strengths.

    I don’t go about trying to educate future tour guides, but if a student excels at public speaking, interpersonal relationship building with varied audiences and advanced organizational skills then what the hell – go be the best tour guide you can be. Our students will also hold a huge variety of positions in professional, nonprofit and government organizations including but certainly not limited to online community managers, technical writers, publicists, VPs of marketing and communications, crises communication consultants, lobbyists, search engine optimization specialists and yes, even party planners.

    Perhaps instead of attempting to find a definition that narrows the purpose of public relations, we could consider public relations an umbrella term that refers to a set of desirable skills, ethical practices, and common priorities that will serve professionals well in a broad range of careers.

  11. Bill – My apologies for not responding sooner to your excellent post. As you can imagine, there is quite a lot of data and submissions to keep up with, which has kept us busy over the last few days.

    At any rate, I think you’ve done a really nice job of combing through some of the feedback that’s been out there about the “Public Relations Defined” initiative and distilling that down into your own unique perspective of what define public relations in the digital age. Ultimately, that is key objective of this project: get people (not just PR pros but many others in the business community) talking and thinking about the distinct modern role and value of PR and using their own experience and insight to help form a modern definition of PR. In that regard, i think you and your fellow colleagues who have chipped in with dozens of other blog posts have played an integral role in helping us think more deeply about what could come of this initiative.

    By that, I mean whether there is something deeper we should be looking into and exploring? Something more existential about the very nature of public relations that would be a natural offshoot of this initiative. As you have noted, this campaign has ignited a tremendous discussion and a very healthy debate within the industry. Certainly one I am thrilled to see, as it shows such a deep passion and caring among practitioners for what it is that we do.

    So I’ll ask you and your readers: Is there a natural offshoot of this initiative that we should be exploring? is there something deeper than “How do we define PR?” that you think should be taken up by PRSA and our partners?

    Let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts. [email protected]

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director, Public Relations

  12. Pingback: Why I don’t care about defining public relations « Heather Yaxley – Greenbanana views of public relations and more

  13. PR gets a bad name because of certain practices that are widely used despite the fact that they’re unethical. Unless practitioners become more mindful of how they contribute to PR’s perception, there’s no use changing the name and banner.

  14. Pingback: PRSA Announces New Deadline for Re-Definition of Public Relations

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