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How to Define Public Relations

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The Public Relations Society (PRSA) recently announced an effort to update the formal definition of Public Relations. They invited PR professionals to submit their suggestions for how to define what we do. And they unveiled the three leading contenders to become the new official definition of what we in PR do at work.

The top three were compiled from more than 625 responses PRSA received. If you go to the site and click on "read annotations" under each definition, you can get a good idea of why certain words and phrases were used.

I'm really not crazy about any of them, although my initial preference is for definition #1:  "Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results."

I don't like using the word "stakeholders" in this definition. Perhaps the phrase "various relevant publics" might be better. In the context of, say, marketing or media relations, a consumer may not really be a stakeholder, since he or she might easily have other options when considering a product or service. Thus, there is really no "stake" in what an organization does or says in that case.

Here's candidate #2: "Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics."

To me, #2, has a basic weakness in the words "mutually beneficial relationships." This assumes there is any relationship at all between an organization and a key public, and it also assumes that what the organization wants would be beneficial to that public. Not necessarily so, for reasons similar to the problem with #1 and more.

Definition #3 is: "Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals."

I think this is too simplistic is too simplistic and, like #2, makes some risky assumptions, in this case regarding "realize strategic goals." Whose strategic goals might these be, and how can we assume all parties involved in the "engagement" have even remotely-similar strategic goals? And, by the way, I don't like the word "engagement." It's a buzzword at the moment, but it may be passé in a year. We shouldn't include buzzwords in a definition, or the definition may become obsolete before the ink dries.

Jack O'Dwyer, who has been chronicling the PR industry for some 40 years, raised a good point in his comment to my own blog post on this subject. None of the proposed definitions make reference to specialization in PR. "The real story of PR," Jack says, "is that large special practice areas have been built up in the agencies over the past 20 years and the O'Dwyer Co. is the only one tracking them (health care, tech, financial and about nine others). We had 594 such rankings for 2010, a gain of 20%."

Although it means making the definition longer, perhaps we should heed Jack's advice and make mention of the fact that PR can and often does take many different forms and functions since it's hard to lump IR (Investor Relations) into the same boat as media relations or employee relations.

I have a feeling we're going to end up with a definition that still falls far short of what PR does and its real role in an organization, but I am happy to see PRSA making the effort. Next, I’d like to see PRSA address issues of PR for PR and better PR education and training.


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After 30+ years in this business, I still look forward to going to work. Rarely are two days the same, and the challenges are varied and stimulating.

My firm, Reich Communications, Inc., handles an interesting range of clients that take me from b2b to consumer publicity, from the world of high-priced art to advocacy for issues including traffic safety and securing mental health resources for survivors of mass violence globally.

Over the years at mid-size and large New York agencies, I’ve served a client roster that reads like a “who’s who” of business – General Electric, Emery, Ryder, Travelers Insurance, Phillips Petroleum, Georgia-Pacific and Jaguar Cars. I’ve also worked with groups like the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association (for their giant New York Auto Show), Syndicated Network Television Association, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Highlights include leading the publicity team that launched L’eggs hosiery, which later became a Harvard B-School case history. I also managed P.R. and community relations for the Metro New York McDonald's Co-op, with more than 250 stores. We won a Marketing Excellence Award for a McDonald's public service program I developed on fire safety. It also won an Emmy for on-air host Dr. Frank Field, health & science editor at media partner WCBS-TV in New York, and it was directly credited by the NYFD for saving several lives. During those years, I also had more than my share of Big Macs.

I have a degree in Industrial Management and an MBA in Public Relations. I live in southern Westchester, 15 miles north of midtown Manhattan, in the same town where I grew up. “Money-earnin’ Mount Vernon” is how the town is now known as a center of hip-hop culture, but it also claims as native sons Denzel Washington, Dick Clark, author e.b. White, Art Carney, Art Buchwald and Sean “P-Diddy” Combs.

I write about marketing, media and public relations at my blog, "my 2 cents" If I ever retire from this crazy business, I'd love to be an all-night jazz deejay.

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  • by Jody Fisher Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    Any definition that does not include the word "ethical" will fall short.

  • by David Reich Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    One would want to assume that ethics is implicit in what any business does, but unfortunately that's not always the case. So yes, Jody, some mention of ethics or ethical behavior ought to be included.

  • by Jeanne Byington Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    David,

    And how much time did it take these pundits to draft the definitions? When will they turn their talents to promoting the industry—not just the major players in it? A former [great] boss of mine at a mid-sized PR agency used the “Arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” expression and every time I read about these definitions, I envision a conference room with a lot of blah blah going on as the ship lists.

  • by Shana Fuller Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    David,

    Agreed - PR does take many different forms and functions, so it's difficult to sum it up in a simple definition. We actually wrote about this exact subject yesterday on our blog. Please feel free to read and let us know your thoughts on how we view the topic.

    "Defining PR -- It's Not That Complicated"

    http://jcprinc.com/blog

    Thank you,
    Shana Fuller
    JCPR
    jcprinc.com

  • by Keith Trivitt Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    David - Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the "Public Relations Defined" initiative. It has certainly been an instructive and very informative exercise to undertake and we have been humbled by the level of international interest it has piqued among PR and marketing professionals. As we move into the final phase of the project — the public vote of the three candidate definitions — having feedback such as your as to the wording of each candidate definition is very helpful. PRSA's Definition of Public Relations Task Force, along with our 12 global partners, will be analyzing the feedback received during a public commentary period — 152 comments and dozens of blog posts (such as yours) — and we will be sure to include your post and feedback in that analysis.

    Jeanne - Actually, the "pundit" you allude to did not come up with these definitions. They were developed via a two-week crowd-sourcing process that brought in 927 submissions from around the world. True, PRSA has a task force overseeing this initiative, and along with our 12 global partners, they analyzed those submissions and used that to put together three coherent dictionary-like definitions based off the submissions. But they were not sitting in a conference room doing a lot of "blah blah blah."

    More information about how the candidate definitions were developed can be found here: http://bit.ly/yvdQsj

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director
    Public Relations Society of America

  • by David Reich Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    Thanks for your comment here clarifying the crowd-sourcing procedure for getting to the final three possible definitions. What we in PR do has so many aspects and is not easy to explain in a few words. But it needs to be inclusive of the various functions that fall under the PR umbrella.

  • by David Reich Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    See Keith's explanation below of how PRSA got to the final three definitions that are under consideration.

  • by Alan Hirsch Thu Jan 26, 2012 via blog

    David, the three pr definitions are useless. The definition needs to be short, simple and easy for anyone to understand.

    An example...

    "Public Relations is a communications craft. It attempts to present its clients in a favorable public light, so that the client's business and personal actions are deemed acceptable by the various publics it comes in contact with during the course of its business and other dealings."

  • by Michael O'Daniel Fri Jan 27, 2012 via blog

    I don't see any mention of the words "influence" or "response" in terms of what PR is supposed to do. What's the point of just describing the process without including a strategic objective?

    I have long considered PR to be an arm of marketing, the only difference being you're in essence trying to influence the influencers (or the gatekeepers) of the media instead of targeting the prospective buyer directly. And a "buyer" can be someone whose thinking you want to change as well as someone you want to purchase your product or service.

  • by David Reich Fri Jan 27, 2012 via blog

    Yes Michael, PR is a marketing function. But it can extend to areas beyond marketing such as Investor Relations or employee communications, to name just two. So we would be missing some of the possible functions of PR if we limit the definition to only a marketing context.

    That's why this issue is such a challenging one.

  • by Sherry Goldman Fri Jan 27, 2012 via blog

    I continue to believe what I've commented before on this. While I applaud PRSA and the PR Community to finally recognizing and working on a "definition" for public relations, I'm not sure these do the trick. (If I have to choose one of these, I would choose #2.)
    I think all of these talk in "PR Talk" and I think the definition should be in clear, non -PR language so that others (prospective clients, non-PR influencers and stakeholders, etc.) understand what we do. We are so good at talking to and among ourselves but we need to tell "outsiders" what we do. I'm not sure any of these definitions will help my family and friends better understand what I have have spent the last 25+ years doing for a living.

  • by David Reich Fri Jan 27, 2012 via blog

    I agree, Alan, that the definition must be simple and easy to understand, as Sherry says in her comment below. I'm not sure I would use the word "acceptable" in explaining client's actions, since some things might never be considered "acceptable" by some publics. Maybe the better word would be "understood."

  • by David Reich Fri Jan 27, 2012 via blog

    Yes, Sherry, the definition should not be in PR-speak or marketing jargon. If we can find a good, understandable definition, maybe we won't have to give up and tell friends and family, when asked what we do, "It's sort of like advertising."

  • by Loraine Antrim Fri Jan 27, 2012 via blog

    Communicating a consistent message is critical for PR or for marketing or advertising. Part of that messaging might include the idea that PR is in the business of creating an image for the public--getting a third party to promote/endorse your service/product AND in today's world, a social element is critical! Loraine Antrim

  • by David Reich Sat Jan 28, 2012 via blog

    Loraine, I'm not so sure social media needs to be in a definition. SM is just another media platform, and I can't agree with you that it is critical in all situations. SM is important, yes, but it may not automatically fit into every PR challenge.

  • by Bensie Dorien Sun Jan 29, 2012 via blog

    Defining PR is difficult........ Since PR comes under various categories.....

    But defining PR is not complicated......... a simple definition will work out....... That's not going to be too hard..............

    Bensie Dorien

    prcompanionpr@gmail.com

    www.prcompanion.com

  • by Michael O'Daniel Mon Jan 30, 2012 via blog

    I see investor relations and employee communications as separate functions, because the target audiences are different from the one(s) targeted via PR - the media and then the either the public or trade audience each medium reaches. For that matter, public affairs, government relations and community relations can all be defined as functions separate from PR.

  • by David Reich Mon Jan 30, 2012 via blog

    Michael, I disagree, and I think many in PR would also disagree.

    PR is the broad function, which may include many narrower functions like investor relations, employee communications, crisis communications, media relations. You seem to be thinking of PR only as one of those narrower functions -- media relations, or publicity.

    That's why we need a better and clearer definition of what we do.

  • by David Reich Mon Jan 30, 2012 via blog

    I hope you're right.

  • by Rocco Sacci Mon Jan 30, 2012 via blog

    Here's the definition I used in my PR101 classes when I taught at the college level:

    Public Relations is the art of communicating well-defined organizational messages to clearly defined publics by using all available communications arts. (From there you can enumerate mass media tools, etc. etc., in consultation with clients, execs. etc.)

    It's simplistic and doesn't have all that strategic nonsense buzz PR people like to use. After hearing the PRSA's definitions, people will still ask:
    Yes, but what do you do.

  • by Steve Byrne Thu Feb 2, 2012 via blog

    As an advocate for greater PR budgets in the corporate world and as an attendee of PRSA meetings since the 60’s (my pop was a PRSA chapter president), I would suggest that PR has a PR problem as evidenced by stating “ ... I think many in PR would also disagree”. It’s not about how PR practitioners view themselves, it’s about how boards and senior executives view the “PR umbrella”. In my view PR practitioners play an important role in forming corporate strategy and implementing strategic communication programs along with their professional practitioner peers, primarily under the broad umbrella of marketing.
    Good post David.

  • by David Reich Thu Feb 2, 2012 via blog

    @Steve Byrne, above. Thanks for the comment, Steve. Yes, public relations is so much more than publicity, as stated before. The role we often play in development of corporate strategy needs to be included, somehow, into the new definition.

  • by David Reich Tue Feb 21, 2012 via blog

    An update: PRSA released the three finalist definitions, based on comments on the earlier versions. Still not quite there, in my opinion, but it's moving in the right direction. Here's info at http://reichcomm.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/02/redefining-public-relations-...

  • by Rocco Sacci Wed Feb 22, 2012 via blog

    I find it interesting that PRSA is trying (again) to define public relations in 25 words or less. Seems to me that this is trivializing and minimizing all the things that go into the practice of the profession. Rather than trying to reduce the scope of public relations to a ditty, maybe PRSA should once (again) conduct a sustained public relations program to the public about what public relations really is supposed to be – and what PRSA has done, does now, and will do to maintain high standards for the profession.

    About why PRSA does not hold more of its annual conventions in New York City, the several times it has, the convention has been completely ignored by the media. Not that the convention gets much media coverage wherever it is held.

  • by David Reich Wed Feb 22, 2012 via blog

    Rocco, I agree with all you said, but especially that PRSA should spend its efforts on doing PR for PR. Then it won't really matter what the definition is, because people will be aware of and understand what we do.

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