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Why Can’t We Define Public Relations?


The PRSA has embarked on a mission to redefine and modernize “public relations”.  Which I believe is probably necessary – you only have to look at this post on Spin Sucks (one of many on this topic, I am sure) and the ensuing comment discussion to realize that there is mass confusion about what public relations is, especially now, in the age of social media.

By way of illustration, let’s summarize that conversation for a minute.  Gini Dietrich took issue with a post by Steve Cody on Inc. where she believes his definition of PR is too narrow.  His definition basically says that advertising is paid media, but PR is earned media – “advertising is used to create awareness, while PR is used to enhance credibility.”  In Gini’s view,

“what [Cody] is describing is publicity – or media relations.

Our industry, for a very long time, has used media relations as the example when describing what we do because it’s tangible. Just like you can hold or view an ad, you can hold or view a story a reporter has written or produced. But it’s doing us a huge disservice.

There are many other tactics we use: Crisis planning, monitoring and listening, issues management, messaging, creating and telling stories, speaking engagements, content development, events, guerilla marketing, internal communication, social media, lobbying, audits, market research, community development, influencer relations, blogger relations, word-of-mouth, contests, trends development, and more.

Some of us even integrate what might be considered more traditional marketing: Email, database development, search engine optimization, trade shows, search engine marketing, inbound marketing, cultivate and convert leads, gamification, and mobile technology.

When you combine tactics such as these, you have an integrated marketing and communication program that drives results. Real results such as improved margins, shortened sales cycles, and increased revenues.”

I usually agree with what Gini says and have HUGE respect for her awesomeness – but my own reaction to this was, “huh?”  You can’t be all things to all people.  In my opinion, almost everything Gini listed falls under MARKETING, not PR.  Except for the first three things which I do consider falling under PR – crisis communications, monitoring, and issues management.  All things which are potentially or directly related to interactions with traditional media, as well as social media.

Internal PR vs agency PR

So then we had a whole big debate in the comments to Gini’s post, where it became clear that her understanding of PR comes from a PR Agency background – where the agency could potentially do a lot of things that might traditionally be considered marketing activities.   And you can see how we haven’t even touched on the impact of social media to this mix.  My experience, on the other hand, comes out of working in PR for a huge international corporation – where the work done in the PR/Legal/Communications (the department in which I worked) was something entirely different than the work done in the marketing department – it was about protecting the brand from the press, and it was about managing internal communications around a big merger.

So here’s one place where the definition might change depending on whether you’re agency or internal.

Reactive (PR) vs proactive (marketing)

I touched on this in the comment thread, but in my view, PR is reactive – it’s about protecting a brand, about readiness for “issues management” or crisis communications.  It’s also about timeliness, figuring out the best timing for news-worthy information (eg for a product launch).  Marketing, on the other hand, is proactive but also ongoing – about telling the story of the brand.  “Here’s why we exist, what we sell, and why you want to buy from us”.

Now of course there’s going to be crossover between PR, marketing, communications and probably other areas too.  In the same way that social media breaks down the boundaries between silos inside an organization, it’s blurring all kinds of activities that are DIRECTLY related to how we communicate with our “publics”.

No such thing as definable publics

Which brings me to my next point.  The traditional definition of PR is “the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics.” (per Wikipedia, and if you click through you’ll see the debate over the definition is far older than today’s debate.)  But again, the age of social media has broken down any sense we had of there being a difference between “the organization” and “its publics”.  Organizations are now made up of all kinds of stakeholders – from staff, to boards, to consumers, to engaged customers, to enthusiasts, to brand evangelists, to members, to “likers”, to users… the list goes on and on.  So if you can no longer define the “publics” as separate from the organization, (at least not in the way that you used to) it makes sense that the definition needs to be updated and modernized.

Enter PRSA.

So as I mentioned right at the top of this post, the PRSA has decided to modernize the definition of PR.  (That link is to an explanation of why this is the case. The PRSA’s CEO Gerard Corbett explains that “the public relations profession has failed to adequately define its work, which has caused confusion about public relations’ role and value. He goes on to say that this has created a “PR challenge” for the profession.”

Ok, ok – stop snickering!!

So they crowdsourced three Candidates For A Modern Definition Of Public Relations – asked the community to suggest definitions, then help massage the final three to a point where they could be voted upon – voting is now open until February 26 (go ahead and place yours!).  So here are the three finalists:

Holy moly.

I wanted to be impressed, I really did.  They did everything right (in my limited understanding of the process they went through – they got lots of feedback, made it a completely open process…  But this is association jargon at it WORST.   (And I used to be in PR, but not anymore – but Gini, who’s far more immersed in the PR world than I ever was, feels the same way!)

These three statements are meaningless.  It’s all jargon.  If this is the best we can do – then maybe PR really is dead.  How on earth is this going to help anyone understand what PR is for?  If the reason for redefining PR is that the notion of “publics” has changed, how come these new versions don’t address that at all?

Now I’ll put my money where my mouth is – if someone was to ask me what PR is, I’d say something like (don’t shoot me, I just made this up):

The role of public relations is to protect the organization’s positions within its industry and its local, global and digital communities.  

(As opposed to the role of marketing, which is (in my opinion) to tell the organization’s story and promote it to (or grow it through) its stakeholders, both internal and external.)

So what I’m trying to do with my definition is update the idea of “managing the flow of information” – I believe it’s less vague than that. And I’m also trying to update the idea of who the “publics” are (based on the old traditional definition). What do you think? I’m sure I’m missing some nuances, but at least it’s LESS jargony, right?

But enough of me talking. What can you come up with? What do you think of the PRSA’s final three definitions?


ginidietrich February 14, 2012 at 9:24 AM

I think it’s totally interesting that we have such different views on public relations, based on agency vs. corporate experience. I suppose, in the end, it’s the job of an agency to offer all services so they can be all things to all companies. It’s definitely how I’m building my firm.

That said, “But this is association jargon at it WORST.” Amen. It pains me we can’t come up with something that isn’t full of jargon and corporate lingo.

It used to be the difference between PR and marketing is PR built the brand and its reputation and marketing sold it. But now the lines are becoming so blurred. I think, eventually, marketing will be the umbrella and PR, advertising, social, direct marketing, and every other discipline will fall under it.

maddiegrant February 14, 2012 at 9:47 AM

@ginidietrich Thanks Gini. And thanks for having this debate with me! Ultimately, I think you’re right about the marketing umbrella…!

Curious to see what others think of the PRSA definitions, and whether anyone can use that, practically, when asked what they do for a living.

RickRice February 14, 2012 at 12:18 PM

@maddiegrant and @ginidietrich I feel like I’m at the proper viewing angle to see that the ball is half black and half white…

Seriously, I’ve done this for a very long time in both corporate and agency jobs. I’ve been responsible for both marketing PR and corporate PR. I know I’ve said it before, probably on Spin Sucks, but they use the same tools. The only difference is that marketing is more focused on selling ‘things’ while corporate is selling ‘ideas.’ We use media relations to get coverage for a product or service and we use it get coverage of an organization to build its reputation.

I agree that most large organizations keep marketing and corporate communications apart but I promise you that even there PR is one of the marketing tools. At the big agencies they are also usually very separate parts of the agency and, frankly, it is unusual for a client to use both sides of the same agency.What’s the big deal? (And you know I love you both!)

I can’t even look at the those PRSA ‘things’ without wanting a cigarette and since I’m giving those up I’ll avoid the temptation. They are terrible but that was a wasted effort from the start.

The future of PR isn’t going to be determined by how we describe it anyway. Who really cares? The future is going to be determined by how well we learn to use the new tools available, especially measurement, and learn to stop selling billable hours and start selling results. When agencies make that shift the internal departments are going to get more credibility too and we might finally stop being the first thing companies cut when times are tough.

maggielmcg February 14, 2012 at 3:40 PM

These definitions make my eyes bleed, and make me sad for associations on the whole. First of all, what is the point of the whole exercise of “redefining” public relations and does the exercise really require a task force and official partners–partnerships which, I presume,cost money? All that collective effort and hype to come up with three unintelligible definitions that muddy the waters even more?

I don’t have a better suggestion, although I I do think that PR is more than just protecting an org’s position–to me it does involve getting stories out to the public. So from an association’s POV, instead of just protecting an org’s position (which to me is more lobbying or public affairs) I see it as more helping raise the professions an org represents in the public eye.

AprilLynneScott February 15, 2012 at 11:49 AM

I too am on this train. I feel guilty in a way for so readily turning my back on this tedious effort by PRSA, but I just can’t understand how so much time, preparation, and apparent diligence brought us these 3 definitions that are no better [really] than the first definition given by Bernays back in the early 1900s. I expected what they promised which was “modern” and “new” not an old, rehashed, jargon-filled definition. This will not further the cause to help the “publics” understand what we do. These definitions do nothing to embrace the digital communications and social world now involved in every aspect of any industry.

I’m not sold on the “proactive” / “reactive” ideas in this article, but since I’m on a soapbox about PRSA’s definition I’ll stay there for now… The most disappointing to me is that PRSA isn’t simply leading by example to SHOW the non-professionals how they should think about PR. There’s so much work to be done. So many bad practices, terrible social media offenses from PR professionals. It would have been more productive to scrap this attempt to redefine and simply work to educate within and outside of the profession.

Okay – enough from me… Thanks for this article. Great perspective.

MegmacPR February 15, 2012 at 12:24 PM

You had me nodding my head in agreement to every word until you made the statement that PR is reactive while Marketing is proactive. I feel you minimize PR’s range of ability and impact by classifying it as reactive, I think there is a lot of proactive consultation and service going on. But overall, I get what you’re saying and agree with it. It’s ironic that an industry built on effective communication is having difficulty communicating what it does.

If I may be so bold, I think perhaps the problem is that we’re attempting to come up with a blanket, “one size fits all” definition for an industry that has an ever-increasing number of facets. I’ve always thought of PR as an umbrella term that defines a basic concept, but not a specific function. If you put 10 PR people in a room, chances are no two among them necessarily does the same thing or employs the same tactics. As you noted in your post, I think the mistake a lot of agencies make is trying to be all things to all people. For a major agency like Edelman, Burson, etc. they have enough divisions and people that they probably are/can be all things for a client. But there’s an almost competitive desperation that often exists among PR professionals to appear capable and qualified rather than showcasing and focusing on a core expertise. I have over 20-years of PR experience, and in that time I’ve done A LOT. It’s given me great exposure and range that I’m grateful for, but, I know what I do best. When I present myself to perspective clients I apply my core strengths to their objectives/goals, and if there is something I either can’t do…or don’t have the level of experience doing that the client requires, I collectively partner with other PR experts to create a “dream team.”

The concern I have with the PRSA creating a new definition is that they tend to be governed by members who are attached to large agencies so their perspective really does not represent smaller agencies, boutique firms, and independent consultants.

ginidietrich February 15, 2012 at 12:45 PM

@RickRice @maddiegrant PRSA is guest blogging for us today (publishes in 15 minutes) in response to the criticism around the definitions. His very last sentence is “we are measured by what we do” and so I will leave it at that. We can adopt the definitions or not. But we are all measured by the results we produce.

Chris Oler February 15, 2012 at 2:56 PM

PR takes the company message and story to the public through diverse media sources. Once the narrative is out there, or (in the case of a crisis) a new narrative emerges, PR manages that to (as Maddie says) protect the organization’s positions. Marketing also gets a story and narrative out there and if anything goes bad with that message, it is up to PR to manage it. A lot of people wear both hats.

“Mutually beneficial” is where the first two definitions run into trouble. It sounds like the concept of PR is being sold here. There is plenty of bad marketing and PR that fails to connect and explain, but it’s still PR. It just sounds…haughty.

We’ve probably all been through a mile-long list in an approval process at one time or another. That seems a probable explanation for the three definitions. Of the definitions, the third appeals a bit more. I wouldn’t get too hung up on any of it.

maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 4:49 PM

UPDATE: The PRSA responds –

They appear to acknowledge the various criticisms, but I can’t say they give much of a defense. I’d have actually no problem with them picking one definition and defending it – in fact I’d respect that a lot.


maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 4:52 PM

@Chris Oler “mutually beneficial” is one of those stupid phrases that means nothing. Gaaah. But yes, clearly this is a decision by committee. In one of the comments on the PRSA’s response on Spin Sucks, Frank Strong says, “PRSA’s crowd source methodology was to have the community fill in the blanks on a sentence that was already three-quarters complete. That’s a leading question and suggest to me the researchers started with a prejudicial definition. That is not research and I find it absolutely mind-numbing that PRSA publicly agrees – as you’ve stated above — that these proposed definitions are sub-optimal, yet has resolved to stay the course.”


maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 4:56 PM

@MegmacPR Thanks for your comment! Yes the reactive/proactive part is my own way of trying to make sense of it – based on my thinking that PR’s just trying too hard to be too many things (specifically too many marketing things). I think also that “reactive” is not a great word in terms of showing all the nuances of what is involved in being prepared for a crisis, or managing issues, or all of the things I do think PR is good for. So I agree that that description is much more black-and-white-sounding than I really meant it to be. But I also share your sense of irony that it’s so hard for a profession of communicators to effectively communicate what they do!

maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 4:58 PM

@AprilLynneScott I agree 100% that the PRSA (in fact any association on behalf of their industry) should be LEADING, more than just serving. (A classic debate in the association world). This poorly defined definition neither leads nor serves the profession.

maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 5:02 PM

@maggielmcg Thanks Maggie, for throwing the “public affairs” layer int here too… Sigh. I’d say back to the drawing board, but then again, this definition works for me. 🙂

Again, from the point of view of someone working with internal PR departments, I think the media relations piece is key. I don’t see what’s so wrong with the idea of PR being about that. Maybe if PR professionals were able to focus more on some core activity (whether it’s media relations or not) then we wouldn’t have so many messes to clean up. I don’t want to offend anyone with that statement but as a social media consultant, way too much of what I do involves coming in to fix things after some PR campaign has ended without having built any infrastructure to manage the long term work of social media.

maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 5:06 PM

@RickRice “The future of PR isn’t going to be determined by how we describe it anyway.” – see there’s where I disagree. This is exactly where social media is disruptive to all kinds of professional activities. If enough people were involved in shaping what PR is truly for? They will shape the future of PR. It’s happening already – hence the need for a new definition.

But – and I say this as your quitting smoking buddy – step away from the ciggies! I will do the same. I don’t have much skin in this game, actually, either. Just interested in the developments out of a really interesting debate started by @ginidietrich 🙂

maggielmcg February 15, 2012 at 5:11 PM

I @maddiegrant I agree about the media relations part….but I’m not a PR person. AT least in an association context media relations seems to be a big part of what internal PR departments do, if not the only thing. And since I’ve only worked in associations for the most part, that’s what I know. Although when I freelanced for a marketing firm, a lot of what I did was PR or media relations, not marketing. sigh.

maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 5:15 PM

@maggielmcg yeah – I’m not a PR person either! When I did work in PR many moons ago, I hated it.

Maybe we should both stay out of it – haha 🙂

maggielmcg February 15, 2012 at 6:07 PM

I @maddiegrant think you’re right!! 😉

MegmacPR February 15, 2012 at 6:44 PM


My first thought was that at least David Rickey displayed a sense of humour in his comments, but then when I got to the third point in the post, I lost mine. 3. They won’t change the profession’s image. Really? Then why are we bothering? He then goes on to say: That’s true. But this initiative was never about changing the profession’s image. What will change public relations’ image, though, are some of the other outcomes PRSA is focused on achieving. Things such as encouraging ethical conduct on the part of public relations professionals. Creating a more diverse profession. Developing measurement and evaluation techniques that are widely understood, accepted, and implemented. Demonstrating the public good served by the profession. And helping current and future business leaders understand and appreciate the vital role of reputation management in their marketing mix.

REALLY? We’re attempting to encourage ethical practice (a subject of great importance to me, as I know it is to others) by creating a new definition of what it is we do for a living? Seems to me that less effort should be spent on defining and more on strengthening the code of conduct under which we practice. And as for creating a more diverse professional body, and developing a widely understood and accepted standard of measurement and evaluation — how exactly? By stringing together a bunch of vague and often overused buzz words that leave most people reading them going…huh? And as for getting anyone outside the industry to grasp any of the proposed definitions as a means to increase their appreciation of the vital role PR plays in reputation management and marketing; I think that’s the very audience that will be standing there going…HUH?

And finally, I chafe at the words, “some of the other outcomes PRSA is focused on achieving.” As I’ve said before, I don’t know that PRSA truly does represent the complete and broad spectrum of public relations practitioners. And a comment such as that rings to me of an organization looking to create a definition that suits their view/purpose versus what is necessarily reality.

maddiegrant February 15, 2012 at 6:49 PM

@MegmacPR Amen!!

Chris Oler February 15, 2012 at 7:51 PM

@maddiegrant @Chris Oler Perfect irony as the PRSA turns defining what its members do into…a PR disaster. As for David’s response, I don’t understand the need for a definition or the need of the association to justify or quantify what PR professionals do. That happens every day in countless places where people work hard and produce results. It is not a “noble” profession, it is dirty. Not in an ethical sense, I just mean it’s not some sort of antiseptic surgery where the fluorescent lights leave no corner in shadows. Most jobs need a bit of lack of definition so they can grow and adjust to changing conditions. Relax and leave well enough alone. Thanks, Maddie.

RickRice February 15, 2012 at 9:34 PM

@maddiegrant @ginidietrich I have been away from the ciggies 🙂 Actually feels pretty good.

I don’t think changing the words is going to fix the problems and, as they proved again with the post on Spin Sucks, PRSA is not going to be the source of change. There is just too much focus on process instead of purpose.

What shapes the practice of PR is what it gets compensated for or evaluated on. If that doesn’t change you can crowd source all the words you want and you’ll still get the practices that get you paid the most or keeps your career advancing in the corporate world.

GalaxyKannanGtp February 17, 2012 at 12:17 AM

I think too many discussions & too many opinions is the reason for this state prepare a council with a group of experts…….. & accept the definition given by that council……. other wise like too many cooks spoils the soup… this will be the end in this case too…….

Bensie Dorien

Gordon G Andrew February 17, 2012 at 12:20 PM

PRSA’s quest to define PR is based on the misguided notion that a better understanding of its role and intrinsic value would enhance the profession’s prospects of earning a seat at the senior management table…equal in stature and voice to legal, finance, or technology. But none of the professions that typically hold seats require or seek tightly packaged descriptions. Public Relations is the art and science of communications, and its applications vary greatly, depending on the desired outcomes. The sad irony is that, in its very public and clumsy effort to coin an “official” definition, the PRSA has damaged perceptions of the profession and further confused people inside and outside of Public Relations.

GrantCrowell March 30, 2012 at 4:36 PM

Thought leadership is not about public relations; it’s about personal relations. 

RonnTorossian October 31, 2012 at 8:42 AM

Public Relations as I define it in my book, For Immediate Release, is:
Great pub•lic re•la•tions:  1. helps make the impersonal personal. 2. bridges divides. 3. creates excitement and builds equity for businesses, personalities, politicians, and others. 4. manages crises and catastrophes. 5. about telling stories, having conversations, and making impressions. 6. needed by any business—or anyone with a pulse, for that matter.

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