Why Can’t We Define Public Relations?

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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?

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