Have your say in redefining public relations for the modern age

Updated on November 23, 2011

What’s your definition of the term “public relations”? Does it match that of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA):

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

Or in the UK, that of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR):

[…] Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

Or even Wikipedia’s definition, which begins::

Public relations (PR) is the actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc.

The PRSA‘s definition dates from 1982 – almost 30 years ago. I can’t tell when the CIPR’s does but I suspect it’s a bit more recent.

Yet are any of these definitions still valid in today’s contemporary society? A society in which so much has changed that the very notion of the practice of public relations seems anachronistic to many where anyone today with an internet connection is a communicator and, often, seen as an organization’s spokesman? And when news events develop at the speed of the internet?

If you have a more accurate definition, one in tune with contemporary society and the evolving needs of organizations in the context of that society, then why not answer the PRSA’s call to action?

The PRSA is leading an industry-wide initiative to modernize the definition of public relations as the industry changes in the digital age. Their campaign launched today via Stuart Elliott‘s column in the New York Times entitled Redefining Public Relations in the Age of Social Media.

The US PR body has partnered with ten global communication organizations including the Arthur W. Page Society, IABC, AMEC, Institute for Public Relations, the Global Alliance and WOMMA.

Deciding on a new definition will be a good exercise in crowd sourcing. While the PRSA will lead on determining a short list of three new-definition candidates, the final decision will be made through open vote on the website between December 6 and December 15.

So wherever you are in the world, if you have a view about PR, share how you think it should be defined. The closing date for submissions is December 2. And why not also blog it, post it on your social network, communicate it and tell people what you think. Use the hashtag #PRDefined to connect your view with everyone else’s.

It’s a good time to be clear about public relations.

[Update Nov 23] Since this initiative was announced, there’s been widespread commentary in the social spaces, much of which you can find at the #PRDefined hashtag. In the UK, detailed blog posts have been written by practitioners that include Philip Sheldrake and Stuart Bruce, with strongly dismissive comment from Danny Whatmough.

Giving a keen fillip to the overall campaign is the CIPR which today announced its support for it.

I like Jon White‘s simple assessment of it, quoted in the CIPR announcement:

Public relations is a rapidly evolving practice. There are currently at least four competing views of what the practice is and is to achieve. The PRSA’s initiative is a good opportunity to clarify current views of the practice and the CIPR’s own work on the future of the practice fits well with the initiative.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good time to be clear about public relations.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Philip Sheldrake

    This is an interesting initiative Neville, although some of the definitions I’ve seen being shared on Twitter fall a tad short imho.

    One lady tweets “PR has always been about building relationships with influential people and organizations that will impact your success.”

    I tweeted back “Don’t remember ‘influential people’ being a synonym for ‘publics’ :-)”

    I’ve posted about the initiative on my blog, including the section in my book that explores many of the prominent definitions of both marketing and PR.

    Wonder where this will end up?

    • Neville Hobson

      Philip, I think the PRSA, and its 10 (now 11) partner organizations, are doing good service to the profession with this initiative, enabling anyone with a view and a willingness to set a standard in terms of helping people understand what PR is and for.

      I’m sure, too, that there will be plenty of good ideas submitted along with the frivolous and the comedic.

      Where will it end up? An ongoing conversation, at least.

  2. Keith Trivitt

    Neville, thanks for this excellent write-up of the “Public Relations Defined” campaign and for following it so closely. You are quite right in your assessment that “It’s a good time to be clear about public relations,” but and that many of the common definitions for PR you cite in your post are not all that valid or relevant for the modern role of public relations. Certainly not PRSA’s outdated, 1982 definition, which was written a time when our profession was but a microcosm of its modern scope and value.

    So where do we go from here and what do we hope to achieve through this initiative? Quite simply, we hope that through a collaborative and inclusive process, at the end of the year, we will be able to say to the PR, marketing, advertising and business communities that our profession has come together to develop a modern definition befitting the modern era of public relations.

    A tall order, no doubt, but one I’m confident the profession will come together to support. And we’re already seeing the level of support we hoped for, and frankly need, coming through. As of noon EST Nov. 23, we have more than 500 individual submissions, and dozens of comments and blog posts such as yours and Philip Sheldrake’s excellent commentary that have provided some terrific insight.

    We’ll be collecting all of that and you can be sure those long-form inputs and suggestions will comprise the whole of the data we rummage through to develop the three proposed definitions, which, as you note, will then go up for a vote on the PRSA website in December.

    Keith Trivitt
    PRSA

  3. Andrew Spong

    I’d be interested in hearing more about an interrogation of the question as to whether PR, developed within the context of unilinear communicative actions based on pronouncement as it has been, still has a conceptual place within contemporary discourse with its default expectation of two-way, conversational interaction.

    Is ‘PR’ now the sum of our social metadata, and if so, is the term – indeed, the entire concept – still meaningful?

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