Public Relations redefined

The search for a new way of defining what ‘public relations’ means has come to a conclusion after a lengthy public consultation process, a short list of three candidates from which to choose a winner, and the final public vote.

The contest was organized and spearheaded by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and partnered by professional associations around the world including the CIPR, CPRS, IABC, AMEC, Arthur W. Page Society, Institute for Public Relations, the Global Alliance and WOMMA.

And the winning definition is:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

The PRSA said the winner was the second of the three candidates for the job, getting 671 of 1,447 votes cast, or 46.4 percent of the total vote.

In its own explanation of the phrase’s meaning, the PRSA says the new definition focuses on the basic concept of public relations as a communication process:

[…] one that is strategic in nature and emphasizing “mutually beneficial relationships.” “Process” is preferable to “management function,” which can evoke ideas of control and top-down, one-way communications. “Relationships” relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders. “Publics” is preferable to “stakeholders,” as the former relates to the very “public” nature of public relations, whereas “stakeholders” has connotations of publicly-traded companies.

The PRSA has promised to implement the new definition to replace the one currently in use that dates from 1982:

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

I think the new one is a far more contemporary interpretation of how the profession practices its craft in the USA today. What about elsewhere? Here’s the CIPR’s current definition for the profession in the UK:

[…] 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.

And the inadequate Wikipedia 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.

I do believe the new one better reflects what PR today is even if it will likely still be a tough call explaining it to clients, journalists and others outside the profession. Here’s the new one again:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Today’s New York Times has a lengthy feature about the definition and the process leading up to choosing the winner, with comment and opinion from a number of association leaders including Gerard Corbett, 2012 chairman and chief executive of the PRSA, John Clemons, interim executive director at IABC, and Dan Tisch, chairman of the Global Alliance.

I have to admit that I was underwhelmed with this winning definition, as I was with the other two candidates. If this is the best we can come up with, will anyone really understand what PR people do? Will anyone within the profession get it?

Yet I accept that such thoughts are a bit unfair especially as I can’t offer a more compelling alternative. We have a definition, one that looks a great deal more effective than those it will replace, and one that’s been chosen in an open public vote by members of the professional associations and others, rather than only by those associations themselves.

That in itself is notable – a crowd-sourced definition, as it were.

So for better or worse, a new way of defining what public relations means is to hand. The essential work now starts for the alliance partners involved in this initiative – explaining its meaning. I wonder how it will further evolve once it’s presented as “the new PR.”

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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. Alistair Wheate

    And appropriately, the new definition is exactly 140 characters long. So it’s officially “tweet sized” – was that intentional??

    • Keith Trivitt

      Getting the new definition within 140 characters wasn’t necessarily intentional on the part of the initiative partners, but it was certainly something that was in the back of our minds throughout the process. In the digital age, few brands can afford not to think of the value of having a short, concise message that fits within Twitter’s character limit and is easily sharable.

      Ultimately, however, the goal of this initiative was to develop a universal, dictionary-like definition befitting the modern era of public relations. We think the winning definition quite nicely fits the bill.

      Keith Trivitt
      PRSA

  2. Jon White

    Like you, I am underwhelmed by the new definition, not least because it continues the belief that public relations is communication — a strategic communication process — rather than reassessing the practice as one that makes use of communication.

  3. Keith Trivitt

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Neville. We certainly appreciate your longstanding support of this initiative and the valuable feedback that you and others have provided. Trust me, that played a significant role in shaping (and reshaping) this campaign and adding great value to its success.

    We’ve undoubtedly learned some valuable lessons throughout this process, and as you noted in your post (and both Gerry Corbett of PRSA and John Clemons of IABC noted in the New York Times article) we view this as really just the beginning of what will become a long-term analysis and review not only of the future of PR but where it stands in the broader business community and within the public’s and media’s eyes.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director
    Public Relations Society of America

    • Neville Hobson

      Thanks Keith. Glad to read your comment re this being the start point for greater analysis. Exactly how I see it.

      I’m looking forward to much constructive additions to the conversation in the coming months when the professional associations in various countries who partnered with you in this initiative begin talking to their members about “the new PR.”

      Will we see a universal definition, one that plays well everywhere? I’d like to think so but I imagine that will prove to be extremely difficult. But if we don’t at least have a similar foundation upon which people in different places can construct their own meaning, the risk exists that there will continue to be separate definitions of the term – hardly a sound foundation for building understanding in a digital and connected age.

      As you note, this is just the beginning.

      • Keith Trivitt

        Right. Here is a bit more insight as to where we see this initiative going in the months ahead:

        As promised, we intend to formally adopt the winning definition. We will add to it a bit, though, by developing a “values statement” that provides context relevant to our members’ professional values and PRSA’s Code of Ethics. From there, we will use this definition as our baseline for the practice of public relations for many years to come. We’re keeping an open mind, which is why we are keeping the “Public Relations Defined” website open and actively soliciting follow-up ideas from professionals. If the definition continues to evolve through this process, and we arrive at something better, we will support it.

        Keith Trivitt
        PRSA

  4. Sandra@PRFirmIndia

    These definitions really explain the meaning of Public relations. But how about this definition?
    ‘PR is leveraging the business press to carry positive stories about your company or brand. It means establishing a good rapport with journalists and press representatives.’
    I think that the definition keeps evolving alongside public relations changing roles with the technological advances. But nevertheless liked these definitions too.

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