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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