Here’s the current definition embraced by PRSA:
Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.
If you accept the reigning paradigm in PR — that relationships are the holy grail — that’s not a bad definition. But from a branding perspective, it stinks.
Put yourself in my shoes, talking to a high school senior and her parents. Jenna tells me she’d like to work in PR. The ‘rents don’t have a clue what PR people do, and PRSA’s definition is no help at all. Can you expect a family to drop $80-$100K so Jenna can learn how organizations and publics relate to each other? Ain’t gonna happen.
So here we are again. The profession charged with shaping public perceptions for its clients has mismanaged its own brand for the past 100 years. I wrote about the problem in 2008 and even presented this “sort of unified definition.” And in the very next post I tried to explain what PR is not. But we still have work to do.
The PRSA “Define PR” Campaign
I applaud PRSA for using social media and allowing us all to submit definitions through its website. I’m not crazy about the submission template, but it does assure uniform input and allows for quick review.
It seems to be working, too. PRSA’s Keith Trivitt tells me the site had draw 762 submissions since Nov. 20. Impressive.
PRSA’s campaign falls short is in the discussion phase. “Define PR” is more of a contest than a conversation. Anyone can submit a definition, but submissions are stored behind the wall with no opportunity for review and debate. We’re only told the input will be considered in further discussions, but we don’t know when those discussions will take place.
Do we really need a new definition?
PRSA said it’s using the “Define” campaign to develop a modern definition for the new era of public relations. But while the tools of PR have changed radically since 1995, PR’s core mission really hasn’t.
Call me a throwback, but this Cutlip & Center from 1969 still works well:
Public relations is a planned effort to influence opinion through socially responsible performance based upon mutually satisfactory two-way communication.
It’s accurate and it’s concise. It identifies PR as management function (a planned effort), as an advocate (to influence opinion) that acts ethically (socially responsible) while also embracing dialogue (two-way communication). All that’s missing is the “R” word.
So how ’bout this?
Public relations helps organizations tell their stories and to build productive relationships with stakeholders and communities.
What in a name?
Let me recast that definition slightly:
Public relationsStrategic communication helps organizations tell their stories and to build productive relationships with stakeholders and communities.
Public relations has an image problem. When you see the term in mainstream media reports, it’s generally a pejorative: a “public relations stunt” or a “public relations smokescreen.” Is that true, or is it “just PR?” Ugh!
We’ve been flying the “PR” banner since the 1920s, and the perception of our field remains way too negative. So why fight it? As we develop a new definition, let’s create a new name and a new brand. It’s time.
My suggestion is hardly original. But “strategic communication” might resonate more clearly in the C-suites while also helping us shed the stigma of flacks and imagemakers.
None of this will happen as a result of one babbling blogger in Kent, Ohio. But maybe someone with clout in PRSA circles will take up the fight.
Me? I’m out of ammo.