Last week, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) unveiled its new definition for public relations. Within the PR community the process for coming up with this definition was as controversial as the definition itself.
A Little Background
A couple of the ongoing challenges the industry has faced, seemingly since it was founded, was a general lack of understanding of what PR actually does. Tied to this, for as long as I can remember, there is a common outcry within the profession that alleges it does not have enough of a presence in the boardroom.
While I understood some of the thinking behind this, I’ve always worked according to the old motto that life is what you make it. Adapting this to my career, I’ve always felt that, too is what you make it.
I really can’t complain about a general misunderstanding of PR. Yes, I’ve run into it, and yes, I’ve done what I had to do to dispel confusion and clarify the issue, at least to the extent that I could do my job. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t.
Same thing for boardrooms. I’ve been involved in some relatively benign situations where my client was the CEO and the hall pass to the boardroom was not an issue. And I’ve been involved in some highly complex situations where it would have been nice to have access to the CEO and his actual words, but that didn’t happen. You work with what you’ve got.
In every instance, I never even considered that a new definition of PR would help. But some people did feel this way and so they embarked on a journey to this:
“Public Relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
That sounds all well and good, and I don’t disagree that PR people do some of this, but it’s not the essence of what we do. I think this as this definition strives for specificity it is ulimately somewhat exclusionary.
Yes, PR is strategic, but not always. Sometimes the goal and what has to be done is self-evident, and there’s just not a whole lot of strategy involved. Other times, there’s much more strategy than you’d expect.
Then there’s the issue of “mutually beneficial relationships.” Really? Does that mean if we’re not striving for mutual benefit, we’re not doing PR? What if your company is getting unfairly attacked by some third party and/or the media, and you have to respond just to help the company protect its good name? Where is the mutual benefit?
Then there’s the issue of whether PR can only serve organizations or whether it can be a tool for individuals as well. Individuals, it seems were overlooked in our new, streamlined definition.
PR as an industry is a sucker for fads. The recent trend towards “crowdsourcing” is based largely on the idea that more minds leads to a better outcome. So, PRSA put the process for coming up with this rather mediocre definition to “1,447 votes, hundreds of submissions, abundant commentary and nearly a year of research.”
The definition that was selected was one of three voted on, and it received 46.4 percent of the vote - not a majority, but more than either one of the other two candidates.
The truth is, just about every PR practitioner you meet will have his or her own definition of PR that serves as a touchstone. The one I tend to use in my work casts a broader net than PRSA’s. It may not be your definition, but this one works for me:
“PR helps to create the right atmosphere to achieve a desired outcome through the use of some form of communications.”
In my mind, if I’m not doing all of this every time, then I’m not doing PR.