Stuart Elliott's column in today's New York Times tells of an effort just announced by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to come up with a better definition of public relations. The current definition, which dates back to 1982, is embarrassingly vague: "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."
What? No wonder the PRSA has been so ineffective in boosting the image and the professional and ethical standards of our profession. They can't even come up with a real definition of what we do.
I'll admit that putting into a sentence or two the scope of what we do in PR is no easy task. Many people look at PR as simply media relations, but we know it is so much more than that narrow aspect of our work. It involves, or can involve, counseling management at the highest levels on things that go beyond dealing with the media. And these days, reaching out to various constituents goes far beyond working with and through traditional media. The internet and social media have made PR a whole different world.
The need to recognize the changes that have come about due largely to social media are behind PRSA's effort, according to the article.
The new media we now work with call for a different method of reaching out. But I still maintain that media is media, and key is that effective messages must still be crafted and written well. Plans still must be thought out in advance for how to deal with accidents, crashes, mishaps, etc. so we don't have highly publicized PR blunders like the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster.
And ethics still must be pushed -- by the PR people, if no one else in an organization will do it -- so we don't have lapses like the misleading contacts with the media by PR giant Burson Marsteller on behalf of its client Facebook. PR should strive to be the conscience of an organization.
Another area where PR sometimes gets involved (or if not, certainly should be involved) is employee relations. It shouldn't be simply about communicating the company line to workers, but also about treating employees (and would-be employees) with respect. By looking at the hiring/interview process at many companies, including at many larger PR agencies, it's painfully clear no thinking PR person was involved in developing or monitoring it. And when painful decisions are made, such as firing an individual or laying off a group of employees, what should be the humanity of a good PR person's hand is often overlooked or ignored. These are times when sensitivity that should be a part of public relations thinking needs to come into play.
So what should be the updated definition of what we in PR do? I had to laugh when I saw the quote in Stuart's column from Rosanna Fiske, the PRSA CEO. "My parents," she said, "for the longest time have been trying to figure out what I do for a living." I can relate, as can many of us in PR. Maybe a better definition will help let our families and friends understand what we do every day.
Public relations is still about communicating... communicating with customers and potential customers; neighbors and communities impacted by an organization's business, operations and/or facilities; with vendors and suppliers; with the workforce, investors, partners; with government officials from the most local level up the federal and even international level in some cases; with families of customers and employees, especially in the wake of a disaster; and of course, with the various media who cover or want to cover what the organization does.
The other part of communicating is the myriad venues through which we can or should communicate -- traditional media, employee newsletters and memos, shareholder materials, in-person forums with appropriate publics locally and beyond, and of course, the instantaneous and increasingly two-way dialogue that is cocial media.
It's a very complex world that PR inhabits, and there's so much that PR can and should do. So I can understand what a real challenge it is to explain it in a sentence or two or three. But you know what? We in PR are supposed to be the experts in communicating and we are supposed to be the wordsmiths.
So I hope the PRSA's effort bears some good fruit. More than helping us tell our parents what we do in the office, it can also help us gain the understanding and respect of other marketing functions and also of top management in the organizations we serve.
And once we get through this exercise, perhaps PRSA can show some real leadership in developing and enforcing some ethical standards, and in developing realistic teaching standards so students and others coming into our profession have some basic skills and an idea of what to do and what not to do as we reach out to communicate with our various publics through the many channels available to us.
It's no easy task, but getting a real and clear definition of our role is a very good start.
See Jack O'Dwyer's response, in the comments section below...