Sometimes, older is better
I've been writing here about the months-long effort by the Public Relations Society of America to develop an updated definition of Public Relations.
The definition that had been used since 1982 was vague and bland. It didn't reflect what PR really is about. Here's what that definition was: "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."
So PRSA began an effort to find a new definition that more accurately reflected what we in PR do. After getting input from many of us in the field, PRSA offered three possible choices for us to vote on. Unfortunately, the voting process was flawed, since it didn't allow for people to make any changes to the three final possibilities. So what we eventually came up with is the least offensive of the three, and it has already received widespread criticism as not truly reflecting what PR does or can do.
I came across a blog written by PR elder statesman Harold Burson, co-founder of the giant PR agency Burson Marsteller.
Like me, Harold isn't thrilled with the new definition. He raises a good point I hadn't considered -- the new definition seems to focus on the communications aspect of PR, but totally ignores the counseling role. Here's what he says:
"The first (and most important) component has to do with influencing our employer’s behavior. What I am talking about is best summarized in the rapper line ‘if you’re going to talk-the-talk, you gotta walk-the-walk.’ I don’t know of a more succinct definition of public relations. While we commit ourselves to serve and get paid by our employer, we who choose careers in public relations also have an implied obligation to what we call the ‘public interest.’ To what’s best for society – which, in the long run, is what’s also best for our employer. Our function as public relations professionals is to help reconcile employer goals with the public interest."
He then takes us back to one of the earliest definitions of Public Relations, written in 1923 by Edward Bernays, one of the "fathers of PR."
Here's Bernay's 1923 definition:
Public relations – An applied social science that influences behavior and policy, and when communicated effectively, motivates an individual or group to a specific course of action by creating, changing or reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed, must serve the public interest.
I'm not sure I'd agree with the last phrase about "must serve the public interest." Maybe more like should serve the public interest.
Nonetheless, this goes to show that sometimes old can be better than new. In this case, I'd say that's for sure. And this is the definition I will use, regardless of what PRSA says.