PRSA announces new crowd-sourced definition of PR
and now the discussion begins...
After an effort that goes back several months, the PRSA has announced what it will adopt as the new definition of Public Relations. The process, to update an old definition that goes back to 1982, tried to be democratic and open by inviting suggestions and comments from all. PRSA calls it "crowdsourcing."
The process drew lots of discussion in the PR world, on blogs and in the media. In fact, Stuart Elliott made it the subject of two of his columns in The New York Times, including today's column announcing the final choice.
More than 900 definitions were submitted to PRSA, which narrowed it down to three finalists. There was further discussion -- much of it heated -- and a final vote was taken. The winning definition got almost 45% of the 1,447 votes cast.
And now the discussion -- and debate -- is just beginning in earnest. Jerry Corbett, chairman of PRSA, in fact, acknowledged that in the New York Times story. It is the "beginning of an ongoing, sustained discussion about what the public relations industry does," he said.
A quick scan of some of the PR chats on Twitter, such as #PRDefined, #PR and #PR20chat, shows the discussion is certainly continuing, with mixed response. PRSA is, of course, patting itself on the back. Whether or not they deserve a back pat can be debated, but at least they brought public relations into the sights of the marketing and business world, who hopefully now understand we do a whole lot more than "flackery," party-throwing and hand-holding celebrities.
Like me, many commenters are not thrilled with the final definition, although we're happy to have something a bit more up-to-date that, sort of, describes in very general terms what we do.
The fact is public relations is such a complex and far-reaching practice that probably any definition that's only a single sentence simply can't do it justice. But it's a start.
Here's the "official" new definition:
"Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
I'm not so sure about the phrase "mutually beneficial relationships." I can think of a number of instances where an organization and its publics may not ever come close to "mutually beneficial." A case in point: What could possibly be "mutually beneficial" when a tobacco company is relating to consumers, or especially teenage consumers?
A better phrase would be to borrow from the Canadian Public Relations Society's definition, adopted three years ago. It doesn't call the interaction a "mutually beneficial relationship," but rather a "mutual understanding." Sometimes, the best we can hope for is at least to have others understand -- even if they don't agree or like -- what our client or employer is trying to do.
Here's how our friends up north define what we do...
Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communications, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.
I see a problem with the last phrase in the Canadian definition. It's nice to serve the public interest, but let's be real... sometimes the organizational or corporate interest is not necessarily in the public interest.
If you drop that last phrase, I think there's a pretty reasonable definition of what we do. It can encompass product publicity, employee relations, investor relations, corporate image and branding, etc.
So finally... we all know what we do. But, as PRSA's Corbett said, the discussion continues.
One PR person, Jeremy Pepper in Los Angeles, may have summed it up very well when he wrote on Twitter:
"PR is the only navel-gazing, hand-wringing discipline. Marketing and Advertising don't worry like PR pros."
Let's see how the discussion goes.