Why redefining PR is not unlike herding cats

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By Linda Forrest

The PR industry has been aflutter with activity in response to the recent efforts of the Public Relations Society of America to crowd source a new definition for PR.

Rather than leave it open ended, PRSA has gone with a fill-in-the-blank (in this case, parentheses) approach:

Public relations (does what) with/for (whom) to (with/for) for (what purpose).

If you wish to weigh in, submissions will be accepted at the above link until the end of the week, with a new definition targeted for publication before the end of the year.

It has indeed been quite some time since the term has been defined, nearly 20 years, during which time the means by which public relations is conducted has evolved markedly from dead trees to digital zeros and ones, shifting from a one-way conversation to a multi-stakeholder conversation.

From the PRSA website:

The PRSA 1982 National Assembly formally adopted a definition of public relations, which remains widely accepted and used today:

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

This definition is not without its provisos and asterisks however, further defining “organization” and “publics” as well as mapping out how PR operates as a management function. All this to say that what appears to be wrapped up in one neat, little sentence is in fact considerably more complex than that agreed-upon sentence communicates.

No matter how you define it, PR has exploded in a million different directions since 1982, as pointed out in this Forbes post on the issue:

What PR professionals do every day is hard to define. On a given day, PR professionals are social media experts. Reputation protectors. Speechwriters. Crisis communicators. Product promoters. Employee communicators. Conversation starters. Videographers. Issue managers. Webinar writers. Public affairs professionals. Event coordinators. Bloggers.

Sometimes, we even write press releases.

The personal computer, smartphones, social media and other technological advancements have radically changed the way in which organizations and their publics communicate. As the New York Times marketing reporter, Stuart Elliot, pointed out in his article on the topic:

Perhaps the most significant changes have occurred most recently, as the Internet and social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter have transformed the relationship between the members of the public and those communicating with them. A process that for decades went one way — from the top down, usually as a monologue — now goes two ways, and is typically a conversation.

The means by which we conduct our work, the very nature of the work itself and the desired outcome of our efforts are all radically different than they were when last a definition was agreed upon. (It’s worth noting here that there were failed attempts at a redefining exercise twice in the 1990s, according to the New York Times article.)

Which leads me to why I feel this exercise is akin to my favourite idiom about herding cats: ultimately, it’s a futile task doomed to failure. And I am not the only one that thinks so, though some dismiss the effort for reasons different than my own.

PRSA chairwoman and chief executive Rosanna Fiske joked in the New York Times interview, “My parents, for the longest time, have been trying to figure out what I do for a living,” and it’s one of the very reasons that the association’s initiative is doomed to fail. For our whole industry to agree to a definition as set forth by a professional association that represents but a small percentage of the industry is unlikely. For that definition to express effectively what PR is, who does it and why, all in a manner that industry outsiders can understand, is an exercise in futility, in my opinion.

Also from the New York Times article:

Dan Tisch, chairman of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, said he considered the search for a new definition “a critical exercise” because “we as a profession have to explain what we do, in terms that are memorable, relevant, clear and consistent.”

Agreed, in principle, but, respectfully, how can we accomplish that, Mr. Tisch, when it’s a professional association that’s hardly representative of the whole industry (in your own words: “only roughly 10 percent or fewer” of those who work in public relations “are actually members of professional associations, subject to standards of practice and codes of ethics”) determining the definition and trying to define something that’s always in transition thanks to technological advancements that constantly change the job description, communications channels and success metrics?

I have limited understanding of the PRSA itself, but I can say from experience that some professional associations tend to be more about the process than the objective, which in this case is not necessarily a bad thing: getting dialogue going about what it is we’re doing is probably a worthwhile effort. But the process should be the objective here rather than trying to set a new definition, whose terms are either going to be too wishy-washy to effectively communicate to our parents what we do or too narrow to effectively encapsulate PR as a whole. Not to mention that we cannot predict what our industry will look like five, ten years down the road.

Rather than try and pin the tail on a swiftly moving target, I believe our efforts would be better spent doing what we do rather than trying to strictly define the parameters of our work; keeping the dialogue open and the definition flexible so that we can adjust accordingly when the next revolutionary technology shakes up our processes, goals and platforms.

Image: CodeMuse


  • Daniel Tisch

    November 30, 2011 8:24 pm

    Linda, thanks for drawing my attention to your thoughtful post.

    First, let me explain why I was honoured to receive PRSA’s invitation to the working group: I was pleased to support the world’s largest industry association as it went about updating its definition of PR, and I saw a great opportunity to bring both Canadian and international perspectives to the table.

    I agree with your comment that there’s great value in the process of dialogue – which is just as important as the outcome. And PRSA’s process has been admirably open to ideas from within and beyond the industry, and from within and beyond America’s borders.

    Your critique of the process seems premised on the notion that the goal is to arrive at one universal and permanent definition of PR. That need not be the test of success.

    The Canadian Public Relations Society did its own successful redefinition exercise two years ago, as have industry associations in other countries represented in the Global Alliance for PR & Communication Management (www.globalalliancepr.org). America’s contribution will have the benefit of currency, reach and influence — particularly if it secures widespread participation. But it will not be the last word, nor the only word.

    I believe passionately in the power of ethical, professional communication to improve our troubled world; there is no organization that cannot be stronger through better communication.

    That’s why there’s value in professional communicators honing their own definition(s) of what they do. By redefining the essence of professional communication today, we are more likely to be persuasive in making a case for its value — and to earn more opportunities to apply communication to benefit our organizations and our society.

    Thanks again for the post — and the opportunity to comment. In fact, I may blog about this myself!


  • Linda Forrest

    December 01, 2011 11:30 am

    Many thanks, Dan, for responding to my post.

    Since this was posted, I’ve had contact with a number of my fellow Canadians in the PR sphere and in the coming weeks, I will be posting a follow up to the above piece that explores the Canadian perspective on this issue. I’ll be sure to include some of the insight that you have shared here in your thoughtful comment.

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