The Public Relations Society (PRSA) recently announced an effort to update the formal definition of Public Relations. They invited PR professionals to submit their suggestions for how to define what we do. And they unveiled the three leading contenders to become the new official definition of what we in PR do at work.
The top three were compiled from more than 625 responses PRSA received. If you go to the site and click on “read annotations” under each definition, you can get a good idea of why certain words and phrases were used.
I’m really not crazy about any of them, although my initial preference is for definition #1: ”Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.”
I don’t like using the word “stakeholders” in this definition. Perhaps the phrase “various relevant publics” might be better. In the context of, say, marketing or media relations, a consumer may not really be a stakeholder, since he or she might easily have other options when considering a product or service. Thus, there is really no “stake” in what an organization does or says in that case.
Here’s candidate #2: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.”
To me, #2, has a basic weakness in the words “mutually beneficial relationships.” This assumes there is any relationship at all between an organization and a key public, and it also assumes that what the organization wants would be beneficial to that public. Not necessarily so, for reasons similar to the problem with #1 and more.
Definition #3 is: “Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals.”
I think this is too simplistic is too simplistic and, like #2, makes some risky assumptions, in this case regarding “realize strategic goals.” Whose strategic goals might these be, and how can we assume all parties involved in the “engagement” have even remotely-similar strategic goals? And, by the way, I don’t like the word “engagement.” It’s a buzzword at the moment, but it may be passé in a year. We shouldn’t include buzzwords in a definition, or the definition may become obsolete before the ink dries.
Jack O’Dwyer, who has been chronicling the PR industry for some 40 years, raised a good point in his comment to my own blog post on this subject. None of the proposed definitions make reference to specialization in PR. “The real story of PR,” Jack says, “is that large special practice areas have been built up in the agencies over the past 20 years and the O’Dwyer Co. is the only one tracking them (health care, tech, financial and about nine others). We had 594 such rankings for 2010, a gain of 20%.”
Although it means making the definition longer, perhaps we should heed Jack’s advice and make mention of the fact that PR can and often does take many different forms and functions since it’s hard to lump IR (Investor Relations) into the same boat as media relations or employee relations.
I have a feeling we’re going to end up with a definition that still falls far short of what PR does and its real role in an organization, but I am happy to see PRSA making the effort. Next, I’d like to see PRSA address issues of PR for PR and better PR education and training.