Public relations defined for the 21st century

PRSA Public Relations Defined




The Public Relations Society of America has sparked some interesting discussion by launching a ‘crowd sourcing’ initiative to create a new definition for public relations. Neville Hobson is encouraging people to take part and has helpfully shared some of the various PR definitions that exist – PRSA, CIPR and even Wikipedia. Danny Watmough has taken a more cynical approach and asks if the need for a definition is a sign of the PR industry in crisis?

Personally, I’m not that uncomfortable with existing definitions of public relations as I don’t believe the fundamentals of public relations have changed. It’s a myth to think that public relations wasn’t about conversations and two way dialogue long before the advent of the social web. What the social web does is provide us with even more opportunities to listen and converse. But fundamentally public relations has always been about behaviour. And that’s what too many people don’t understand and is the reason why a definition actually does matter.

The big problem that I see is that many people have a totally warped and inaccurate view of what public relations is. I think the main reason for this is that too many of those in ignorance about public relations actually work in the business and think they are practicing public relations. In reality they are frequently no more than publicists or media relations practitioners.

It’s good that the PRSA has partnered with other professional bodies and industry organisations including Arthur W. Page SocietyInternational Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication ManagementInstitute for Public Relations (IPR), International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

Unfortunately the PRSA forces you to make your suggestions in a rather rigid format, which makes it difficult to actually respond. My very rough definition would be something along the lines of:

Public relations is the discipline that looks after reputation. It is about how you can use an organisation’s behaviour and communications to affect its relationships and therefore create and maintain a better reputation.

It’s far from perfect, but for me it gets across the important points. It is critical that any definition makes it clear that public relations is as much about what you do as what you say. That’s why it has to include the word behaviour. It also needs to include the word communication as simply behaving well won’t enhance or protect your reputation if nobody knows about it. It does not need to say two-way or multi-way, as that should be self evident, because it is about relationships.

Comments, criticism and agreement all welcome!


The Business of Influence author Philip Sheldrake has also written an excellent post on this, which has just appeared in my RSS reader despite appearing to have been written on November 21! I particularly like the contribution from former CIPR president Jay O’Connor who particularly underlines the role of public relations with respect to reputational risk and opportunity, and good governance.

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