What is PR? A definition for 2015

Email cave paintingWhat is public relations? Why in 2015 are we still asking what is PR? Most people who don’t work in public relations have a very poor grasp about what PR actually is and those working in related disciplines, such as advertising and marketing, often have the weakest grasp in that they think they know what it is, but are actually often wrong. A big part of the problem is that many people who work in PR are also confused about what PR is and think it is simply communications and publicity.

Being able to define PR isn’t, as some say, simply navel gazing. It’s actually fundamental as how can we constantly improve what we do if we don’t know what we do? The definition of PR is also directly related to the future of public relations in an age where some are questioning its future and value as digital and social continue to blur traditional lines of demarcation. The definition of PR is also important, because of the frequent criticisms of PR, which often aren’t actually attacks on PR at all, but rather on examples of certain communications tactics used by PR people, being done badly.

It’s perhaps easier to say what PR isn’t, not what it is. PR isn’t publicity. PR isn’t spin. PR isn’t media relations. PR isn’t getting favourable media coverage and suppressing negative media coverage. However, PR can include these things. PR isn’t the same as marketing or advertising and definitely isn’t a subset of marketing as very often its objectives aren’t sales related and often not even directly finance related.

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) definition of PR says:

“Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines PR as:

“Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.”

The PRSA’s definition was updated in 2012 as a result of a crowd-sourcing discussion.

Personally, I’m not convinced that either definition adequately describes what public relations really is.

The CIPR’s definition fails to mention relationships, which for public relations is fairly fundamental. The PRSA’s just focuses on communications and fails to recognise that behaviour has a far bigger impact on relationships than just communications.

Rather than offer an alternative definition this is what I think PR should mean in practice.

A good public relations counsellor should do three things:

1) Listen and understand. That’s the two-way (or in reality multi-way) part of public relations. It’s understanding and being able to explain opinions and relationships with all publics/stakeholders including customers, employees, journalists, politicians, regulators etc.

2) Counsel the CEO, board or C-suite on the reputational and relationship implications of its decisions. PR executives aren’t qualified to advise on every aspect of running a business, but we should be able to give expert advice on the reputational and relationship implications of different decisions thus enabling the CEO and board to make better, more informed decisions. Our advice should be just as important as the advice they receive from finance, manufacturing and legal or any other professional discipline. It is the CEO’s job to weigh up the balance of opinions and evidence and make decisions. That’s where “the result of what you do” part of the CIPR’s definition comes in. In this role of corporate counsel there is also a benefit in being close to, but not on the board, as that enables the PR counsellor to be more neutral as they aren’t the decision maker.

3) Once the decision has been taken PR’s role is to develop and implement a communication strategy to help publics and stakeholders understand and support the decision. It might also be about influencing people to think or behave differently. It’s about ensuring people have adequate knowledge and access to the right information. This part of our role is media-neutral and could include paid, owned, earned or shared media channels. It’s certain to include both physical ‘real world’ channels and digital and social media. It doesn’t mean we necessarily do the communication as there might be people within the organisation who are better suited (e.g. the actual experts and people on the front line of delivering services and products). That’s where the “what you say and what others say about you” of the CIPR definition and the “strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics” of the PRSA definition comes in.

My explanation deliberately doesn’t claim, as Richard Edelman does, that “PR executives are the conscience of the corporation” as that is too grand a claim and also lets the CEO and board off the hook. PR professionals can and should advise on the ethical implications of different courses of action, but if we are to be the ‘conscience’ that means we must take responsibility for decisions we aren’t qualified to make.

We also shouldn’t get to purist or high-minded about what we do. The bulk of what PR people do is still the third role of communications. Historically much of that has been media relations and owned media such as corporate newsletters or video and today is frequently becoming social and digital. Counselling on what an organisation does is more likely to be done on a less frequent basis by more experienced public relations professionals. But the critical point is you can’t do the third part really well (communicating) unless you’ve done the second part (counselling on behaviour).

There is absolutely nothing wrong if you’re doing good to shout if from the rooftops so that people know about it. The notion that if you provide brilliant service or sell brilliant products that people will just come and share their wonder isn’t real unless you give them a helping a hand. Just as sometimes if things aren’t quite right you’d want to minimise the attention those things get. It isn’t unethical to not reveal bad news or use other news to deflect attention from it. It would be unethical to deliberately lie about it. However, it’s also important to recognise that such tactics are less likely to work as the risk of your ‘bad news’ getting out is greater today. Therefore releasing the ‘bad news’ yourself can help to minimise the negative impact. But neither approach is more or less ethical than the other.

Finally, I’d also argue that public relations is a better term than corporate communications as it is broader and more encompassing focusing on actual behaviour, rather than just communicating that behaviour. The downside of course is that public relations has its own dubious reputation, based largely on a misunderstanding of what it is.

Let’s make 2015 the year when we fight back to make sure people understand what public relations really is.