Defining PR – Is it Really that Hard to do?

A recent post at Ragan.com caught my attention.  It was based on the premise that public relations has a definition problem.  According to the author, Frank Strong, if you ask 10 PR pros to define PR, you’d get 10 different answers.

Sadly, he’s right and that’s the issue.  Why are we having such a problem explaining what PR is? As Frank mentioned in his post, the Public Relations Society of America defines PR:

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

That definition may have been good, say, 20 years ago.  But it makes little sense now.  Public relations continues to see many changes and that’s not just talking about last five years.  Defining what PR is now would probably be a good thing.

So let’s take a crack at it on this blog.  Here is how I would define PR: “The practice of safeguarding a client’s reputation. Public relations can also be the driving force behind obtaining positive and effective publicity for an event or product.”

Yes, it’s a two-sentence definition. But it encompasses what a good percentage of PR professionals do each day.

No more lipstick on a pig references. Let’s truly define what PR is!

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  • http://twitter.com/erob1 Evan E. Roberts

    I did a post similar to this a while back on my blog. The definition I came up with was: “PR gives the message of an organization to those who care to hear it, and sometimes to those who don’t. And if they wish to be successful, PR professionals get those who care heard by the organization and those who don’t care, to care.”

    Also two sentences but I wasn’t really focused on a definition to be accepted industry-wide, so much as one I could explain to my aunts. I like that you encourage us to come up with one that everyone can work with though, so if I were going to change anything in your definition (scraping mine) I’d say:

    “The management of a client’s reputation. Public relations can also be the driving force behind obtaining positive and effective publicity for an event or product.”

    I’d make the change from “safeguarding” to “managing” for two reason:

    1) I was taught that PR is a management function, and should be on the same level as financiers, operations etc.

    2) Safeguarding doesn’t, to me, encompass what happens if something goes awry. While I know we work to be proactive/preventative, sometimes the job is reactive, especially in a crisis (huge or day-to-day). Also, I feel like management brings a more holistic viewpoint to what we do.

    I’m definitely still learning and growing in my understanding of PR. Thoughts?

    • http://twitter.com/JasMollica Jason Mollica

      Evan,

      Great points here. I like your change to managing. This is exactly why I wanted to get a discussion going. Ideas like this will helps us better define what PR is.

  • http://twitter.com/GeauxWider Geaux Wider

    Great conversation starter Jason. I still do like the PRSA definition because with me working in government PR, it’s a good fit. I also believe strongly in the service PR provides to the public, and that a good PR professional doing government work, while being paid by a client, has a duty and responsibility to act as a liaison for the public. That kind of relationship building (I am on your side, too) pays major strategic dividends for clients.

    My tweak to what you did, which may suit me more than anyone else: “The practice of safeguarding a client’s reputation by building relationships and creating partnerships.”

    I hope PR folks really take a serious look at what PR means to them, and define their own definition for the work they do.

  • http://twitter.com/Frank_Strong Frank_Strong

    Amen Jason! Here’s where it gets tricky: how does building a reputation fit into that definition? It’s rhetorical — I’m simply thrilled that you are facilitating a discussion – no more pig and lipstick indeed!

    • http://twitter.com/JasMollica Jason Mollica

      Thank you Frank for inspiring the post! I think it is something that must be discussed. As you said in your post, sales and advertising have a clear definition. I think PR should have the same. I’m glad to keep the discussion going.

  • http://twitter.com/transPR Darrel W. Cole

    Great conversation starter Jason. I still do like the PRSA definition because with me working in government PR, it’s a good fit. I also believe strongly in the service PR provides to the public, and that a good PR professional doing government work, while being paid by a client, has a duty and responsibility to act as a liaison for the public. That kind of relationship building (I am on your side, too) pays major strategic dividends for clients.

    My tweak to what you did, which may suit me more than anyone else: “The practice of safeguarding a client’s reputation by building relationships and creating partnerships.”

    I hope PR folks really take a serious look at what PR means to them, and define their own definition for the work they do.

  • http://twitter.com/stefanweder stefanweder

    Why searching for a definition when you got the perfect one right in front of you: “public” “relations”.

    Public: open, concerning in general
    relations: between any individual, company, institution or the public
    managed via communication – and there you go.

    In my opinion, safeguarding reputation, obtaining publicity etc. describe single objectives you want to achieve. Important for some but not for a general definition of PR.

  • http://tribaldrummyprmediablog.blogspot.com/ Beth

    I wrote about this very topic on my own PR blog. Here’s a link: http://tribaldrummyprmediablog.blogspot.com/

    I think it’s storytelling. Your definition addresses the motivation behind the storytelling. I guess I’m talking more about how we do what we do. Just thinking.

  • http://twitter.com/ryanruud Ryan Ruud

    Nice post and a common question faced in many organizations. When I try to explain the difference, say between PR and MarComm I use this approach. While Marketing Communications is inherently a sales supportive function (think collateral, tradeshows, etc), Public Relations manages the development and retention of relationships with a variety of publics who have a stake in the success or failure of an organization be they internal or external. Additional, PR today has evolved to include tactics that can be observed at times as marketing such as blogs, blog syndication, media placement, events, speaking opportunities, research etc.

    Thanks for tackling the topic!

    • http://twitter.com/JasMollica Jason Mollica

      Thanks Ryan!

      It’s my hope that what we have here can be a starting point. But you are right, PR has certainly evolved and I think any definition has to reflect the changes.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com/ Keith Trivitt

    Jason – This is a great subject to bring up and one from PRSA’s perspective (full disclosure: I’m the associate director of PR for PRSA), it’s one we have been closely looking into for some time.

    So here’s what I can tell you about PRSA’s definition and where we’d like to get it in the weeks and months ahead: It was established by a committee in 1982, so in a sense, it does reflect what public relations meant 30 years ago (which is, obviously, quite different than what PR encompasses now or what it will look like in the future). But at the same time, the definition was structured in a way that it aimed to be broad enough to reflect generational changes in how the public and business community perceive PR’s value and how PR professionals think of the work we do.

    So is there a need to update it? Most likely, yes. Can it be done quickly? I doubt it. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, ask 30 people what PR means and you’re likely to get 36 different responses.

    But discussions like this are absolutely necessary and provide all of us with an excellent opportunity to further explore our industry’s value, what we want PR to be, what we want it to do and most importantly, how others will perceive our value, now and in the future.

    As a matter of professional transparency, I’m going to withhold my own definition, as I do represent PRSA. But I definitely appreciate the open approach you are taking with this effort. A collaborative through process for how we can redefine public relations will go a long way toward engendering full, global acceptance by many audiences PR touches and influences daily.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    PRSA

    • http://twitter.com/JasMollica Jason Mollica

      Keith,

      I’m glad you read this post. I’m happy to be part of the discussion on defining or redefining PR. I agree, it can’t be done quickly.

  • Geoff Barbaro

    G’day all, RMIT University in Melbourne Australia reviewed its degree PR program a few years ago and after much debate came up with this:
    “The creation, maintenance and improvement of relationships between organisations and the people they deal with.”

    From the discussion then and the comments on this blog, it seems that many now think of the end point for PR being relationships, though during the review there was a big struggle about including the notion of reputation.

    In the end, communication is a human activity that takes place between people, as are relationships, and it was felt the definition should reflect this. It was also felt that the only reason to build a reputation was as a support for the relationships.

    I hope this adds to the debate and to anybody’s efforts to create a modern definition.

    All the best, geoff

  • http://twitter.com/NikiBGD Danica Radisic

    Public relations is everything your mother (should have) taught you by age 12 applied to business and corporate communications. My definition. You can take it or leave it.

  • Amerante

    This is a question that is constantly over my head. As a graduating PR and advertising major I sometimes wonder what exactly I want to do with “PR”, or what does PR really mean. I think of it, like you said, as protecting reputations, that is a huge part of the business and a lot of times the main part. I think it is also more regularly used to promote new businesses or large events.
    The problem that I think we are seeing is that you can not just work in PR, you have to be able to work with marketing and advertising. Someone going into the workforce now must be a triple threat. Each of those communication aspects rolls into the other.

  • http://ignacio.typepad.com/ Ignacio Gonzalez

    I came to this post way late. But, I would recommend that in the search for any definition of PR everyone review some of Grunig’s thoughts from the Excellency in PR work. Latest is here: http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/Third-Grunig-Lecture-October-17-2010-Transcript.pdf

    I think it is sort of challenging to boil down PR’s definition into a single sentence, but I think Grunig’s idea of the notion of managing relationships with an organization’s publics is the foundation of PR, regardless of any specific type of media channels that come and go with the times. Great post and conversation.

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  • http://twitter.com/GnosisArts Gnosis Arts

    We like your definition. It closely resembles ours. 

  • http://www.swordandthescript.com/ Frank Strong

    Was reflecting on this post today — almost a year later — and it seems to me we haven’t quite hit the mark yet.