This week, the good people at the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) began an effort to better define what “public relations” is. This isn’t their first attempt: Two previous tries at a definition, in 2003 and 2007, ended in failure.
A perfectly reasonable question to ask is ‘why doesn't a working definition for public relations already exist?’ After all, the modern discipline of public relations was pioneered at the turn of the last century by Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee and others; the PRSA itself was formed in 1935. Isn’t it fairly obvious what PR is about? And you don’t see physicists, lawyers, or dog trainers agonizing over what their chosen profession is all about, so why the debate with PR?
One answer is that PR and Corporate Communications are enduring monumental change. The economic collapse of conventional journalism has permanently altered the way news is created and shared. Opinions are formed and reputations altered through a labyrinth of social connections. Managing a public image has become more complicated, and the role of a PR pro less clear.
Another, less palatable reason is that most things in the world of marketing and communications are badly defined. If we were to take Voltaire at his word – “if you wish to converse with me, define your terms” – then a discussion with marketing pros would be very abbreviated indeed. As a profession, we bandy about overloaded terms like “brand”, “image”, and even “marketing” itself with only a fuzzy and shifting sense of what we mean.
So the PRSA, in an act of either abdication or inclusion, depending on your perspective, has asked for crowd-sourced inputs on what a definition should be. In my view, they’re asking the wrong question. We know full-well what PR is. The issue is how to make PR effective.
Bernays, the grandchild of Sigmund Freud, was very blunt in his assessment of what PR is about and its underlying intent, with his notion of “engineered consent” being rooted in ideas borrowed from propaganda. Ivy Lee was gentler:
"In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public…prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about."
Modern PR hovers uneasily between the two truths offered by Bernays and Lee. Not much has changed at this level. The PRSA is thoroughly confused; we don’t need a new definition of what PR is, but rather we need to understand how to make PR more effective in a new communications landscape. The goals of PR are the same; the mechanisms for reaching those goals are changing and uncertain. The PRSA’s energies would be better spent on addressing these real challenges.