Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Any Ideas What Public Relations Is?

When you’re in the business of managing the image of others it’s a little embarrassing to acknowledge you’re suffering from an identity crisis.

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.


Keith Trivitt said...

Ian - Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the "Public Relations Defined" initiative. While I don't necessarily agree with some of the points you have made here, I appreciate you taking the time to provide feedback on the campaign.

One quick point of clarification: PRSA was founded in 1947; in your post, it states that we were established in 1935.

I was particularly struck by the point you make that the PR industry "need[s] to understand how to make PR more effective in a new communications landscape."

So I'm curious: what suggestions do you have in this regard? How can the PR industry, and more specifically, how can we at PRSA, help to make PR more effective in the digital age?

As you likely know, we have a robust advocacy program that advocates for the business value of PR, ethics in the profession and diversity (both racial and gender). In addition, we provide educational offerings, professional development, best practices, networking, speaking opps etc.

We also have our Business Case for Public Relations (http://ow.ly/7Cfzh), which helps those in the business community better understand the value of PR.

But I'm sure we could - and should - be doing more. Are any of these areas addressing the points you make? If not, where can we do more and what ideas do you have that may help in that regard?

I'm not trying to be flip; rather, I'm genuinely interested in how we can help you and PR pros everywhere become more valuable assets to your clients and employers.

Let me know: keith.trivitt@prsa.org

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director

Ronjini said...

Ian I love your insight. I don't agree or disagree with any specific outlook at this point. I do think that PR pro's need to take a look at how they execute PR. The current definition "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” is not incorrect, but I guess we have evolved as a professional industry.

I actually like wikipedia's definition of PR, "Public relations (PR) is the actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc."

Again, I agree that it's not so much in the definition, but more the execution.

Unknown said...

Keith - many thanks for giving a thoughtful and thorough response to my post (and apologies for aging the PRSA by a decade).

My main point was that the PRSA is asking the wrong question: we know what PR is, but we're struggling to make PR effective in a changing media/communications landscape.

To answer your question-- How can the PRSA make PR more effective in a digital age? -- I would suggest the PRSA starts by thinking about measurement. I mean measurement in the sense of how PR professionals should be held accountable within an organization (what do they deliver?), and measurement in the sense of what should PR professionals be looking for in order to make informed judgements about how to act and meet goals and objectives. That would be a good start.

Unknown said...

Ronjini, thanks for the comment. The Wikipedia definition is a good one, which could be easily operationalized so we could measure things effectively. For me, the key is measurement.

Thanks again.