Chasing a Definition for a Dynamic Industry

February 28th, 2012 by Tim Johnson

Stuart Elliott at The New York Times reported in November that the Public Relations Society of America, one of the trade associations for the PR industry, is starting a project to define: “What is public relations?”  PRSA’s current definition reads, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”  Huh?

Given the continuously changing nature of how organizations communicate, the abundance of new communications tools available, and the highly-subjective nature of communications, defining public relations is one of those Sisyphean tasks, that once you think you’ve got it solved, you turn around and the rock is once more at the bottom of the hill.

I would say that there are a few basic descriptors of the public relations profession, but would be hard pressed to understand why, in such a fluid business, there is a need for a concrete definition. We believe that public relations:

  • Helps organizations succinctly, creatively and effectively communicate the value proposition of the entity as a whole, as well as its products or services
  • Focuses on communicating through primarily unpaid mediums, relying on the implicit endorsement resulting from a decision maker (e.g., an editor or conference manager) choosing to utilize our content
  • Promotes dialog between an organization and its customers, as well as the “ecosystem” in which it operates
  • Concentrates on demonstrating an organization’s strengths, but does so truthfully and with tactics that are “generally accepted” to borrow a phrase from the accounting profession

On that last point, I think the sniff test is pretty clear.  If a PR team, either internally or on the agency-side is considering a tactic they wouldn’t want written about in Stuart Elliott’s column, then they probably shouldn’t execute it.  And if an agency team gets caught executing an unethical campaign and claims the client made them do it, shame on them.

Finally, a PR team should strive to fit into the client’s organization and work within the culture of the client’s organization.  There’s no higher compliment than when a vice president of marketing makes a statement like, “We consider our PR firm as a part of our team.”

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