Do we really need a definition of PR?

On Friday, I posted on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ (CIPR) The Conversation blog about the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) unveiling of the new definition of public relations.  According to the PRSA, PR is:

[…] a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

During the research phase of the project, the PRSA compiled a word cloud of key words practitioners and academics felt should be included in a modern definition of PR.  Examples included public, organization, communication, relationship, builds and mutual.  Because several of these key words feature in the winning definition of PR, the PRSA claim the definition “[…] reflects the profession’s perspective of what should comprise a modern concept of public relations.”  But I can’t help but question this. . .

I know for certain I do not agree with the ‘modern’ definition – there’s nothing modern about it at all.  In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s a rehash of different definitions over the past four decades since Rex Harlow first gave defining PR a go – it doesn’t bring anything new to the debate.  And I know I’m not alone in my feelings too.  During a Twitter debate, PR students like Rebecca Ramsdale and Matt Briggs also expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the ‘modern’ definition.

So it seems despite the PRSA’s best efforts to modernise the definition and formalise the concept of PR, we still can’t arrive at a universal definition that everyone can agree on.  It’s easy for doctors; their job is to make people better. It’s easy for pilots; their job is to fly people from A to B.  But what about us aspiring PR pros?  What is our job?

Personally, I think we need to stop trying to pigeon-hole PR into a set definition.  After all, no two comms roles have the same job specification; PR can mean many different things, to many different people, in many different contexts.

I would suggest we students need to think about what PR means to us, so that when we do enter the world of work, we are fully aware of how the industry works in order to perform our jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible.

For me, the ever changing nature of PR suggests a definition of PR also needs to be suitably malleable.  Therefore, I prefer to define PR by a list of common themes so that as and when I enter different organisations, my personal definition of PR can evolve to suit their business objectives, thus accurately reflecting my role within that particular business at that particular time.

Some suggestions of common themes could include: PR centres round the communication between an organisation and its publics; PR aims to build long lasting and positive relationship; PR activity is strategically planned and measured by performance; PR aspires to be open, honest and focuses on a quality of exchange.

What else would you add to my list of common themes?  Do you even agree with my concept of common themes rather than a set definition?  I’d really like to know how you feel about the PRSA’s ‘modern’ meaning of public relations, and how you intend to implement the definition – if at all – in your job as you become a PR pro.

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4 thoughts on “Do we really need a definition of PR?

  1. You are right about every person having their own definition. I got my own as well and it pretty much sets your working style and professional mindset.

    However, the point of having a definition is not to suit our needs (those of professionals) but to communicate the essence of PR to external audiences, thus crossing out the confusion in terms of what is the purpose and contribution to business of what we do. So, I still believe we need a good definition that puts all that in words that are meaningful to “non-professionals”.

  2. Thanks for your comment Linsky.

    I completely agree with you when you say there is a need to be able to define PR in a way to non-professionals that explains the nature of the field, and it certainly would be much easier to do with a set definition.

    However, I’m still unconvinced a set definition is realistic; a corporate bank uses PR in a very different way to a small charity to achieve different organisational objectives. Consequently, I’m not entirely sure a set (and therefore the same) definition of PR could be used to explain the purpose of PR to non-professionals in these different situations.

    One thing is for sure, the PRSA has had as a very difficult job in attempting to define PR, and the unveiling of the definition has caused a lot of conversation around the topic.

    Perhaps with more and more people talking about it, maybe one day PR practitioners, academics and students alike will arrive at a definition we can all agree on.

  3. Pingback: Can social media help raise your profile? « Raising the Profile

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