Public Relations Defined – the anatomy of a candidate definition, ver 0.2

PRSA PR Defined

[Written for the CIPR Friday Roundup]

Following the momentum the PRSA's #prdefined initiative is achieving, and the CIPR's statement of support, I thought I'd take a deeper dive into current definitions, and throw one in the mix myself.

I reproduced the section of my book that addresses the definitions of marketing and PR in my last post, and since then I've been able to have some insightful conversations, on- and off-line, with Jay O'Connor, Jon White, David Phillips and Terry Flynn.

Is it worth it?

There has been some valid criticism of the PRSA initiative pivoting around the question: shouldn't we invest time and energy in improving practice to live up to current definitions than review those definitions we already have? The counter to this argument is apparent for those tracking the thousands of comments on line; it appears that more than a few practitioners indirectly criticised by those holding this point of view are actually questioning their own appreciation of public relations, if not actively revising it.

CIPR definition

PR is the discipline that looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.

My favourite definition, no word of a lie! I obviously love the reference to influence, but also the apparently unique and skilful avoidance (intended or otherwise) of communication, thereby emphasising the objective not the means. But when 'reality is perception', as is increasingly the case with the radical transparency lent by social media, reputation is built by everything an organisation does (or indeed does not do), not just what the PR team does; every one must be involved in "looking after" reputation.

And I'd also like to see a definition that recognises the need to analyse the mutual understanding or influence flows between stakeholders themselves, and indeed competitors, not just the back and forth between organisation and stakeholder. This applies to all the current definitions I've seen.

CPRS definition

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communications, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.

I have a high regard for this definition, particularly the reference, controversial as it proved, to the public interest. But to my mind "management" evokes "control" inappropriately, and is "communications" the only way to achieve the ends?

PRSA definition

1982 current definition – public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

Concise but, as Dorothy Crenshaw asks on her blog, "done any mutual adapting lately?" It's been widely commented that the PRSA's definition is looking a little dated. Most glaringly, it doesn't really frame an outcome and so it fails to lend PR a raison d'être. The PRSA attempted a redefinition in 2003, although this was never ratified:

2003 beta – Public Relations is the professional discipline that ethically fosters mutually beneficial relationships among social entities.

Again, it's obvious the PRSA loves concision, but this comes across a bit vague to me and "social entities" doesn't scream plain English. But then again, I talk about "influence flows".

Excellence study definition

A management function that focuses on two-way communication and fostering of mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.

Is two-way communication the only thing that helps foster mutually beneficial relationships? Can you reach mutual understanding without it being beneficial to all parties per se? And as I mentioned above, it too suffers I think from not really encompassing the complexity of today's influence flows in not referencing the importance of stakeholders influencing one another for example.

A new candidate definition

To address the criticisms above, in my opinion a draft candidate definition must:

  • Recognise that reputation is a responsibility of everyone in an organisation, with the public relations professional providing leadership, structure, policy and guidance
  • Emphasise the objective, the raison d'être, rather than the means
  • Reference all six influence flows, as I call them; so a bit meatier than "two-way"
  • Try to avoid reference to management.

And, like the definitions above, it should emphasise mutual understanding. So all that's left now is to write it!

Why not submit your definition before the deadline a week today? There have been over 500 contributions already! The PRSA submission form can be found here.

You may, like me, deduce from the restrictive format of the submission form that the PRSA is intent on maintaining a brevity in its new definition, but I don't think this works. The PRSA's Keith Trivitt has accepted that they'll have to recognise the validity of other contributions, perhaps in the comment section of its microsite for example.

Obviously, after all this, I couldn't resist having a go at a definition. You can view my effort here and I'd love to know what you make of it.

PR Defined screenshot

Update 1st December 2011

Delighted to attract the following two tweets. Thank you.

@KeithTrivitt Keith Trivitt
@Sheldrake's "Anatomy of a Candidate Definition" of #PR has blown my mind. Incredible what he has come up with.

@Fiskey Rosanna Fiske
Have to say, in true @Sheldrake style, this is pretty fab for PR. "Anatomy of a Candidate Definition" #PRDefined