Why the meaning of PR shouldn’t be left to circumstance

This post specifically responds to a post by Eric Bryant, Director of Gnosis Arts, "an experience-driven public relations firm focusing on tech, social media & nonprofit PR" in the US. In the post, Eric addresses the PRSA's Defining PR initiative (see my last two blog posts) and asserts that the definition of anything is simply a function of how the term is used.

He writes:

"We chose this definition because we think it expresses what is both essential to public relations practice, as well as what distinguishes it from other management functions. Our definition also takes into account what most PRs do, most of the time, in carrying out their job duties."

And his company's definition is:

"Public relations is the practice of producing publicity (excluding promotional materials and paid advertising, which typically fall under the purview of Marketing); managing media relations and communications (typically among members of the Fourth Estate); and managing reputation."

First up, let me thank Eric for tweet-alerting me to his post. I particularly appreciate his diligent explanation of the definition, too often omitted by the more slapdash.

His firm's definition melds two 'what's and one 'why', reputation, justifying it on the basis of Wittgenstein's notion of "meaning as use" (ie, definitions are lent simply by the way a word or phrase is commonly used). While Wittgenstein's approach to language has its advocates, I'm not entirely clear it's helpful here, for two reasons.

Firstly, if we are to define PR in accordance with general parlance, whose general parlance are we to adopt?

  • The tabloid press (who make PR a synonym for 'spin' – not least because that's how some practice it)?
  • The dyed-in-the-wool media relations pro?
  • The agency head?
  • The institutes / associations?
  • Academia?

Wittgenstein would answer, I believe, that it depends who's using the term and with whom, but I believe the PRSA is seeking a little more universality than that. Not only that, but with the world connected in ways Wittgenstein couldn't have envisaged, universal definitions – or at least international rather than regional – can only be useful here.

Secondly, I think I'm right in assuming the PRSA is not just wishing to capture the moment, the meaning as it's used right now (and it's a good moment or two since the association last set a definition – 1982), but to find something that at least stands the test of time for a few years to come. Perhaps even one that sets a standard they hope all practitioners will rise up to meet.

Gnosis' definition uses the word "practice" for example, which the Oxford English dictionary defines as (apologies Wittgenstein): "the carrying out or exercise of a profession". And profession: "a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification".

So it appears Gnosis is aligned with the PRSA in believing that public relations is a profession (that makes at least three of us), and therefore, just as we find with any profession out there – doctor, lawyer, engineer – one sincerely hopes that there is some body setting the benchmark, setting the minimum standard of what it means to practice that profession. Step up PRSA, CPRS, CIPR, or whoever represents the profession and its standing in society in your neck of the woods.

In other words, NOT what any old practitioner purports it to be or how they think it's done or indeed what they do.

So if we agree that Wittgenstein's stance is inappropriate here, we're left wondering what our motivations are in seeking a definition. They could be selfish – what definition could we charge most for in practice? They could be altruistic – what does the world need from us most right now? Interestingly, if we take the matching of supply and demand as a given fundamental of capitalism, the answer to these two questions should align in the long-run. Moreover, the answer to the second of these questions isn't as staight forward as it might seem.

Lastly, I contend that a good definition of a profession focuses more on the 'why' not the 'how', if only because the 'how' is more susceptible to political, economic, social and technological forces than the 'why'.