PR Definition Misses the Boat

There is a new definition of just what public relations is (are?). But judging by a few early comments, not too many PR pros are happy with the outcome.

First, the definition and how it evolved:

The Public Relations Defined campaign, led by the Public Relations Society of America and incorporating 12 global partners, has revealed the winning description of the PR sector, following a public vote. The chosen definition, which received 46.4% of the vote, with 671 votes, was: "Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics."

"Simple and straightforward, this definition focuses on the basic concept of public relations — as a communication process, one that is strategic in nature and emphasizing ‘mutually beneficial relationships,’" the PRSA said in a statement announcing the new definition. According to the statement, "process" is preferable to "management function," which can evoke ideas of control and top-down, one-way communications, while "relationships" relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders, and "publics" is preferable to "stakeholders," as the former relates to the very "public" nature of public relations, whereas "stakeholders" has connotations of publicly traded companies.

There were 927 definitions submitted to describe the sector, but these three were chosen as the finalists, with the public given two weeks in February to choose their favorite. "Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals." came in second with 30.1%. "Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships." came in third out of the three definitions with 23.6% of the vote.

Now, just a few reactions from online contributors once the above was announced:

    • In one rather silly and sophmoric exercise, fewer than HALF of that tiny group of people have turned our profession and us into "communicators." No longer a management function — at the C-suite decision-making table, advising CEOs — we are the communications people who wait in the hall to be told what to communicate.

    • The subject has been discussed to death, and I am among many who are settling for this definition, but am hardly satisfied with it. While I applaud the PRSA’s attempt to "crowdsource" ideas for the definition, the final voting process was in my opinion, flawed. The final three choices were offered as a yes/no choice in the online balloting, with no option to offer added comments. So the resulting winner is really what many consider the least offensive of three weak options.

    • I’m not satisfied and not settling. I will never use this definition with my constituents as representing what I do because it’s too narrow. There are times when we do not work for organizations, and there are many times when "mutual benefit" doesn’t enter the picture.


My two cents: The responders above are on to something. PR needs to be part of the management function and the "mutually beneficial" is not accurate at all times. My suggestion: don’t worry so much about the definition; just do the work.