How Would You Define Public Relations?

02.29.2012 | Molly McWhinnie

Over the past several months, communication professionals and practitioners in the public relations industry have been buzzing about a new campaign designed to redefine a specific industry: our very own. In November 2011, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the PR industry’s largest organization, launched in international campaign called “Public Relations Defined” to modernize the definition of public relations. Why?

The PRSA’s existing definition, which was last updated by the organization in 1982, defines public relations as “helping an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” Needless to say, it’s an ill-defined definition that does not reflect the changes in our industry that have fundamentally changed how we communicate and engage with customers, consumers and the general public. Before social media, public relations was focused on identifying, communicating and managing a company’s message to different audiences. It was very much a one-way dialogue. Today, our role has evolved to initiating and facilitating an ongoing conversation with various audiences, utilizing content developed not only by us and our clients, but also others to influence opinions and decisions.

Gerard F. Corbett, PRSA chair and CEO, accurately articulated how our profession has evolved in his op-ed piece in The Drum on Feb. 6, 2012 by stating “public relations has evolved from a largely media relations-based discipline to a modern profession steeped in a complex mix of stakeholder engagement, reputation management and services that blend paid, earned and owned media (i.e., advertising, PR and marketing).” Given this, it is only fitting PRSA’s campaign to develop a new industry definition uses a crowd-sourcing model.

For a two-week period beginning November 20, 2011, PRSA enabled members and non-members to submit suggestions via their website by completing the following form: “they [do what] with/for [whom] to [do what] for [what purpose].” According to PRSA’s analysis, “more than 927 definitions were submitted, comprising 15,688 words; and more than 80 comments, many of which offered ‘free-form’ definitions.” Once the submission period was closed, PRSA shared this word cloud to provide a snapshot of the key words submitted.


PRSA and the 12 other professional partners involved in this campaign reviewed the submissions and drafted three finalists that were posted to the website for public voting. The “task force” once again tallied the votes, reviewed industry articles, blogs and comments made by readers on the campaign, debated further and revised the final three candidate definitions. They were posted once again on PRSA’s website for the public to vote on which definition best defines public relations. They are:

  1. Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.
  2. Public relations is the strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
  3. Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.

As you can imagine, these definitions have continued to fuel conversation and debate about our profession, which is not surprising. Our role as communication professionals is complex and diverse. Everyone in this industry – whether you are an individual or an agency – has a different role, different set of responsibilities and a different approach. Developing a single definition that summarizes our profession collectively is a major endeavor, and one that will most likely not please everyone. Which is why it is important to remember the goal of PRSA’s initiative, (and note the underlined words are ones I have specifically highlighted of importance): “to devise a baseline definition that captures the core essence of what it is public relations professionals do; one that every professional could reference, use and improve upon by adding context specific to what they do, and how they do it.”

While we wait for the final definition to be unveiled by PRSA, our team at Communiqué PR continues to remain grounded in the belief that through a strategic approach our efforts help our clients accomplish their toughest business objectives. Whether it is building a brand or maintaining its reputation, recruiting talent, driving sales or gaining market share, we take great pride in engaging in conversations across the various communication landscapes to share our client’s stories in a clear and compelling manner to shape the public’s perception.


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Filed under: Media, News, PR trends, Social media

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