Public relations definition has a PR problem

If you had an elevator ride to explain your profession or industry to a stranger, how would you tell it?

Would you tell the most interesting / exciting / engaging parts of what you do, or would you give your elevator passenger a robotic, jargon-filled rendition that is likely to confuse and make eyes glaze over?

For us communications professionals who work with the media, formulating succinct and interesting sound bites is a regular part of the job we do for our clients/organizations. And this is a valuable skill to have when speaking with any other person who you want to educate and keep interested in your organization or what your role is at that organization.

So when I read the three proposed definitions the Public Relations Society of America wants its members to choose from, I was confused.

Here are the proposals:

  1. Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.
  2. Public relations is a 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.

Have a clearer picture of what public relations is? I don’t either.

Understandably, the criticisms of these proposals have been sounded. Even the chair of the task force behind redefining public relations agrees the criticisms have merit. Those criticisms include they suck, the jargon is mind-numbing, they don’t help change the image of PR and they don’t modernize the definition, among others.

If we expect people to understand what we do as professionals and what its purpose is, we, as a profession, cannot use a definition that makes eyes glaze over and brains shut down, and does not dispel the stereotypes we are trying to overcome.

Definitions are important and words matter; especially in PR and communications. They are the starting point to understanding. PRSA should go back to the drawing board and come up with a definition that will give people a better understanding of what public relations is and does.

PRSA does some good things for the public relations profession and I am a member of the organization. But if it instead adopts one of the jargon-filled definitions above, PRSA risks running public relations straight out of the lexicon and not getting businesses to see the value of needing it – not to mention losing clout, and possibly members.

Update:
These are also great posts on this topic you should take a look at reading.
PRSA’s #PRdefined: please don’t redefine failure - Frank Strong, Sword and the Script
Nailing Jelly to the Wall – Steve Crescenzo, Corporate Hallucinations, and via Ragan
Does It Matter if the PRSA Redefines ‘Public Relations’? – Brian Wagner, Talent Zoo

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17 Responses to Public relations definition has a PR problem

  1. Well, you already know how I feel about this. I commend PRSA for taking on the task, especially after there was so much conversation about it last year. Having served as president of the Chicago chapter, I know you can’t please everyone and PR people are the most vocal critics. But I think the way they did it was all wrong. The process was fill in the blanks, so people didn’t really get a say in what was created. It was leading and confusing. But, I guess, we just have to keep fighting the fight and doing good work. That’ll be what changes the perception of the industry in the end.

    • I really think this is an important exercise. It’s the first level of understanding of our industry. Whether or not the definition is something all of us can agree on, the process was biased and flawed. That’s why PRSA should back to the beginning and start over. Getting some real input that doesn’t revolve around their predetermined constructs. I think that the charrette approach could be really effective for something like this.

  2. OK, so I’m going to be the one to ask…the Charette Approach? HAPRO?? Hah.

    Seriously, I was beginning to think that we non-members were the biggest detractors, Anthony. Glad to see we’re not (although membership shouldn’t be a factor when defining an entire profession).

    I agree, there needs to be more done here. IF PRSA accepts these three definitions as final without going back into the thick of this and doing more work, that is disaster. And, I stand by my passion for the proper process; ask me, I’ll donate my time for the good of the profession b/c I already have.

    • Charrette-ing is a form a of brainstorming. Gini had a post about it a few weeks back from her experience with Interlochen. http://spinsucks.com/entrepreneur/take-a-different-approach-to-brainstorming/

      Being a member of PRSA, I had no idea that this process was going to go by so fast. Next thing I know, there were these three options to consider as the new definition. I probably would have like the opportunity to be a part of this process. I hope to get the chance when they call ‘do over.’

      • Oh, yes, I do remember that from Gini’s experience with Interlochen. Duh.

        Do you think they will, Anthony? We can only hope. You can be our member representative. Each of us has had a point in time when we’ve served on committees, boards, presidencies of PR groups to represent our profession. I don’t feel that not being a member of PRSA (and couldn’t as a newbie professional due to the $$) should put anyone in an outsider’s camp. We’re in the profession as credible working stiffs.

      • You know, I honestly don’t know what they will do or take out of this. I hope they will take these concerns seriously and evaluate the place they are at right now and see what they have come up with is far from the mark of where they should be.

      • Just sent you a hilarious rendition from an obvious comedian about this debacle. It’s on Twitter. Laughing the entire time I read it — appears on Ragan.

      • I saw it. It was absolutely phenomenal. In fact, I updated the post to include it as must read material among yours and Frank Strong’s posts.

    • Um, I’m a member. I’m a Chicago chapter past president. I have lots and lots of friends at PRSA and who serve. I also don’t like being called a detractor (which Devries did in his guest post for us). I painstakingly went back into the definitions we created last summer and tried to fit them into the fill in the blank formula. I submitted four or five different options. As a member, I never received direct communication about this undertaking, about submitting definitions, or about voting. I found out because Arthur Yann, from PRSA, sent me a private note and asked me to check it out. I realize the blogosphere is one percent of their members, but it really bothers me that the membership, as a whole, doesn’t know about any of this.

      • No kidding? Did I miss that somewhere? I’m on Arthur Yann’s poop list; he’s been assigned to follow me in comments and negate my objections and criticisms.

        I’m agog that no members received any sort of knowledge about this process; in fact, it corroborates by plea to vet this chapter by chapter. Heck, it woulda been nice to see paying members have a say out of the gate via a direct marketing approach.

        I have no idea; as I said today…ppffffttffttt…dying wind from my sails.

      • Gini — PRSA sent an email announcing this initiative to the 17,000+ members who are opted-in on 11/21/11. Perhaps you’ve opted out? This initiative also was mentioned at our Leadership Assembly, at our International Conference, in our publications, in a press release, on numerous public relations sites online, on our website and on our blogs … in addition to being featured in The New york Times. I’d be surprised if the membership, as a whole, is unaware of this.

      • Really? I’m going to look into that…I can’t imagine I opted out, but I’ll definitely look into it. I did see the NY Times article, but it was after the fact.

  3. RobinEThornton says:

    Anthony, I agree, it needs a “do over”. While PRSA is the catalyst and must be lauded and admired for the initiative, perhaps it needs to go beyond its membership — for the greater good of the industry as a whole.

    • Although PRSA has decided to continue to move forward with these bad definitions, I am glad it is keeping the dialogue open after they announce what the new definition is they will promote — which I hear is going to be this week.

      • RobinEThornton says:

        What will be will be – sometimes it’s hard to turn the ship around. I’ll be following the news!

  4. I conceive you have remarked some very interesting points , thanks for the post.

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