Redefining Public Relations

For those who missed the breaking news on Friday, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) announced a new official definition of public relations.

It's a big deal (for the PRSA). The last time they updated their definition of public relations was 1982, when they adopted this vague phrase: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

Attempts to write new definitions in 2003 and 2007 fell short.

Now, after months of debate, they have agreed on a new definition:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”


It's actually a big improvement. But there are so many definitions of public relations. In her blog, Heidi Cohen lists 31 of them.  She also compiled a list of 71 marketing definitions.

Does any of this really matter?

Mr. Corbett, chairman and chief executive of an agency of Redphlag, says: “Like beauty, the definition of ‘public relations’ is in the eye of the beholder.

The greatest value in these efforts to define "public relations" (or any functional area of an organization) is the effort itself. It forces a department/profession to think hard about its purpose and how it can best support the company's success. And of course, how this work will be measured. 

And this is different at every company. "Public" relations for the brand managers at Tide Detergent is completely different from the PR function at a B2B HR software or services company. Their tactics are different, their toolkits are different and how they are measured is different. 

Trying to water down a definition of public relations so it has some sort of relevance to all organizations is a waste of time.

Besides, you cannot define/discuss public relations in a silo. It must be viewed together with marketing - you can't separate the two. This is especially true in B2B.

And does the term "public relations" even make sense today?   Professional associations are allowed to change with the times. The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) was founded as the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA).  Perhaps the PRSA should have put energies toward redefining the profession.

For those who make their career in "public relations" don't spend too much time memorizing the new definition of your profession. Rather, spend your time defining outcomes and what exactly it is you are trying to accomplish and how this will support your company's success.

This type of discussion focuses on business needs (unique to every company) and from here management can more effectively assemble the teams and allocate the resources necessary to meet the goals of the organization. These goals ultimately "define" the department and the function of public relations, not the other way around. It's a subtle but important distinction.  And it helps to eliminate redundancies.

In a social world, this has become increasingly challenging. You must listen to many audiences, filter out the noise from the growing big data of information and determine who and what really matters. You must then engage, interact, and build relationships with the right audiences. 

And there is no single definition that describes this function. Every company must define and approach it differently.

Here are a sampling of questions you'll want to think about: 
  1. Who are your "publics"?  (e.g., customers, prospects, partners, media, other influencers, etc.)
  2. What are you trying to accomplish with each of these audiences? Why? What are your desired outcomes?  What are the inter-dependencies of these outcomes and how does each support the company's success?
  3. What are the tactics you will use to accomplish these goals?   
  4. What tools and resources will you need to support these tactics?
  5. How will you know if you are successful?
  6. How will management measure this success? How often?
There are many more questions you'll want to answer but the ultimate goal is to hone in on what needs to be done to support the company's success and what people, tactics and resources will be required to insure it happens. 

Call it what you want but this - and only this - will define your "public relations" success.

Post by HRmarketer / SocialEars Founder and CEO Mark Willaman. Join Mark on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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