What people are saying about the new ‘definition’ of PR

Big news in the public relations industry this week: It has been redefined, literally—though how effectively remains a matter of no small debate. Here’s the reaction.


The Public Relations Society of America on Friday unveiled its modern definition of “public relations,” the result of a three-month, crowd-sourced effort that sparked significant debate.

The outcome hasn’t quieted that debate nor stanched the criticism of the process.

On Twitter, people have weighed in with a number of opinions, from “meh” to “seriously flawed” to “they chose well,” and all points in between.

PR executive Gini Dietrich, who skewered the finalist definitions, gave PRSA credit for taking on the challenge, but she said the process of choosing a definition was flawed.

“They had us fit our definitions into a fill-in-the-blanks formula that didn’t allow for true crowd-sourcing or independent thinking,” she told PR Daily. “The definition is jargon, at best, and still doesn’t explain what we do. Until the industry, as a whole, can describe what we do, in terms of business results, this exercise was futile.”

On the other hand, John G. Clemons, the interim executive director at the International Association of Business Communicators, told The New York Times that he “feels really good about the definition.”

The final, updated definition is: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” (Conveniently, it’s 139 characters.)

It was among three finalist definitions cobbled together from nearly 1,000 entries from the public. A vote took place last month, and the winning definition nabbed 671 of the 1,447 votes cast.

Keith Trivitt, the associate director of public relations at PRSA, said the opinions offered about the definition were “mostly positive,” though he noted that most people seem to be reserving their judgment.

“No one definition of public relations will please everyone, especially given the diversity of the profession,” he said. “We believe that the winning definition is true to the research and accurately reflects the way in which the public relations professionals who participated in this process described what it is they do for a living.”

However, Gil Rudawsky, a former journalist turned PR professional, said he thinks the definition misses the mark. “For one, ‘publics’ is not a word,” he told PR Daily. “Then, the phrase ‘strategic communication process’ reeks of an old-school, ’70s-style profession.”

Several commenters on PR Daily and Ragan.com echoed Rudawsky’s disdain for “publics.”

To develop the final three definitions, PRSA sought input from 12 partner organizations, among them the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the U.K. On Friday, the organization released a statement congratulating PRSA on its efforts, but it seemed to stop short of praising the actual definition.

CIPR chief executive Jane Wilson said:

“Our own research has highlighted the need for a better definition of the discipline in order for the profession to continue to secure a successful future. However, one size may never fit all and this is a debate that will continue even beyond the publication of this new definition.”

U.K.-based communications consultant Neville Hobson said in a blog post that it’s a “far more contemporary interpretation of how the profession practices its craft in the USA today.”

He added: “I do believe the new one better reflects what PR today is even if it will likely still be a tough call explaining it to clients, journalists, and others outside the profession.”

The definition may also be tough for family and friends to grasp.

In November, then PRSA chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske described the inspiration behind the campaign, telling the Times: “We felt we could no longer let it go. My parents, for the longest time, have been trying to figure out what I do for a living.”

However, in a tweet on Friday, PR pro Mark Tosczak said of the new definition: It “probably won’t help me explain … to family and friends [what I do].”

The Times piece in which Fiske was quoted announced the PR Defined campaign, the result of which also made it into the Times on Friday. Instead of praising PRSA for the media score, a handful of Twitter users questioned the organization’s decision to unveil the big news on a Friday, which is traditionally the day when organizations release bad news because fewer people are paying attention.

Trivitt said the news broke at week’s end because PRSA gave the Times the exclusive and that’s when the paper planned to publish the story.

“As any PR professional understands, whenever you go with an exclusive … you cede some level of editorial and publication control,” he told PR Daily. “That’s a tradeoff for the significant value you get out of such an exclusive.”

Trivitt said PRSA was pleased with the piece and didn’t feel that its appearing on a Friday diminished the value of the announcement. (Dietrich took issue with the story’s use of the term “spin doctors” to describe the industry.)

PRSA hopes the dialogue about the new definition will continue. The PR Defined blog will remain open to encourage that conversation.

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