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More Than Words: How to Really Redefine the Term “Public Relations”

There’s big news in the PR industry as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently announced that they are embarking on an international effort to modernize the definition of public relations. Chartered in 1947, PRSA is the world’s largest and foremost organization of public relations professionals and boasts a community of more than 21,000 members across the U.S. Their current definition of PR – “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other” was last updated in 1982, before Twitter, before Facebook, hell, even before you had a computer at your desk. Technology has changed a lot over the last 30 years. So to have the ways in which organizations and their publics relate to one another. It’s definitely time for a change.

Adam Lavelle, a member of the board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and chief strategic officer at the iCrossing unit of Hearst, agrees. In the New York Times article linked above, he says:

“Before the rise of social media, public relations was about trying to manage the message an entity was sharing with its different audiences.” Now, P.R. has to be more about facilitating the ongoing conversation in an always-on world.”

Unfortunately, ever since the days of Edward Bernays, PR has had its roots in “managing the message.” PR grew out of propaganda, spin, and manipulation – no wonder we’ve had an image problem for the last 100 years! Too many PR practitioners have become so focused on the message that they have totally forgotten the relations part of public relations. As The Cluetrain Manifesto taught us way back in 1999 (also before social media), “public relations does not relate to the public, companies are deeply afraid of their markets.” From press releases that sound like this and media pitches like this, PR practitioners have gotten lazy, hiding behind words and messages instead of building an actual relationships.

PRSA (disclaimer: I’ve been a member of PRSA or PRSSA since 2000) should take this same advice while redefining the definition of PR. The words might end up being totally accurate and insightful, but if PR practitioners don’t also change their actions, the perception of the industry will never change. I hope that all PRSA members would realize the perception of public relations is about more than words – it’s about actions. And with that, here are ten actions that I’d like to become part of the new definition of public relations:

  1. Instead of spamming my email pitches to massive distribution lists, I will put in more than ten seconds of effort and personalize it to the reporter/blogger/writer/anchor/editor I’m contacting
  2. I will stop being a yes-man for my clients and actually provide the expert communications counsel I’m (hopefully) being paid to provide
  3. I will learn how to speak with an actual human voice instead of the voice of mission statements, brochures, and marketing pitches
  4. I will not forget the relations in public relations and will try to develop real relationships with the members of the media I work with instead of treating them like pawns that can be manipulated
  5. I will stop snowing my clients and inflating my value through the use of ambiguous outputs like hits, impressions, and ad equivalency and instead focus on the outcomes that public relations has helped accomplish
  6. I can no longer be the man behind the curtain, ghostwriting messages and press releases while I hide behind my brand or organization. I will take responsibility for my strategies and tactics.
  7. Regardless of my age, I will recognize that keeping up with and understanding technology is now a job requirement
  8. Likewise, I will stop assuming that social media IS public relations and vice versa. Social media is becoming a much larger aspect of PR and present practitioners with new tools to use, but they are not one in the same.
  9. PR cannot exist in a vacuum – I realize that my PR efforts will be more effective if I collaborate and communicate regularly with marketing, advertising, strategy, operations and other groups throughout the organization.
  10. And finally, I will recognize that good public relations isn’t about manipulating media coverage – it’s about helping an organization create and maintain stronger relationships with all of its stakeholders.

Redefining “public relations” is a crucial first step, but changing the perception of public relations will require more than than words – it will require a shift in the thinking and the actions of thousands of PR professionals. Let’s start modeling the behaviors we hope to instill in all PR practitioners and start taking PR from messages to actions.

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Jack Shaw

Steve, I have to tell you I am impressed with this view of public relations. What we do in government is more accurately called public affairs and by its very definition we should be very inclusive of our publics and stakeholders. That said, for years as a public affairs officer in the military and public affairs specialist in the Federal government, I have had to explain the difference between public affairs and public relations; my Defense Information School’s definition says that PA is more about representing the people’s interests as well as my organization’s. Now, with your view, I am hopeful we’ll be more about the same things. Organizationally, it is to a mutual benefit that we relate to our publics and stakeholders in a way that says we care about them. Public relations has long been viewed as the organization’s messaging on their own behalf and that perception affected those of us in “public affairs” as well. To some people, there is no difference, but there is. Now, not so much, if you have your way. There is nothing negative about having stronger relationships with stakeholders.

Faye Newsham

Steve – I have two issues with your assertions, and no, neither is about PR!

  1. I had a computer on my desk in 1982…in school, high school. I could have had one at home — the first apples were out and running rampant and IBM was rushing to catch up.
  2. Social Media has existed almost as long as computers…the first social networks were within the advent of the internet, also LONG before 1999. Multi-player games were already sneaking in on the geek conscious by the time I sat down at the above described high school desk in 1982…considering my first personal computer experience was several years before that, in middle school and I had been aware of the “big blue” in universities years before that. Sure, we’ve updated the definitions, changed some of the focus, even declared “Web 2.0! Web 2.0!,” and new pieces have evolved but the nascent bits have had a longer life than most give credit to.

OK, back to PR (all great and valid points, by the way)!


Steve Radick

@Jack – I think there’s a huge difference between public affairs and bad PR, but once you start comparing good PR and PA, those differences begin to erode. Unfortunately, as industries have converged, PR, Marketing, and Advertising all started to kind of look alike to the general public. I think there are elements of each that cross over, but there are also (or should be) dramatic differences in the goals behind each. There’s a reason it’s called “public relations” and not just “public messaging.”