The PRSA has just concluded a crowd-sourcing attempt to modernise a definition of public relations. Unsurprisingly, this initiative has generated discussion through PR blogs regarding the purpose and value of seeking a new definition. PRSA reports receiving “more than 900 submissions, 70 comments and 16,000-plus page views” – so there’s clearly some interest in the exercise.
Personally, I don’t care about this search to define public relations.
The outcome of the process – crowd-sourcing, followed by subjective reflection from a Definition of Public Relations Task Force, and a public vote on the resulting top three definitions – will be no more than another definition.
It is nearly 40 years since Rex Harlow co-ordinated a similar quest by 65 PR leaders to determine a universal definition (commissioned by the Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education). That study found and examined 472 definitions, and came up with a composite drawing out the main ideas.
Of course, the job wasn’t finished there as it seems every public relations body, book, blogger, academic and practitioner has added their own views since. We could probably list half a million definitions by copying Harlow’s methodology.
The “What is PR?” question is one we’ve examined or danced around at the PR Conversations blog many times. It was the topic of my inaugural post there and PRC even produced a collated publication on the topic.
The fact that the job is never done is my first reason for not caring about a new definition of PR. For me, this is a case of the journey being more important than the destination. There is much richness in the difference of opinion and debate that gets lost when synthesising down to one statement.
Why can’t we embrace the qualitative, subjective aspect of our work and accept that public relations is a wide, deep, nuanced, multi-faceted, messy-edged discipline? It is ubiquitous and not constrained within an organizational perspective – although most definitions only present it from that viewpoint.
As Toni Muzi Falconi comments on a PRC post describing what he calls the “infantile exercise” to seek a new definition : “…we once more exhibit our inferiority complex and compulsive need for clarity in a society that is everything but clear and changes every day…”
My second objection is the lack of clarity about what is meant by a definition of public relations. Is the point to describe what PR is, what it does, or prescribe what it should be? Are we looking for a positivist or normative definition?
These are different – and raise a number of issues. Describing what PR is or does in a single phrase will naturally reduce the complexity and variety of work in the field to a simplistic term such as communications or relationship building. But doesn’t everyone communicate and build relationships? Isn’t this part of the job description of most organizational functions? They certainly don’t present a distinctive jurisdiction for PR.
If the point is to describe what PR is, why do this through opinion research rather than ethnography? What the people participating in definition-seeking studies think or say may be vastly different from the reality of practice. Are we missing something by not employing anthropologists to study PR tribe(s)?
Focusing on what PR should be – the ideal or what is considered ‘best practice’ – may set an aspiration, but expose a gap with reality that results in allegations of spin or obfuscation.
The third point I’d like to raise relates to PR’s reputational problem. Definitions put forward a positive perspective, rather than engaging with the negative. Indeed, one of the purposes of defining PR seems to be to distinguish it from other terms such as spin, publicity, press agentry or propaganda. So the good is PR and the bad is something else. Some, like Bill Sledzik, prefer to go even further and abandon the PR term to avoid the connotations and connections with our embarrassing, questionable or unethical sides. Not only should we redefine, but let’s rebrand too, they urge.
Next, I object to the fact that PR is being defined largely by PR people. Where are the other voices? If reputation is what others say about you when you’re not around (which is how I see it), then let’s ask our stakeholders and publics what they think.
We moan a lot that marketing and management doesn’t understand PR – without engaging with why our colleagues and bosses may hold views that conflict with our own. We also have our love-hate relationship with journalists to examine in the context of what they think about PR. The classic media criticisms are that PR is a “latrine of public misinformation” populated by “lying scum” spin doctors or a superficial, media-twisting, churnalistic waste of time undertaken by “PR bunnies”.
My own experience of public relations has not involved either of these extremes – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in the perceptions. Aren’t they worthy of consideration in a definition or are we just interested in the comfortable middle ground?
Or in reality, are we defining the high ground – the strategic PR perspective? Is the purpose of a definition to influence others perhaps? Is it a useful thing to dangle in front of those who don’t understand us so we can argue for a place at the top table? Even if the majority of practitioners are not engaged in strategy or strategic operations, the definition says they should be because that’s what PR is.
I don’t care about defining public relations because my view is through a kaleidoscope rather than a telescope. I see the colourful pattern created by an illuminating reflection of the many facets of public relations. The derivation of kaleidoscope from the Ancient Greek is that of “observer of beautiful forms”. Although public relations isn’t always a beautiful form. Indeed, my favourite definition states: “Public relations is, what public relations does.” It’s a living, breathing, dynamic, complex, real world activity that has the potential to change depending on how you view it.
Let’s be proud of our richness rather than attempting to present a single viewpoint to the world.