Why I don’t care about defining public relations

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.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

15 thoughts on “Why I don’t care about defining public relations”

  1. Heather
    As to be expected, a great authoratitive response to the debate.

    The crucial issue is context: in the 20th century there was a profound need to distinguish the early PR professionals from what was seen as discredited art of ‘propaganda’. (I define ‘propaganda’ as ‘what you call other people’s PR’)

    Now in 2011, there is a need to reflect on the impact of our context on new technology viz social media, greater understanding of networks and networking, appeciation of the mechanics of word of mouth, and through developments in neuroscience of how our brains create perceptions.

    I suspect the desire for a ‘single definition’ is the need for a comfort blanket to make ‘professionals’ feel more comfortable about their changing world.

    Your call for a mult-faceted view is curiously reflecting cutting edge understandings of what we define as ‘reality’ – so yes, let there be many different definitions depending on the many contexts within which it is defined!

  2. Surprising, but this issue — the need to define public relations and what it is to achieve — came out strongly in discussions with practitioners around the UK on the future of public relations going forward to 2020. More on this when the full report of the PR2020 discussions, held July to October this year, is released at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations on December 7

  3. Heather, thanks for the post and sharing such an interesting perspective. Your call to *not* define PR shows respect for its many facets and PR pros’ ability to adapt to whatever media climate they operate in — a skill that has been a necessity more than ever in the last decade.

    I agree with your presumption (as well as Andy’s) on why PRSA is seeking a definition: it’s for the pros more than it is for our stakeholders. Contrived and misguided as it may be, having a simple explanation for the profession brings security and comfort to those operating in the industry. I know the definition won’t be all-encompassing (and if it is, it will likely be too general and have little use), but the exercise itself is worth it so that young and veteran pros alike have something to lean against.

  4. Andy – I agree there is a need to discuss and debate PR regularly to accommodate relevant developments where appropriate. Does this mean we need to update defintions? I’m not convinced it does.

    I do agree that the ‘single definition’ acts as a comfort blanket and is perhaps a more simplistic response than acknowledging the value of accepting a more complex reality. The quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald seems appropriate:

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still have the ability to act.”

    Except, I’m happy to expand this to many more than two contrasting ideas.

    Jon – I look forward to the report (having taken part in the first qualitative research session) and am not surprised about the interest in defining PR that you found. As I noted, the PRSA initiative has similarly generated quite a few responses. But will anyone ever find “the answer” that everyone will agree upon? I doubt it – but let’s enjoy the discussion and reflection, particularly if we can engage more practitioners and non-PR folk in the debate.

    Chris – I appreciate your support for the exercise (which I also think is useful as it has generated debate). But surely we can stand on our own two feet rather than needing to lean on the prop of a definition?

    BTW, Benita Steyn adds an interesting viewpoint on the definition discussion at: http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2011/11/integrated-reporting-and-strategic-public-relations/comment-page-1/#comment-6718

    One final point for now – I’m reminded of the Blackadder episode (Ink and Incapability) which includes Dr Samuel Johnson and his dictionary (which the hapless Baldrick has burned and is rewriting). Baldrick claimes to be happy with his definition of dog: “Not a cat”.

  5. Thanks as always Heather.

    Am I right that, by your reasoning, you conclude that all attempts to define public relations, past and present, are a waste of time, or at least not worth your caring about?

    I don’t agree that defining a profession in a single phrase restricts it. The profession of medicine has a one line dictionary definition in the dictionaries I’ve just looked in, but equally I see medical professionals moving with the times and technologies; unconstrained.

    One thing I’m pretty sure about is that defining any profession in terms of being kaleidoscopic isn’t going to help PR practitioners or those who work with them, sorry to say. I appreciate your trying to convey your wonder at the scope, but your wonder doesn’t serve the purpose attempted by #prdefined.

    As for a Wittgenstein-like approach, I posted about that to my blog here: http://mnwh.li/vWGkiX

    Always a pleasure to pop over to the Greenbanana blog, even if this time I didn’t wholly concur 🙂

    Thanks, Philip.

  6. Speaking as someone who falls more in the digital marketing category than PR (I do tons more social business strategy than anything else), I find that the definition process definitely lacked participation from stakeholders. My blog post about it was quickly responded to by the PRSA with a canned talking point, which only supported the “PR isn’t being social” premise in my post.

    What I did get was overwhelming support (dozens and dozens of emails from PR folks) of the concept that PR has an important role to play but needs to transform. They spoke of the integration of social, marketing, PR, and more. Some, like my dear friend Judy Gombita, asserted that PR should lead all communications – a concept I do not agree with but it made for hearty and intelligent conversation. That’s the point, right? Conversation about what we do helps enrich. PR’s definition doesn’t fit into a small 5 field box and its public image certainly could use some publicity help of its own but, for me, engagement will solve that more than static definitions.

    It heartens me to see your conversation here. I love your line that you are looking at it through a kaleidoscope. Brilliant!

    Vicki @Smartwoman Flaugher

  7. You are spot on. When I looked at this the best I could come up with was “PR is defined by its practice”. BTW: Plato dealt with why you can’t compare PR to medicine and I think he was also spot on… more on my blog soon.

  8. Heather, a thought-provoking article. I certainly don’t know what it is. As you say, it’s changing almost daily. I still prefer something to do with communications (in general). However, these days it may pay to define oneself as a reputation manager, because at the end of the day everything gets down to reputation. I know: “reputationalist”. 🙂

    PR is/can be so many things, as the 500 or so current definitions demonstrate. How can we possibly narrow it? Roles changes depending on the situation.

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