Help PRSA Define Public Relations

Anyone in public relations knows the recent events of the last several weeks where a restaurateur in the Hamptons incited our entire industry to unite in force to uphold our professional standards. As one of the bloggers who posted a series of articles on this debacle and its fall out (assisted with a guest post by the lovely and talented writer Jenn Whinnem), the theme for me awhile is going to be about public relations.

I promised to keep it alive because many who commented are counting on me/us for …raderie (my latest coined term). If per chance you’ve moved on with this issue (I can see why one be tired of it), then please be forewarned!

A post I wrote last week What is PR? was intended to help define our ever-changing profession. Prior to the ability to launch into a global, crowdsourcing message mapping session to define public relations, I must first turn to one of our accrediting bodies to hear its definition.

Sadly, the current Public Relations Society of America website adopted a definition of PR in 1982, and it has never changed! (Do you realize this definition below pre-dates the fax machine?) In my post, I called upon PRSA to update the definition (others agreed), and here’s what the highly confusing explanation states:

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

“Organization” is denoted in this context, as opposed to the more limiting “company” or “business,” to stress public relations’ use by businesses, trade unions, government agencies, voluntary associations, foundations, hospitals, schools, colleges, religious groups and other societal institutions.

“Publics” recognizes the need to understand the attitudes and values of — and to develop effective relationships with — many different stakeholders, such as employees, members, customers, local communities, shareholders and other institutions,and with society at large.

In answer to the call for modernity Keith Trivitt, associate director of PRSA, said they were open to suggestions from the field. He also pointed to an excellent jump-start comment by Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

In response to the New York Times Small Business guest blogger who skewered the entire industry so unabashedly (I am no longer linking to that series of posts), Rosanna eloquently published a newer definition of public relations, and I call upon her to use this as the basis for revising the 30-year-old archaic definition of public relations on the PRSA website:

…publicity/promotion and public relations… The two are not synonymous. Promotional work is not necessarily part of public relations firms’ services, and “buzz” is greatly identified as an advertising and word-of-mouth tactic that found some support through publicity.
Public relations is a profession that has as its base high ethical standards, as set by the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics (http://ow.ly/41htJ). While we may use elements of persuasion, as do many other disciplines, a core component of those ethical standards is the adherence to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public. This couldn’t be more important if you’re trying to build long-term credibility and reputation equity for a company.

Watch this space for more input from my peers in public relations. It’s going to take a bit to cull through everything, as at last count I had 43 pages of cut and pasted comments to sort and put into a semblance of a blog. Meanwhile, will you keep giving this some thought and be ready to chime in this week once the series continues?

On a final note as to why I feel compelled to do this…my entire career I’ve felt the need to give back. I have hired interns, recent graduates, and freelancers in my businesses. I teach public relations to anyone who’ll listen, and I’m a guest lecturer on many occasions to students in business courses, and others. My desire is to uphold our profession with high-level standards. When I see, feel and hear the youth of my profession running away from it due the bad reputation we have, it pains me. This is why I’m sticking with it for awhile and we’ll see where it goes. Join me?

(Image: CafePress.com)

32 comments
NABH
NABH

I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well.Thanks for sharing this information.And I’ll love to read your next post too.
Regards:
NABH

Jayme Soulati
Jayme Soulati

I'm going to zero in on #1 (and ignore #2 cuz it scares me!) -- that is exactly what's needed. And, so the exercise we're all endeavoring now is to present the definitions from everyone's perspectives and take a vote and a pledge to use one of them on each of our blogs and presentations every time. Watch for that blog post to come after I complete this phase of that journey first. Thanks for the 2MB!

Gautam Mahtani
Gautam Mahtani

interesting post.. here's my 2 bits.. more like 2Mb ;-)

To me, anything to do with reaching out to the 'public' is PR, be it advertising, social, events etc. Whenever I work with a client, I look at the larger impact rather than just 'articles'. Gone are the days when PR was just about getting your client written about. Well, that's what I think. It's imperative that clients include us, PR guys, in every aspect of communication. After all they have entrusted us with managing their perception. But like we all know they just relegate us to 'media relations'. But again, it's about business continuity, and we also have to generate business and hence we do tend to go for clients that do not know or rather do not understand PR in it's true essence. Well now that I'm solo I can pick and choose my clients, but that was not the case working with large agencies/consultancies.

Back to your post. There's a saying 'Everything is fair in love and war'. The same applies to businesses. What's good for one is not necessarily good for the other. Ethics be damned. After all all businesses are answerable to it's shareholders/stakeholders. And they don't really care how it achieves what it is supposed to achieve. They are just interested in returns. Similarly in PR, if our clients do not understand, or we can't make them understand the full extent of what PR can do, then it's a shame on us. Yes, as in every profession there are bad apples, but clients only bad mouth PR when things do not work out as per what they want. At the end of it they are paying our bills. They always equate PR to advertising and say, "Hey! If I paid this much for an Ad, I would have got XX cc in the paper. What have you got me?'. What do we do? Nothing. Bec we cannot afford to lose them bec our paycheck depends on them. It's up to us to set guidelines and deliverable and not promise the moon just to sign a contract. Some of us can draw the line and decline a contract, but not all.

Ok, am rambling now. Quick ending. 2 points.
1. It's up to us, as individuals, to educate the clients.
2. Even rapists and murderers are represented in the court. Go figure.

Rgds
G

davinabrewer
davinabrewer

Some great discussion here Jayme. First I'll add this link, a post today from @HeidiCohen w/ the 31 flavors (definitions) of PR, including yours. http://bit.ly/hTTwSc I added that "circus" example to the comments, the same I shared with you last week. Second it is easy to say there are bad apples in any profession, lawyers and doctors who manage to just eke by w/ out getting sanctioned, disbarred or their licenses revoked. But that's a cop out when it shouldn't be about the blame game, pointing fingers or rationalizations; it should be about advancing the profession on behalf of the practitioners and the clients and publics we're trying to serve. The how to do that, wish I had a smarter answer. FWIW.

J Danielle
J Danielle

I'm still torn on what I think about the NY Times piece. On the one hand, this isn't just about what PR professionals are or aren't doing so to speak. It's also about picking someone to work with and trusting the advice. And I think in the past, having a PR representative wasn't as important nor was it as "thrilling" as it is in modern times now that we have so many news outlets and tools to get a message out and the competition for those messages is very tight. Now that more people are using PR people (hell, even I'm currently looking for a PR rep), I think we're running into the same issue that the finance and legal industries have run into for decades--a few bad apples can spoil the bunch and there's more negative word of mouth due to more people using such services.

Ultimately, I think this is going to come down to clients being empowered to make better choices about who to work with. Same way that Suze Orman gives tips for how to spot a poor financial manager, I think more of us will have to provide that kind of context (which is something that I'm trying to do more often on my blog).

Finally, on the note of promotion vs. public relations, I thought that was a key point but I'd take it a bit further. We can't assume that being a good spokesperson is being a good brand builder. The concepts simply aren't the same. Same way some PR folks can do a really good job getting you media coverage but can't coach you to ace the interviews. I could go on and on about the facets of PR that there are to master and how important it is you find the right fit.

Keith Trivitt
Keith Trivitt

Jayme – Thanks for providing an opportunity for others to weigh in on this topic. As I noted in my previous comment (http://ow.ly/4a2XG), the potential development of a new definition for public relations is something that PRSA has been exploring in recent weeks. With that in mind, we don’t think the responsibility should lie solely on PRSA to do so, as organizations like the Council of Public Relations Firms, Arthur Page Society, CPRS, CIPR, PRCA, etc., as well as professionals such as yourself and many, many others, all play a significant role in ensuring public relations has sustained and significant value to the public and business community. We are truly an international industry, and for any new definition to have lasting meaning and impact, it will require an international perspective in its formulation.

That’s why we’re exploring discussions with several international industry trade groups, and hope to have some plans around this in the weeks to come. I’ll be sure to follow up on this blog and others as we move forward.

As I noted last week, we’re certainly open to suggestions from the broader industry as to what public relations encompasses in the digital age. I’m more than happy to chat with anyone about this, take your thoughts, debate the topic, etc. Anyone who wants to chat further can reach me on Twitter (@KeithTrivitt) or via e-mail: keith.trivitt@prsa.org.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director of Public Relations
PRSA

SteelToad
SteelToad

For me, looking at it from outside the PR world, the definition of ‘Public’ has changed a lot since 1982. Back then public meant the people that might actually come across a business in its physical form, or the people you were hoping to draw to the business.

PR in 1982 meant getting the message out, and responding to the public. It meant print, television, signage, and radio. If somebody were upset by, or delighted with a business they might call, or write (affixing proper postage) to the business.

In 2011 ‘Public’ is a different animal altogether. To Uncle Joe's Clam Shack the public includes; the locals, the tourists, facebook friends of locals and tourists, the vocal Canadian group upset about American clamming policies, peta, anyone else on the internet called Uncle Joes, etc.. The newer ‘Public’ doesn’t necessarily take the time to write to the business for a resolution, they’re more than happy to (and have the ability to) let the whole world know what they think, leaving PR with a much different issue to address.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Before the PRSA (and its international equivalents) can do anything, they need to actually get true punitive powers and punish/fine/ban agencies from practicing PR, when they're found out to be unethical. Who cares that I get thrown out of the PRSA? Big deal - I'll just continue what I'm doing, under a new name if need be. There are now regulatory punishments apart from being expelled - it's like being back at school.

Until the PRSA actually gets some power - and uses it - they'll remain a joke.

Erica Allison
Erica Allison

Jayme, I will be back later today with some thoughts for you. Heading out now to meet with a new client interested in 'public relations'...makes me think about what her perception of that term really is. I always ask the new client several questions, namely, what do you want to accomplish by hiring me? Have you worked with a publicist or someone in public relations before? How will we define success? I'll let you know how it goes! xoxo

Petya N. Georgieva
Petya N. Georgieva

Great post, Soulati! I absolutely agree that we need a new definition of public relations in the context of the digital (r)evolution. I will help with spreading your message, will take part in the process of defining what exactly public relations is and will keep an eye on the discussion which is going to be provoked due to your post :)

Soulati
Soulati

First off, your answers are always smart. Secondly, you bring value to the discussions here and I cherish that. Lastly and not leastly, it is up to all of us to uphold the profession with our confident delivery of excellent and high-quality service. Anyone commenting on these blogs et al is certainly doing that. Thanks, Davina.

Soulati
Soulati

So great you've stopped by to add to the discussion. Because of the bad apples, it's up to the rest of the leaders who are doing above-par work to uphold the industry -- our image, the branding of PR as a profession, and our own integrity.

For years and years in my career, this has been nothing new; PR always gets a bad rap. Where I point "blame" is in the immediacy of communication channels via social media to share that sourness ala NYX.

Would be neat for each of us to tackle this issue on our respective blogs on occasion and invite others to join the conversation in healthy debate and education. What I found in doing this is I have a lot to say to the frontlines and youth. I want my passion to be communicated broadly that it's OK to be in PR and am proud of that, too.

Lastly, (uhm, you're seeking PR representation?) well, look no further than in this community to possibly help you! There's Gini Dietrich of Arment Dietrich; Allison Development Group with Erica Allison; Elissa PR; Shonali Burke, Davina at 3 Hats Communication, Danny Brown in Canada, and moi. !! How's that for referrals that are top of mind? Thank you again for thoughts!

Soulati
Soulati

Thanks, Keith. My way of giving back is to engage from the top first (PRSA) and then drill in to the plethora of comments I got from folks while also looking at Lee Odden's post today about "31 Definitions of PR."

I'm not done; this is a series of pieces that can be presented broadly and I'm hoping it will be the voice of the frontlines, we in practice, will help generate.

Soulati
Soulati

And, Ray, look at what Danny just said a moment ago -- who is policing the industry? Who are the ones watching for ethical behavior and standards -- no one. If we truly dig in, defining the profession is the tip of the iceberg and the digital revolution will make for one heady explanation of how we do business. Thanks for your perspective; always fresh, from the tech world.

Keith Trivitt
Keith Trivitt

Danny - You know I have all the respect in the world for your perspective, insight and experience in PR, but I think you have glossed over one very big point that needs to be made: PR in the United States isn’t a regulated industry. PRSA has absolutely no legal authority to punish, fine or ban any members. Furthermore, we believe that every public relations professional has a role to play in policing the profession; that factual matters of law should be resolved in the courts or by the appropriate legislative or regulatory body; and that we should not “boot out” members who may have acted unethically anymore than a church looks to boot out parishioners who may have sinned.

We have to keep something in mind: PRSA’s mission has never been to strictly enforce its Code of Ethics or to “police” the industry. That’s simply not how the organization was set up, nor is it what our members have asked us to do. And, as I noted before, we have no legal authority to do so. Our mission is to educate our members. We see our role as inspiring, motivating, focusing and illustrating for our members — and the broader public relations profession — what ethical behavior is and is not.

For example, just today, PRSA had a letter to the editor published in the Boston Globe (http://ow.ly/4a3Z7) condemning the reputational whitewashing work that the Monitor Group performed on behalf of the Libyan government.

Is there more we can do to ensure PR’s reputation is strong? Absolutely. And it’s for that reason that I do appreciate dialogues such as this. The more we all talk about these issues, the better we will understand how to ensure PR’s value and reputation is strong in the months and years to come.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director of Public Relations
PRSA

SteelToad
SteelToad

Please excuse my naivete. So, if I'm understanding the basics correctly, the PRSA is like a BBB for PR except that people outside of PR (new businesses / potential clients) aren't generally aware of it ?

Soulati
Soulati

Fascinating, Danny. You've hit an issue that's being presented more and more -- our profession's ethics. Who are the watchdogs? Back in the day for me, I was always so ticked when people entered PR and were just party planners. Anyone can "be in PR" yet no one questions expertise; thus, we get business owners calling the entire industry crazy.

Thanks for your input.

Soulati
Soulati

Thanks, Petya! Am eager for the global community to participate, and by starting here with PRSA in US we give them a chance to weigh in further. Then, we work it ourselves and come up with a strong definition in wake of digital, etc.

Frankly, I'm dumbfounded its definition is 30yo! Astonishing. Thanks for your support!

davinabrewer
davinabrewer

Hmm.. wonder if that's the same post I just added.. hadn't seen that yet.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

But aren't we all preaching to the choir? Can PR become regulated or are we always doomed to have the same snakeoil salesman perception that other service providers have? I appreciate all of the work PRSA does with letters to the editor and comments on blogs, but can't we do more? I think that's what Jayme is trying to achieve here...let's band together and educate the business community (not ourselves) on what it is we do. Sure, I think our industry needs some education (it makes me nuts that PR pros are still commenting on he who shall not be named's blog posts and selling their services), but the perception isn't going to change until a) more of us do our jobs BETTER and MEASURE results to business growth and b) we educate the business community on what it is we do and how we provide value. Using technology there has to be a way for us to do that.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Hey there Keith,

I understand what you're saying, but that's a problem that PRSA should be pushing to resolve. Vehemently. (If they are, I'm unaware of it, so apologies to them). It's all well and good being a body that wants great ethics; but loads of people want great ethics. They don't have the voice of thousands of members, though, to make it happen.

Yes, people in the profession should police it, and help make the industry better (and not just the PR one). But a lot are afraid to speak out because they feed off the larger agencies. And if I'm paying dues to an organization, then I'd really want it to be one that has a lot more sway than condemnations to a newspaper and throwing members out.

I'm sorry if this is a negative comment, mate, and I do respect all you're trying to do. But without true authority, an organization (PRSA or otherwise) is no different from someone blocking someone else on Twitter because they don't like what they see.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Kinda. And the BBB seems to be traveling the same road as the PRSA, and no-one is really taking any notice anymore...

Soulati
Soulati

It's the foremost accrediting body in public relations; if you take its courses, you get the APR after your name (Accredited Public Relations). Early on in my career path, I elected a less expensive route and for various other reasons never joined. I was student chapter president at UW, but couldn't afford the $ or attitude back in the day. So, long answer...yes.

Jarett Quintana
Jarett Quintana

Jayme (and Danny),
Ethics involved with propagating a message are fascinating, especially with so many participating now. Do people, PR or simple social networkers, assume responsibility and awareness for their "statements"? I shared a few thoughts regarding Social Net Ethics awhile ago - referencing a debate from the 1950's to license the PR professional http://ow.ly/4a6qD I welcome expert opinions. Thank you for this series of posts Jayme!

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Agree, Jayme - if it's good enough for other industries, then PR really needs to get its act together. The starting point is having pros like you, Gini Dietrich, Shonali Burke, Martin Waxman and others pushing for it and pointing out the bad. It's not going to happen overnight, but it does need to happen.

Cheers! :)

Soulati
Soulati

You're right, it originated with Heidi! My mistake. I also didn't know I was in the list! Wowza.

Keith Trivitt
Keith Trivitt

As an addendum to my comment above, some areas in which PRSA is currently exploring how it communicates to and educates the business community about PR's value include: the profitability of communications transparency and its effect.on corporate and CEO reputation; the ROI of ethical communications, particularly within social media; and the profitability of brand messaging on social media. All of which, we know, are pressing concerns of CEOs, CMOs and those who hire PR agencies and consultants.

Where else should we be focusing on in terms of advocating for the biz value of PR? Let me know.

Keith Trivitt
Keith Trivitt

I couldn’t agree with you more, Gini. It’s for the very reasons you cite that in late-2008, PRSA created the “Business Case for Public Relations” (http://ow.ly/4cRrV), which contains resources and tools that PR pros can use to help reshape internal and external perceptions of our profession and demonstrate public relations' roles (yes, we do more than publicity) and value, particularly to the vital business community that uses and pays for our services.

As Arthur W. Page noted, reputation is 10 percent what we say, and 90 percent what we do. And do we must.

In terms of doing more to educate the business community about PR’s value and role, you’re right: there is only so much preaching that can be done before the point becomes dull. That’s why PRSA revamped its national advocacy program late last year (full disclosure: I oversee PRSA’s advocacy initiatives), and implemented a focus on three core areas: the business value of PR, ethics and diversity in the profession.

Frankly, I think some of our early results in terms of better speaking to the business community have paid off in raising PR’s profile as a valuable and absolutely necessary management resource. From op-eds in the Harvard Business Review (http://ow.ly/4cRhu), BusinessWeek (http://ow.ly/4cRit) and Advertising Age (http://ow.ly/4cRji & http://ow.ly/4cRjS) to our advocacy work with the U.S. Senate (http://ow.ly/4cRpb) and the FTC (http://ow.ly/4cRqw) on behalf of the industry and our members, PRSA has routinely spoken out to the broader business community about the significant value of public relations.

But could we do more? Absolutely. And discussions like this and many others in recent week have inspired me to rethink how we reach those business leaders, how we communicate PR’s value to them and how we help them better understand the vital role public relations plays in helping businesses grow (not to mention serving the public interest).

Let’s keep this dialogue going. I think it’s good for all of us to further explore.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director of Public Relations
PRSA

Keith Trivitt
Keith Trivitt

Appreciate the response, Danny. I know your intentions are good, so no hard feelings (and I hope my comment back didn't come off as being overly reactionary or rude). You're absolutely right that we (PRSA) do have the voice of thousands behind us (32,000, to be specific), and they, along with many others (such as yourself) are pushing us to do more, to speak out more fervently against unethical practices and to find ways to eradicate the bad practices that sometimes crop up in PR.

I’m not sure if I would agree that a lot of people are afraid to speak out because of the larger agencies. I see plenty of people speaking out against bad practices in the business all the time (Jayme is a great example), and that’s extremely helpful toward building a better industry. PRSA, as you rightly note, can only do so much; we truly do need the collective help of many throughout the industry to ensure PR doesn’t fall off a giant cliff toward seediness.

In terms of authority to enforce our Code or boot out any bad apples in the industry, PRSA, even if we tried, wouldn’t have that type of authority, at least over the entire industry. Because we’re not a regulatory body for the industry, we can’t control what all 200,000 U.S. public relations professionals do. And in the past, when we have tried to sanction unethical behavior (more info here: http://ow.ly/4a7u4), it turned into an untenable boondoggle, with only a handful of actions reached a point where they could be brought to the PRSA Board of Directors for action. None of these actions resulted in sanctions or official notifications of “violations.”

A little known fact is that PRSA had a sanctioning component to its Code of Ethics from 1950-2000. However, it became clear, over time, that the legal barriers and risks to PRSA would only grow, potentially diminishing the value of PRSA’s Code of Ethics, if we kept the sanctioning component. Over time, our members and leaders realized that a focus on the value of ethics in the profession, and a more vigorous professional development and education program centered on ethical communications, was a better and more valuable approach.
For us, what it ultimately comes down to is whether we want PRSA be known for the number of people we try to expel or expose — at an extraordinary cost to our members — or for our ability to inspire, motivate, focus and illustrate for members, and practitioners everywhere, what ethical behavior is and is not. We have chosen the latter, and for the foreseeable future, that is the approach we are taking.

Sorry for the long, drawn-out response. As Jayme’s post has highlighted, this is an issue that has multiple layers to it and quite a lot of history. But I have to say, it’s started a pretty robust and fruitful discussion.

SteelToad
SteelToad

Social media, and internet interaction will eventually end most most simple accreditation organizations. Why am I going to go to BBB to check the reputation of a business when I can more easily check Google or Facebook. Unless there are some formalized standards, testing, and certification involved, it's all just reputation sharing - and the internet does that for free.

Soulati
Soulati

Good to know! In speaking to my peers, they gave the impression that this was coursework. Thank you. Also, is any of this type of content worthy of PR Breakfast Club? Was thinking of that.

Keith Trivitt
Keith Trivitt

Jayme - Just a quick point of reference re the APR: You don’t have to take any PRSA course to sit for the APR. The process is a questionnaire, presentation to a panel of your peers and computerized exam. PRSA offers a Study Guide and an APR Boot Camp, but you don’t have to use either.

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