We Cannot Define PR

I am pretty much over this topic of redefining public relations, my core profession. Last year on this blog, we set out to do that very thing and engaged the globe in the best crowd-sourcing activity I’ve ever facilitated. It was high energy, awesome to have people on board, it was heady, and it was the coolest spur-of-the-moment thing I’ve ever done on my blog.

The outcome was a definition that came to be from a variety of sources, words, disciplines, expertise, practitioners seasoned and newbie, and those not in public relations.

“Public relations helps people say the right things to the right audiences at the right time and in the right way.”

Simple; no jargon; acceptable to a variety of professionals working in a variety of ways and with a variety of clients and industries. Perfect? Nope, not at all, and there was no expectation it would be.

We did this on a blog; no one spoke or researched or sat around the table debating words; this was done over four or five weeks of blogging on this topic and this topic alone. It was challenging and tedious, and I had to find an end so it didn’t drag on.

All along I encouraged PRSA to redefine public relations and delete its 1982 archaic definition.  They weighed in on my blog, and I’d like to say I affected their decision to pursue this further. At Thanksgiving 2011, PRSA embarked on a poll to submit ideas for definitions. Even the New York Times ran an article on the process. Yippee! (Voting is open until Feb. 26; you can find the link in this paragraph.)

There were snags along the way and extensions and who knows what else. Then, three definitions appeared on @SpinSucks, and Gini’s community erupted. PRSA wrote a rebuttal in a guest post and the dissension was even louder; kinda like screaming.

I politely provided our collective definition above and was also politely shut down by the PRSA dude who said he didn’t like it. Who am I? A 27-year public relations practitioner who has seen the changes in this profession since before the fax machine. I’m no one special, but I am darn certain I know that his three definitions we’re supposed to vote on do nothing to define public relations.

To paraphrase Gini exactly, “the definitions suck.”

  1. Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.
  2. Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
  3. Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.

I am so disappointed. The jargon provided here does nothing to energize a profession that is part of the backbone of organizations’ strategic positioning to external audiences and one that influences sales while working in tandem with marketing and advertising.

Pfffhhhhfttht.

That’s the wind that died from the sails. I’m not the only person thinking this way, and the emotions are strong. Please do read all the comments at Spin Sucks if you’re interested in this debacle.

When an entire profession cannot agree on what it does, then how shall companies and clients regard our credibility?

I don’t believe there will ever be consensus on a definition for public relations. I tried in my little corner to tackle a beast. An 80-year-old+ professional accrediting body and organization ought to be the one to generate agreement and consensus nationally because it means that much.

This is not a four-month project that ends in a vote for three same-sounding definitions; this should take at least 15 months to vet definitions chapter by chapter across the country.

This is not about me; this is about the respect for my profession. When the discontent in the profession speaks louder than the cooperation among its practitioners, then there is a PR crisis in the PR profession. Who’s going to fix that?

 

 

30 comments
Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

This just in...I lifted this comment from @SpinSucks @ginidietrich from Arthur Yann of PRSA just now. I think it's good news; they listened and they're offering up this solution:

We know our Public Relations Defined project has caused angst and even some indignation among communication professionals. We tried to approach the project with fresh thinking, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. But, that's how innovation happens, and how we learn to do better in the future. We’ve read the articles, blog posts and comments like these, which have made it clear to us the discussion mustn't stop with the vote on three candidate definitions that currently exist. PRSA is going to keep its Public Relations Defined blog up after the winning definition is announced, with the hope that we can continue to engage professionals, including those who’ve commented in this forum and elsewhere, in a discussion about the definition of public relations. Consider this your invitation and your opportunity to come up with something better. We'll provide any and all data from the first go-round. Our minds are open. If we can collectively move closer to a consensus definition of public relations, PRSA will support it. You can read more about our plans for moving forward here: http://bit.ly/xKiHhd.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

I too am pretty much over this, as I know I've posted elsewhere along with the idea that it doesn't matter what my F&F think I do. It only matters what clients and bosses, what employers and colleagues, and mostly, what I think PR is. I know what I do - and it cannot be drilled down to a 36-word McNugget. cc @Anthony_Rodriguez @EricaAllison @ginidietrich et. al. But then there's this:

"I don’t believe there will ever be consensus on a definition for public relations." You know what Jayme? At this point I'm not so sure there SHOULD be a consensus definition. I believe we should all make at stand to not misrepresent our industry, fight the b.s. that "PR is publicity, media relations." We certainly should conduct ourselves with integrity and ethics; and we must stake our claim in the marketing world and champion what communication can achieve for BUSINESS.

But beyond that, the PR that you practice will differ from mine, from Erica's and so on. Trying to force a professional into someone else's straightjacket? I am quite sure doctors often have vastly different ideas not only of how to treat a particular illness and patient, but approaches to healthcare as a whole; ditto lawyers and many, many other professions. The only difference there IMO is perception; people 'think' they know what these people do and more importantly, they think they know what they can do for THEM. But talk to a lawyer or doctor and it's still very much 'no one understands.'

What disappoints me as much as much as the totalitarian stance is the missed opportunity, all for the sake of a textbook factoid - for which no one not 'us' will have the slightest use. Really, we're supposed to replace our blog copy and elevator pitches with this?! Take one of these - or anything like it - to a CEO or small business owner?! AS. IF. It's a disservice to the industry and FWIW, does absolutely nothing to make want to rejoin an association that seems more concerned focusing on the past, on academics and verbiage rather than positioning itself for the future.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

Well, now it's no secret what I think about the definitions. :)

There are two things that bother me most about all of this:

1. I am a member. I've been a member most of my career. I am a Chicago chapter former president. I'm extremely engaged in the organization. The ONLY reason I knew about this who initiative is because a friend at PRSA sent me a private email and asked me to weigh in last year. I never received an email from the organization, as a member, about the project or why they were doing it.

2. In the rebuttal they posted on Spin Sucks, the commenters dissented. And they pretty much said, "We don't care if you don't like it. We're going with one of these." The issue still remains we're an industry where no one knows what we do and we don't have a formal way of measuring our results.

In the grand scheme of things, I'd venture to guess those of us who are talking about are less than one percent of their members. I'd be willing to guess less than five percent of their members know this is even going on. They had 1,000 entries (some were multiples - I entered five). There are 60,000 professionals (according a fact sheet on their website). So less than one percent even participated.

For an industry that is supposed to be all about awareness and reputation and building credibility, they sure did a poor job in engaging their members.

PaulRobertsPAR
PaulRobertsPAR

You are all missing the point. I can't believe you fell right into The PR Society's trap. They had a secret mission to help PR people expand their vocabulary and it is worked. This topic has made us all try a little harder to express ourselves. Just looks through the comment section and you'll find

agitated, exasperated, annoyed, mortified, humiliated, uncomfortable, upset, embarrassed, ashamed, angry,

disillusioned, disappointed, discouraged, cynical, sour, disenchanted, let down, negative, irate, teed off, PO'd

and outraged. Some really good words in there.

Thanks again PRSA for making us a stronger industry.

ShakirahDawud
ShakirahDawud

I have no business saying this, but I'm exasperated, like @Anthony_Rodriguez too, lol. I was here when you took on the task last year, Jayme, and even gave a couple lame pokes at it from the outside. Now that my perception of PR is a little clearer, I don't think those definitions are much more than--as I mentioned at @ginidietrich 's place--glittering generalities.

If the PRSA was trying to make the task of explaining PR easier, mission failed. If they were just looking for a definition that would please everybody, the voices I'm hearing say they've failed at that, too.

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

I, too, am exasperated by this whole process. I am disappointed with the defensive posture taken by the PRSA over at Spin Sucks and would think the people leading the charge of public relations would know better. These jargon-filled definitions PRSA has proposed do more harm than good, IMO. They are creating a PR problem between themselves and their members by being so averse to reconsidering what they have laid out on the table. If business-owner Joe is trying to find out if he needs PR but doesn't know what it is and finds one of the three definitions proposed through a simple search, I believe revenue will be lost for the PR industry. Because these definitions do not give any person a compelling reason to continue to seek further understanding. These options will build up a wall and keep the stereotypes looming that we are trying so very hard to fight. (BTW, I linked to your post in my blog post on this topic too, prexplorer.wordpress.com)

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

"When an entire profession cannot agree on what it does, then how shall companies and clients regard our credibility?" < That is the crux of the debate for me...the burden again shifts to each individual to properly educate the client on what we do, meanwhile, combatting whatever lame definition is floating in the wind alongside the same sort of lame perceptions and stereotypes. You've done an excellent job here, Jayme of summing it up and further highlighting our conundrum.

I just read the PRSA response on @spinsucks and was appalled. What a flippant response and in no way an effort to win over a HUGE crowd of PR peeps and sympathizers who could have actually come to his side of the table or at a minimum, begun to understand where he was coming from. It was defensive and dismissive. Why bother? He did not do himself or PRSA any favors with that post.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@3HatsComm@Anthony_Rodriguez@EricaAllison@ginidietrich VERY WELL SAID. I like where you're coming from. Perhaps last year's definition we all came up with here is the best, broadest and most general description of what we do. When the "hybrids" (thanks, Gini and @DeidreBreckenridge) among us (go to Spin Sucks webinar tomorrow) do things a bit differently, that's OK, because each of us is adapting and growing and learning and incorporating new methods, tactics, etc. into our client services. Among each of us right here in this comment thread, we probably do 30 different things than the other yet PR is our core. That's pretty freaking amazing.

PaulRobertsPAR
PaulRobertsPAR

@ginidietrich Very very well said. Didn't we all learn at some point in our career that if an organization doesn't properly define itself if is as risk of being defined by others?

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@ginidietrich I just saw their rebuttal to you on someone else's blog. They said they hit all their members. What I'm disturbed about is that this should be a huge project with everyone participating and trying to reach consensus. These three definitions should go to the chapters for special sessions to reach agreement. That's not going to happen.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@ShakirahDawud@Anthony_Rodriguez@ginidietrich I know very well you were involved a year ago right here. You know how hard we worked (ON A BLOG WITH NO ONE SPEAKING!) to come up with something that is better ancient.

I thank you for adding your thoughts; what's most critical here is the image of the profession among those who have no clue what we do. I, too, have removed PR from my full description of services; people understand better what I bring. Sigh.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@Anthony_Rodriguez The problem is exactly that - Joe the business owner doesn't have any idea what we do. And, he hires a PR firm or professional internally to help him, thinking all they have to do is get on Oprah or in the NY Times and they'll have overnight success.

I remember, early in my career, PRSA came out with the impressions calculations. Although it ended up being totally bogus because it didn't really mean anything, at least we had an industry-wide approach to measuring success.

We can define all we want. And it can be simple or full of jargon. But until the definition says we do THIS by delivering THAT, we'll go nowhere.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@Anthony_Rodriguez I love that you came over to say more. Aren't we all just done with this? And, you're spot on with your comments. My concern is for the future of the profession. We're taking flack every day from those who don't understand what we do.

As you said, if we can't inform, educate, convince with passion for our professional training, then who can?

Because I'm not a member of PRSA although I was a president of PRSSA, is my voice and opinion any weaker? No. Thank you and I'm heading to your house; glad you posted a link here and there.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@EricaAllison@spinsucks Glad you read that as flip and dismissive. He was directing comments at me and negating my process on this blog a year ago "I don't like that definition." Really, Dude? No one asked you to like it. It was an attempt -- a long, challenging, attempt to try to do what PRSA was not. And, the globe responded -- do you remember that whole exercise? Heck, I hardly knew anyone back then and we dissected and commented, and listed, and posted, and wordsmithed something that not everyone would like but was a collective attempt. Not married to the outcome; but there were some amazing definitions on those past blog posts, too. But, the PRSA guy didn't know that; he didn't see the process or look at all the previous attempts by our peers to do this. Also, he didn't see PRSA commenters in that series, either. But, "I don't like it" just didn't fly with me.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@BrianBWagner Oh, hilarious. I was wondering how that Twitter post connected here so decided to pull out enthusiasm from that! LOL; you're killing me. You just wanted some extra link love!!

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@BrianBWagner@soulati Thank you! So great to have you here and just hit your house to see what's cooking over at Talent Zoo (love that name). I think we often forget how much "enthusiasm" plays in the scheme of things. For this exercise above, it's a driving force and a waning one. Will be interesting to see whether the elitists decide to listen to their constituents or carry on with the vote. (hmm, sound familiar?)

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@ginidietrich Well, yes and no. As a past president of one of the largest chapters, I presume, you ought to have received a special tiered message to all past/current leaders. Since when does such an important initiative only send one communication to members? Perhaps they did more.

Secondly, if this is regarded as a critical project for the entire profession, then a calling tree (ala the call you got) should have also been considered. More than just a courtesy call.

Thirdly, your influence and that of your blog(s) in this profession should also command special attention. A blogger relations program (something I see PR people commonly recommending in proposals) is basic and warranted with a program of this nature.

So, in conclusion, Twin, you can feel bad but only for a minute. There, I waited 60 seconds before telling you to move on and continue with the rampage. Hah.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Criticism | has | been | sharp — even CIPR, an initial partner in the project, has distanced itself from PRSA’s proposed definitions.  Consequently, PRSA turned on its damage control machine and has put its project “Task Force” on DEFCON | ridiculous.  For security purposes, everyone is getting patted down in the blog comments, you’d better have your membership card, and don’t dare try to smuggle in any new apples from afar. […]