In January 2012 the PR Society of America (PRSA) proposed three candidates for a new definition of public relations following a crowdsourcing exercise:
- Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.
- Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
- Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.
It looks like little has changed and “updating” the definition makes no sense at all. Why aren’t we talking about new realities and the necessity of PR to adapt? Is the problem with the crowdsourcing exercise?
To move the discussion on, here are two alternative definitions from a practitioner in and commentator on the PR field.
On one side we have Matthew Harrington, president and CEO of Edelman U.S., part of the Edelman consultancy, ranked #1 globally.
His argument? In the age of 24/7 media and the digital nature of brands the role of the PR counsellor is to:
“Help our clients translate and communicate their message in their society and community.” As much as we have new vehicles and new tools, that fundamental definition doesn’t change great deal. We do have more channels and more platforms. The great thing is that more of those platforms than ever give us feedback. The reality now is that there is a whole feedback loop that helps in real time strengthen the company’s relationship with its stakeholders. In all that, the best PR counselor comes to be a translator and strategist.
It sounds like a sound definition, still makes sense but there’s one thing that causes some confusion in my head. First of all, having said PR helps companies translate and communicate their messages to their publics implies that such communication is inside-out driven. The feedback you get is basically listening, which in itself makes up a proper conversation and markets are all about conversation, as we’ve seen with The Cluetrain Manifesto.
But again, it does sound as if it’s driven by the company and conducted on the company’s terms.
On the other side we have Haydn Shaughnessy, a blogger for Forbes.com among others. His definition goes like this:
“PR is about trying to help companies adapt to new realities. The role of PR is to interact with clients to forge a new understanding of their role.”
This one seems somehow different from both Harrington’s and PRCA’s definitions. No strategic processes, no management functions, no mutually beneficial relationships! All is summed up in 2 words – adapt and interact! It sounds more like an outside-in approach to the communication process with the publics leading the conversation and the company adapting to that reality!
If all goes according to plan, both parties get to interact on a consistent basis, thus establishing some form of understanding. It may not be “mutually beneficial relationships”, in fact it almost certainly is not, as Shaughnessy argues that:
“What relationship are PR firms maintaining between me and Microsoft whose software seems to need updating on a monthly basis, but why? I have no idea. I have little idea what Microsoft does to my laptop once a month and I see no effort to create mutually beneficial understanding of it. Nor do I believe that PR agencies aim to extend this mutuality to realizing strategic goals – not my goals anyway, and I am part of this mutuality. My goals in most of my interactions with companies is to help them change their values.”
So, in the end it may not be about any relationships! If so, why these are so persistently present in any definition of PR? Is Shaughnessy saying something fundamentally new by scrapping “relationships” out of it or just finding another way around to get to the same point?