Public Relations Has a New Definition – Use At Your Own Risk

PR's new definition

PR’s definition just got a bit more “spinny” and hazy.

So, PRSA has been running a months-long campaign to develop a new, more modern, definition to the term “public relations.”  It stems from, amongst other reasons, PR’s role being misunderstood within an organization’s operations and thus, being under-valued, de-valued or even ignored.  However, despite some persistent misunderstanding it does appear better understanding of PR is on the rise, as US News & World Report ranked PR as a “Best Jobs 2012.”

Most of us in PR have had a conversation when meeting a new person or acquaintance that eventually leads to them asking, “What do you do?”  When I respond with “public relations,” probably eight out of 10 times I’ve been asked the follow-on question to explain it.  In my humble opinion, if I were to use the new definition it would cause confusion requiring much further explanation.  Here it is:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

I will commend PRSA for trying to keep the definition short but, short should not squander understanding.  Let’s conjure up another probable scenario.  Say you – a PR executive – are called by a savvy engineer that has started new tech company.  The person found you online and states that some of their previous employers had PR and he or she, as an engineer, wanted to learn more about whether to adopt PR or not for their new company.  The person starts by asking, “What exactly is PR and its value?”  Would you want to answer first with the new definition?  I would not.

Advantage: PR
PR has a single advantage over any other marketing function: establishing market credibility.  Certainly advertising does not carry this advantage as today it is not seen as credible.  Yet, it continues to be more understood than PR.  People should understand PR will likely never be as understood as advertising because of advertising’s in-your-face approach compared to PR’s more behind-the-scenes approach.  Advertising’s in-your-face approach can be likened to an actor on stage to perform a play.  Like advertising or other marketing functions going it alone, an actor alone on stage to perform for its audience will have a difficult time – in plain jeans and a white shirt, with no make-up or stage sets.  They can be as loud and boisterous as they want but from the start the acting is just less credible.  PR can be likened to those supporting the actor:  the stage sets; the glorious backdrop; the chorus singers and musical instruments; the lighting and the costumes that establish the perception you’re going to have about that play.  Now, the actor can truly shine because PR “set the stage.”  But, I digress…

The point is, advertising – or any other marketing function – by itself lack credibility. The only time advertising helps build credibility is when it leverages an already-existing perception of credibility and typically this is a result of PR.  PR builds market credibility resulting in an established market position that then other marketing functions can help reinforce.  The new definition takes no advantage of this beachhead.  In addition, PR primarily focuses on influencing third parties – the media, analysts, luminaries, etc. – to communicate the organization’s market perception or position.  It is this effort in influencing third parties to spread the word that continues to lend necessary credibility to an organization seeking to establish a perception, because it’s from an unbiased source.  The new PR definition does not leverage this either.

Spin for the Spinner
In addition, the use of “mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” is classic PR spin – a stretch at best.  For the organization, the purpose of strategic communication is ultimately increased sales. For publics, the advantage of communication from the organization is understanding their position in the market – a perception about the organization.  The sole purpose an organization wants this understood perception is to get publics to buy the product or service.  It’s hardly mutually beneficial.  One might argue that in the publics’ embracing of the product they win in the use of the product they purchased.  But the success of “a strategic communications process” to get that sale to happen is heavily one-sided in benefits for the organization. If you ask any PR executive of a corporation why they do PR they’re not likely to state “we do it because we want a mutually beneficial relationship with our customers.”  Instead, they’ll likely say “we do it to influence our customers to buy our products.”  Let’s at least be honest about it in an era where requirements for organizational integrity is at its highest.

Re-redefining PR
In my humble opinion the definition should read more as follows:

“A communications process used by organizations to indirectly and directly influence perceptions they want their publics to believe about them so those publics buy into their products or services. The indirect method is public relations’ advantage because it builds credibility unlike any other marketing function, by persuading and convincing unbiased and influential third parties to promote desired perceptions about the organization.”

Yes, it’s a bit more wordy but in my experience, paraphrasing this definition to explain PR to people I’ve just met, it gets across.  It touches upon PR’s two distinct advantages: indirect influence and building credibility.  Also, today’s organizations do little in operations that doesn’t make money.  PR has always been attacked for its inability to relate its role with how it leads to sales.  The new official PR definition does nothing to address this.  It needed to instantly identify that PR positively affects sales through its indirect method.

There’s no doubt the role of PR continues to evolve.  However, today – and for the past decade – it has been cast into a leading marketing role for its important ability to build credibility unlike anything.  We’re in an era where communications mediums – from TV, radio, blogs, social networking, etc. – spread word like wildfires, often to scrutinize organizations or persons.  Today, credibility can be squandered overnight but it has always taken time and effort to build.  PR is precisely about building and maintaining credibility to positively affect sales.

Right now, a new definition for PR needed to come across far more clearly, even if it took a few more words.

Read more about the new official definition here, here, and here.

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