by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink
It has become like a game that no one can win – who can define the un-definable. What is the new definition of public relations?
For Southern Methodist University (SMU) digital journalism professor Jake Batsell the definition of a PR professional in the 21st century is similar to a journalist’s roll of “connecting people to knowledge.”
The practice of “public relations” is documented to the early 20th century. It has been defined in various ways with the earliest definitions emphasizing press and publicity, while more modern definitions incorporate the concepts of “engagement” and “relationship building.”
In 1982 when Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy and “Gandhi” won best picture, the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) National Assembly formerly adopted the currently sanctioned definition: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”
In 2011, PRSA and 12 global communication organizations tried to enter the 22nd Century with a new “crowdsourced” definition of what their members do for a living.
According to PRSA there were 927 definitions submitted over a two-month time period, and three were chosen as finalists by a panel composed of PRSA and its global partners.
The winner: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
The problem with the definition is, well, no one is really happy with it.
A panel composed of the 12 global communication organizations chose the three finalists. A mere 1447 PR professionals voted on the final winning definition according to PRSA, less than the total number of communication professionals in Houston, approximately 1/20th of PRSA’s total membership and considerably less than 1/100th of the total membership of the 13 global partners.
What PR professionals do every day is hard to define. On any given day PR professionals are: social media experts, marketers, bloggers reputation managers, speechwriters, photographers and videographers, crisis communicators, product promoters, employee communicators and conversation starters just to mention a few.
But who defines PR? Is it the job of PR to define itself, or should the publics with which it seeks interaction be responsible?
The current “crowdsourced” definition and the 1982 definition of PR have one thing in common, both were comprised by the organizations pushing the practice of public relations, not by the publics with which they are trying to build beneficial relationships.
In today’s world of social media one does not define oneself, but instead is subject to the definition given by others. To derive a truly insightful and accurate definition of the profession; journalists, bloggers and even the general public should be invited to weigh in on the discussion, voting and final wording of the definition.
In a New York Times article “Public Relations Defined, After an Energetic Public Discussion“ by Stuart Elliot, the lead for the story contains the term that has defines the PR industry from many journalists point of view – “spin doctors“.
No matter how the PR industry wants to try to define itself, until meaningful conversations are opened to its various publics that it wants to “mutually benefit”, the definition will be incomplete. The profession will once again be pushing an image upon publics that might be unreceptive.
According to Paul Wahlstrom, president of the Dallas Press Club, defining Public Relations is a tough question. “From a journalists perspective it is a part of communications,” he said. “There is a fine line between journalism and public relations but it is all about getting the word out. The nature is the same, but the approach is different.”
For Michael Lindenberger, transportation writer at the Dallas Morning News and board member of the Dallas Press Club, the relationship between PR and journalists can be useful, but the goals have to be well defined. The goals of a journalist are not always the same as those of PR professionals or their clients.
“As a working journalist the way I define public relations is pretty simple,” said Lindenberger. “It’s folks that are trying to get the public to think differently about a product, a service, a company a person or a service by representing information designed to meet a end of their own, not my end and not the public end. It can be a useful relationship, but the goals have to be clear.”
In the end public relations and journalism have similar objectives according to SMU’s Batsell. “PR and journalism are very compatible in the way the work together. Both have the objective of reaching readers and building communities.”
The crowdsourced the definition but really come up with essentially the same statement, which as a positioning appears to be precise. As the article notes there’s lots of variation in PR roles, it’s likely up to different industries to make their objectives more specific.