Hot Topic, Public Relations

Defining PR Sparks Debate… and that’s good!

One of the great things about social media is that it allows you to have a fluid discussion about hot topics and trends. PRSA is currently asking PR pros to help define PR, through its “#PRDefined” campaign. Last week, I read Mark Schaefer’s blog titled, “Marking the 100th Anniversary of the PR Profession’s identity Crisis.” Mark mentions the campaign and why more time is needed to define PR. It certainly raised my eyebrows, but wanted to see what others thought.

Thankfully, friend and colleague, Kevin Manne (@k3v2) read the post. Kevin, who works in higher ed social and new media, recently passed the exam for accreditation in public relations. We discussed Mark’s blog via Twitter and both mentioned Edward Bernays’ definition of PR, which is mentioned in Mark’s blog.

We moved the conversation to email, where Kevin said he felt Bernays’ definition is still fairly accurate. “Though the tools and channels which are used for public relations may change,” Kevin said. “The fundamental profession remains the same. With social media, now more than ever we have the ability to truly build and maintain two-way relationships with our publics.”

Kevin added that he thinks the issue is it can be difficult for those outside of PR to understand exactly what we do.

That’s one of the reasons PRSA felt it was time to better define our field. I reached out to Keith Trivitt (@keithtrivitt), the associate director of public relations for PRSA. I thought it would be good to get the ideas behind the #PRDefined campaign.

“What we are trying to establish with #PRDefined is a dictionary-like definition that addresses this issue of clarity of public relations’ most common precepts,” Keith said, “while allowing for flexibility for individuals and organizations to add their own value points and context to a common definition.”

While Bernays’ definition is still valid, the #PRDefined initiative, according to Keith, will help modernize the definition of public relations, in order to better address the current and future role and value of public relations.

I understand where Mark Schaefer was coming from because, I, too, originally asked, “Why are we still trying to define PR after all these years.” But, Keith made a good point to me, to which I agree wholeheartedly. People taking issue with the campaign is good because it adds to the discussion. “We’re confident that whatever new definition the profession chooses will be roundly supported by much of the profession,” Keith said. The vote will take place publicly in mid-January.

The response to #PRDefined has been overwhelming. According to Keith, in just the first two weeks of the initiative (Nov. 21–Dec. 2, 2011), which coincided with the crowd-sourced submission phase, PRSA received more than 900 distinct definition submissions, 16,000 submitted words to define public relations and nearly 30,000 page views of the “Public Relations Defined” website. There were also dozens of blog posts and business and trade media articles written about the campaign, including an endorsement of the initiative by PRWeek Editor-in-Chief Danny Rogers.

My take? Let’s continue the discussion and debate, even after PRSA comes up with its definition. Bernays’ definition holds up well as (hopefully) will the society’s. If both mean a better understanding of PR, that’s a good thing.

Let me know your thoughts on PRSA’s #PRDefined initiative and how we define our field, in general, in the comments.


23 thoughts on “Defining PR Sparks Debate… and that’s good!”

  1. Great post, Jason. We were discussing this same issue on #pr20chat the other night. Actually, what we were talking about was PR elevator speeches. And I do think there’s a bit of a difference. Still, we need to have the discussion around defining PR before we can create a helpful elevator speech. But then we also have to remember that a new PR definition doesn’t do us any good if only those in PR understand it. My definition below. Cheers!

    “PR is the opportunity to understand and influence customers’ perception of your company and to tell brand story. Remember, your brand is what your customers say it is.”

    1. Justin, thanks as always. Really like your definition and agree that elevator speeches are a bit different. But, if both that and the definition combined answer the question, I think we are in good shape.

    2. I like your definition but I feel that it’s missing something. In PR we are not only charged with communicating for our clients/employers but also for our customers. We need to help businesses and their publics mutually adapt. Otherwise we’re more PT Barnum and less Bernays.

  2. I’m really interested to see what PRSA chooses as the new definition. I totally agree with Kevin that while the tools and channels may have changed, the foundation upon which PR was built has not. I’m hoping that this new definition does not further muddy the waters for people who still don’t understand what PR is all about.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nikki! That’s why I think the the discussion will continue, post definition. And it should. But, we do need something that encompasses the changes and evolution of PR.

  3. Thanks for adding your voice to the #PRDefined discussion. I think you’ve laid out several good points in this post, and kudos to you for including multiple voices, both of those from PRSA and others.

    As your post accurately reflects, the initiative has garnered a tremendous amount of interest, both within the profession and the broader business community, about the modern role and value of public relations. Ultimately, we believe that will be the greatest legacy for this campaign and its most lasting impact. As I noted in my comments for your piece, no matter the outcome, we’re confident that the discussion that has been initiated through this campaign will benefit the profession for years to come and will lead to deeper discussions and debates about the very concept of PR in the digital age.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director

    1. Keith,

      I appreciated you being open and transparent with the answers to my questions. I concur, this will all lead to deeper discussions and debates. We are a changing field.

  4. Nikki, Jason and everyone:

    Just making sure to add to Keith’s points here by clarifying that PRSA alone won’t be choosing the definition. This has been an inclusive effort that has included — as outlined in Jason’s post — many viewpoints, far reaching outside of PRSA. As a matter of fact, our 12 organizational partners who’ve been part of this effort with us have contributed a great deal as well. So, what will be pulled together for public voting will be those definitions that reflect input from many, many diverse sources. Will the definitions up for vote make everyone happy? Probably not. But that’s democracy at work, and like Keith said, that’s good!

    Rosanna M. Fiske, APR
    2011 PRSA Chair and CEO

    1. Rosanna,

      Thanks so much for adding to this discussion. I was happy to read that PRSA has included many in this effort. That’s the great thing about #PRDefined; we are all part of the process.

      I think healthy discussions and debates are good for the PR industry. Keeps us sharp and honest as well.

    2. You’re right, Rosanna. You can never make everyone happy. And I do know that the final definition will reflect input from many people. I think this was a risky (but in a good way) undertaking and am looking forward to the final result. 🙂

  5. Jason — I just posted on the same topic within the hour (, and stumbled upon your link in a last-of-the-night scan of my SM dashboard. While I appreciate PRSA’s efforts, and Rosanna’s leadership over the past few years, spending our time delivering better, stronger business/organizational results will deliver significantly more ROI than using that same manpower to “redefine” the profession with a public vote.

    Sure, it has the industry talking, but to what end?

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for checking out the blog and leaving your thoughts. I don’t have a problem defining PR or taking the time to tackle the issue. At the end of the day, if it gives those who would like to hire us, a better understanding of who will are, this is a good thing.

  6. Hey Jason! While I agree with most of your post, I don’t agree that a definition that is 30 years old still fits our industry. Sure, we still maintain relationships with our publics, but it’s grown to be much more than that. Perhaps my struggle is not with the definition, but in how we measure the work we do. It used to be media impressions and advertising equivalencies, which (rightfully so) have gone away. What we *should* be measuring now is results to the bottom line. Yes, from the 30 year old definition, brand awareness and credibility are important. But they, alone, do not help a business grow. Until we learn how to combine our efforts with some marketing, product, and financials, it doesn’t matter how much we talk about what it is we do. People will always assume we’re publicists until we tangibly, as an industry, begin to show real return.

    1. Fair point, Gini. And thanks for reading and responding. I believe it is our work and reputation that defines us. Does a definition on a website say, “oh, now I understand what Gini does?” Probably not. Even when PRSA has their end result, it’s still going to be debated.


      1. Sure, but I think it’s up to the entire industry to provide a unified front and say, “This is what we do.” Otherwise the great work that you do and that I do will go unnoticed except for the lucky companies that get to work with us.

  7. Great post.

    I strongly suspect that, after all of this time and effort, we’ll end up with a definition that’s largely unchanged. While I appreciate the dialogue and conversation, I worry that we’re spending valuable resources preaching to the choir. I think we need to return our focus to what we do well, advocate for the profession and educate those who don’t understand what we do and the value of the services we provide.

  8. Hi Jason (and all),
    Glad to see the discussion on redefining public relations continue. Hats off to the leadership of the profession (PRSA and the other allied organizations who have endorsed the project) for engaging in an inclusive and interactive discussion. Keith Trivitt from PRSA certainly has all his SM search engines working to follow and engage all the unique discussions and debates that are taking place on a number of fronts throughout the world.
    Late last year I wrote a post for that explained the process we took in Canada to establish a new and perhaps, uniquely Canadian definition in 2009. I welcome you and your readers to comment on the post and comments that have been contributed from such leading figures as Dr. Jim Grunig.
    As I state in my post, while we all may not agree on one, universal definition, at the end of the day, I truly believe that the exercise has been a very worthwhile initiative.


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