Advocacy Thought Leadership

Public Relations … Defined

Ask any public relations professional to name the question they get most often and, inevitably, it comes down to “What is PR?”

You can hardly go into any new business meeting or grab coffee with a friend without hearing the question. For a profession in which businesses spend billions of dollars on our services, there is remarkably little understanding of what we do.

Recent discussions, blog posts, tweets and mainstream articles paint the following picture:

  • Public relations professionals (and, thus, the audiences we serve) continue to struggle with this question;
  • Existing definitions are not sufficient; and
  • No one definition is considered the de facto industry definition.

My guess is you can relate to this, based on your own experiences.

PRSA has been listening to and engaging in many of these conversations, and after careful consideration, we have come to the conclusion it’s time to do something.

‘Public Relations Defined’

Starting today, PRSA is embarking on an international effort, in collaboration with multiple industry partners, to modernize the definition of public relations. In a small way, we seek to rebrand the profession.

We’re calling it: “Public Relations Defined.” You can learn about the initiative here and submit your definition here.

The goal is simple: to develop a modern definition for the new era of public relations. Our aim is to help key audiences and stakeholders better understand the role of public relations and its value to the public and business community.

We do not wish to demolish what has served the profession well, but to make improvements that place the definition in line with the modern value public relations offers.

By way of example, PRSA’s own definition of public relations (Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”) has not been updated since 1982. It is clearly in need of an update to better reflect the modern role and value of public relations.

The “Public Relations Defined” initiative is a continuation of PRSA’s industry-leading “Business Case for Public Relations™” campaign, which launched in 2009 to help the business community better understand the value of public relations.

To be sure, many have tried to find a common definition. It’s not easy. And we need your help.

Developing a New Definition

Here’s where you come in: fill in the definition submission form here. It contains input points where you can define public relations within the following sentence structure:

Public relations [DOES WHAT] with/for [WHO] to [DO WHAT] for [WHAT PURPOSE].

This sentence structure was developed in collaboration with nearly a dozen trade associations and professional organizations that met in September at PRSA’s New York headquarters to discuss the future of public relations.

You can also add your own definition, keywords, ideas — whatever it may be — in the comments below. We’ll use this feedback to develop a crowdsourced word cloud that we will periodically update on our new “Public Relations Defined” blog. We will use the input of many to find the next definition of public relations.

I hope you’ll be among those professionals whose voice and experience comprises the modern definition of public relations. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and chat about the project online using the hashtag #PRDefined.

Submit Your Definition of Public Relations Here

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo & Company, Florida. Fiske was PRSA's Chair and CEO in 2011.

6 Comments

  • In 2008 three members of the Canadian Public Relations Society (Terry Flynn, Fran Gregory and Jean Valin) set out to create a uniquely Canadian definition of public relations. We did this by first reviewing a number of the more commonly used definitions and then assessed the key characteristics of those definitions. Here is a link to our work http://definingpublicrelations.wikispaces.com/.
    In February 2009, our definition was officially adopted by the Canadian Public Relations Society. We define it as follows:
     “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communications, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.”

    Later that year, Judy Gombita posted our definition on PR Conversations (http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2009/06/introducing-a-new-maple-infused-definition-of-public-relations/) and it generated a great deal of discussion as well as translations of the definition (it has been translated into at least 5 different languages). 

    More recently Philip Sheldrake of the UK has published our definition (and our wiki collaboration) in his book “The Business of Influence” .

    We offer our definition up for consideration and discussion.

    Terry Flynn, Ph.D., APR, Fran Gregory, APR, & Jean Valin, APR, FCPRS

    • Ian – Thanks for your feedback. I left a response on your post, so please see my detailed thoughts there.

      Appreciate you providing your feedback. Quick question: Have you submitted a definition? We hope you will.

      Keith Trivitt
      PRSA

  • PR is employed to build and manage relationships with
    consumers, and its role in the company is to monitor and uphold the brand’s public
    reputation. Channels of two-way communication are essential for gathering the feedback
    necessary to develop strategies that adjust and improve public perception accordingly.
     But with increasing use of social media
    as the communication channel, the responsibilities of PR are being manipulating
    into a full-force customer service hotline. How can we continue to use social
    media to manage public perception without letting consumers use it as a Q&A
    venue? How do we stay responsive but prevent user disappointment when they
    present concerns on social media that do not get addressed directly or
    responded to promptly enough?

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