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A Modern Definition of Public Relations

Following 1,447 votes, hundreds of submissions, abundant commentary and nearly a year of research, we are pleased to announce the winning modern definition of public relations. Based on a public vote, held Feb. 13–26, of three candidate definitions, the profession’s choice for the modern definition of PR is:

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

Listed as Definition No. 2 in the public vote, it received 671 votes, or 46.4 percent, of 1,447 total votes.

Simple and straightforward, this definition focuses on the basic concept of public relations — as a communication process, one that is strategic in nature and emphasizing “mutually beneficial relationships.” “Process” is preferable to “management function,” which can evoke ideas of control and top-down, one-way communications. “Relationships” relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders. “Publics” is preferable to “stakeholders,” as the former relates to the very “public” nature of public relations, whereas “stakeholders” has connotations of publicly-traded companies.

You can read more about this exciting announcement in Friday’s New York Times advertising column.

As promised, PRSA will adopt the winning reference definition to replace the 1982 definition of public relations.

An analysis of the public vote provides some interesting detail. The data can be found here.

Voters were unequivocal in their belief that any modern definition of public relations should not include the word “ethics.” When asked whether the word “ethics” should be included in the winning definition, 60.3 percent of those who voted said No. Furthermore, an aggregate of 57.3 percent of voters indicated “No” to including the word “ethics” in any modern definition of public relations.

While PRSA firmly believes in the value of ethical public relations practices, as espoused in our Code of Ethics and numerous advocacy initiatives, we respect the profession’s wishes that ethics not be explicitly included in a modern definition. In all likelihood, though, we will eventually include ethics in a values statement about the definition of public relations, as it relates to PRSA and our members’ values.

A review of the final word cloud from 927 definitions submitted during the initial crowdsourcing phase shows that the winning definition closely reflects the profession’s perspective of what should comprise a modern concept of public relations. Several key words found in that word cloud are included in the winning definition:

  • “Public”
  • “Organization”
  • “Communication”
  • “Relationship”
  • “Builds”
  • “Mutual”

But don’t take our word for it. We’ve created a Resources page where you can review the data, along with meeting notes from each of the Definition of PR Summits that PRSA hosted and other relevant materials.

What #PRDefined Has Achieved

The “Public Relations Defined” initiative has not only modernized what many considered to be a medley of dated concepts of public relations. It has shaped an important conversation about the future of the profession and its value in the 21st-century business landscape.

The initiative motivated public relations professionals to think about their profession, talk about their profession and debate how it is they want to define their profession. That allowed us to arrive at a definition with some currency.

The definition that resulted from this effort is inclusive, in that it captures the core essence of what it is all public relations professionals do. We believe that the winning definition is true to the research, and accurately reflects the way in which the public relations professionals who participated in this process described what it is they do for a living.

For that, we thank the thousands of professionals who voted on the candidate definitions, as well as those who voiced their opinions and provided valuable feedback about the process and candidate definitions. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the 12 organizations that partnered with PRSA to make this effort a success. We appreciate the role of our collaborators in generating a comprehensive, modern definition of public relations.

The Path Forward

This is really a beginning, not an ending. The discussion is a work in progress, and we’ve laid the groundwork for future debate. Learn how you can continue the discussion here.

It’s clear to us that the process should not stop with this announcement. For that reason, we will keep this blog up and continue to facilitate the discussion. We’ll publish and promote guest posts from anyone who has something to say on the subject; from those who have conducted their own research to those who have process suggestions to those who simply feel they have a better definition to offer.

In a perfect world, this blog will become a virtual water cooler, where we can continue to engage professionals on the definition of public relations. We’re keeping an open mind. If the definition continues to evolve through this process, and we arrive at something better, we will support it.

Like art and beauty, perhaps the definition of public relations really is in the eye of the beholder.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA


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