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Embracing Change: Reactions to the New Definition of Public Relations

Change can be a good thing, right? That’s what we’re told throughout our careers and at almost every seminal moment in our lives.

When it comes to change in public relations, most practitioners readily embrace new ideas and ways of doing things. We thrive by implementing new concepts — from social media to blogger outreach — and using those to their advantage.

That’s what undergirded the “Public Relations Defined” initiative, which culminated a little over a week ago with the announcement of a new, modern definition of public relations.

It’s safe to say that most PR professionals have had a chance to voice their opinion. From the hundreds of blog posts, tweets and other commentary, there is no shortage of opinion.

For the most part, the “change is good” mantra is the reaction PR practitioners seem to have in response to the new definition. The overriding sentiment is positive.

Sure, there are some who criticize. That’s fine. In fact, we expected a diversity of opinion, regarding the initiative itself and its outcome. Or, as Stuart Elliot wryly put it in his New York Times column announcing the new definition, there was no “small amount of sniping, snide commentary and second-guessing.

It’s unfortunate, but he’s right.

At the same time, a plethora of industry luminaries, including Jim Grunig, Neville Hobson and Jeremiah Owyang (analyst at the Altimeter Group) have given their blessing to the new definition.

Grunig says he’s “reasonably happy” with the new definition. Hobson called it a “far more contemporary interpretation of how the profession practices its craft.” And Owyang tweeted that the modernization of the definition of public relations “makes sense in the two-way sense that social has changed.”

Those are three influencers that any PR practitioner would be thrilled to have on board for a client campaign. And each supports the new definition.

The Eye of the Beholder

No one definition of public relations will please everyone, especially given the diversity of the profession. 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.

We can’t control people’s perception of the definition but what we can do is continue to educate our members, the profession and those outside of public relations about what it is that we do, public relations’ value and our unique role in the business community.

That’s exactly what PRSA will continue to do. It also explains why we launched the PRDefined initiative in the first place: to lead the profession at a time when many practitioners felt change was needed.

As PRSA Chair and CEO Gerry Corbett told The New York Times, like art and beauty, maybe the definition of public relations really is in the eye of the beholder.

The Path Forward

That brings us to the next stage of the campaign. The new definition has been announced. Practitioners are having their say about it, and we hope those discussions continue. But as I noted in a previous post, the next steps in this discussion rest with you.

Looking past the rhetoric and reaction, what’s become clear to us is that the process should not stop here. For that reason, PRSA is keeping open the Public Relations Defined blog.

And in honoring a request many people made, we published the quantitative and qualitative data, including the comments, suggestions and other feedback received outside the submission form, and during the public comment period. This can be found on the PRDefined Resources page. We encourage you to review that data and make your own judgment about how it stacks up against the new definition.

We’ll also 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 our perfect vision for this blog, it will become a virtual water cooler, where we can continue to engage professionals on the definition of public relations; it will attract broad interest from individuals from across the spectrum, including traditionalists and non-traditionalists, academics and professionals, agency and corporate, profit and non-profit, domestic and international, critics and supporters alike; and it will advance public relations in a spirit of professional respect, cooperation and empathy.

This is your invitation and your opportunity to come up with something better. Our minds are open. If, through the Public Relations Defined blog, we move closer to a consensus definition of public relations, PRSA will support it.

David C. Rickey is PRSA secretary and chair of the Public Relations Defined Task Force.

About the author

David Rickey


  • PRSA’s New Definition of Public
    Relations is not Three-Dimensional!

    I would have been surprised if this new
    definition had been accepted across the board. First, we practise Public
    Relations in diverse spheres of life, with most times different expectations of
    what PR should do and be seen to be doing. And, here, I do not refer to the
    mundane or the quack. I refer, like Claire Kearns puts it, to the “need to
    focus on outcomes, impact and behaviour change, rather than a ‘process’”

    Beyond this, however, is the issue of the evolution of our profession over the
    decades since it was first recognised in both the US and the UK.

    Today, we talk about environmental or green PR. We talk about community
    relations. We give serious attention to corporate social investment (CSI), not
    just corporate social responsibility (CSR). There is PR in Government and
    Governmental Ministries and Agencies. Then, we have Intra-Organisational
    Relations. Add Stakeholder Relations and Management and even Media Relations to

    Considered along these lines, this definition falls short in many regards; it
    is hollow and looks at PR in its pre-21st Century, one-dimensional view rather
    than today’s three-dimensional perspective.

    Indeed, today’s PR is 3D in perspective. This definition (“Public relations is
    a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships
    between organizations and their publics.”) isn’t!

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