Last week, New York Times advertising reporter Stuart Elliott broke the story about the Public Relations Society of America’s project to update the definition of PR in an entertaining column titled “Public Relations Defined, After an Energetic Public Discussion.”
The last time the definition of public relations was updated -- in 1982 -- computers had hardly entered the PR scene and the result was the watery ”Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” Interesting to note, there is no mention of the use of communications techniques. Further attempts to update the definition in 2003 and 2007 failed to gain traction.
The Public Relations Society of America’s recent effort to update the definition began last fall with a project called “Public Relations Defined,” following the recognition that the digital age has revolutionized channels of communication. So with the hope of incorporating contemporary concepts of “engagement” and “relationship building,” the Society decided to crowdsource a new definition, calling on PRSA members, PR practitioners, students and the general public to contribute to the collaborative effort.
Flash back almost 100 years to 1913 and to the “father of public relations” Edward Louis Bernays, who had become a “press agent” the year before, and who along with pioneering PR man Ivy Lee first defined public relations as a “management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization. . . followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance." Of importance here is the immediate emphasis on “management,” in recognition of the power of PR when wielded by the C-suite.
It was Bernays who, ever fearful of the “crowd” (aka, general public), combined pioneering theories of crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle Sigmund Freud, and settled on the more neutral term “public relations” as a replacement for ‘propaganda,’ a term of opprobrium since its deadly use by Germany in WWI. Bernays felt that public manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the 'herd instinct.'
Back to the present: Demonstrating the potential of creative crowdsourcing, a remarkable 927 candidate definitions were tendered. Three finalists were selected (not by the crowd, however, but in a PRSA summit) and subjected to a vote. From all interested publics, a total of 1,447 votes were cast (perhaps the PR campaign failed to resonate -- as I, for one, was not informed of the project), although PRSA itself boasts 21,000 members…
Those three candidate definitions are:
“Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.”
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
“Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.”
The winning definition, which received 671 votes (46.4% of the vote), is the second.
Gerard Corbett, 2012 chairman and chief executive of the PRSA, was pleased with the process and result, telling The New York Times: “We tried to engage everyone who would be engaged, and generated a tremendous amount of dialog… it was a very transparent and open process.”
In the new definition at least, the term ‘communication’ appears, but the double use of the word ‘public’(s) tends to weaken the definition. Apparently, the word ‘stakeholders’ was considered -- but, carrying too much financial industry freight, was rejected. The word ‘people’ was not considered -- which surprises me, especially in light of the evolution of communications toward a one-to-one mode. And why not have considered ‘crowd’ -- the process of choice for the entire effort, that by dictionary definition is included among its meanings, ‘the common people, the populace.’ But as we have seen earlier, that term is highly problematic…
Voters were also asked whether the word 'ethics' should be included in the new definition. More than 60 percent said no -- a decision that in my humble opinion will, in the not-too-distant future, present itself as a wedge that will undercut the PR profession’s very foundations.
Note: I am not a member of the PRSA.
I am a member of the PR Defined Task Force and chair of PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. I was the person who fought hard to have "ethics" included in our finalist definitions; we decided to make it optional. I, too, am disappointed, but many practitioners apparently believe that "ethics" isn't necessary in a definition (although I feel otherwise). Also - to correct the article, above: all three finalist definitions did come from the crowdsourcing; our task force looked at all 927 submitted definitions and the first two finalist definitions came directly from those submissions.