Public Relations Defined – The PRSA invites you to help set a new definition of PR

Here's how the corresponding blog post by the PRSA describes its "Public Relations Defined" initiative:

As part of its mission to advance the public relations profession and professional, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has introduced a new initiative to modernize the definition of public relations and increase its value. As the digital age has caused significant shifts in how organizations communicate internally and externally, a question frequently asked by the public, media and practitioners is, "What is public relations?"

The PRSA explains the initiative in these simple terms:

Recent discussions, blog posts, tweets and mainstream articles have suggested that (1) public relations professionals (and, thus, the audiences we serve) continue to struggle with the question: "What is PR?"; (2) many industry professionals are unhappy with the current definitions; and (3) no one definition is considered "the" de facto industry definition.

What more justification do we need?

While my book The Business of Influence sets out to be a rethink of the 'influence disciplines', it starts by reviewing current definitions of marketing and PR. "Well, this book wants to map out a journey from A to B, and navigating to B is so much easier if we're all at A to begin with."

In hoping to contribute to the renewed debate, I've reproduced the book's definitions section here. Now all I need to do is work out if the PRSA will be open to a definition leaning on the Influence Scorecard and the role of Chief Influence Officer. What do you think?

Marketing and public relations

[pp 5-11, Chapter 1, The Business of Influence]

Most readers of this book will be working in, studying, teaching or researching marketing and/or PR. Others will be working in other disciplines central to influence, such as sales and customer service, or senior management figures or management consultants keeping up with the latest ideas. Regardless, I hope you won't mind if we invest some time defining both marketing and PR. Why? Well, this book wants to map out a journey from A to B, and navigating to B is so much easier if we're all at A to begin with. Moreover, experts don’t agree . . .


In its 2009 paper, Marketing and the 7Ps [PDF link], the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) defines marketing as 'the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably'. The paper continues:

... the customer is at the heart of marketing, and businesses ignore this at their peril.

In essence, the marketing function is the study of market forces and factors and the development of a company's position to optimise its benefit from them. It is all about getting the right product or service to the customer at the right price, in the right place, at the right time. Both business history and current practice remind us that without proper marketing, companies cannot get close to customers and satisfy their needs. And if they don't, a competitor surely will.

However, the CIM recognized in its 2007 Tomorrow's World paper [PDF link] that its definition harks back to 1976 and could do with an update. The paper identifies a number of reasons why a revision may be needed, including:

  • The discipline has become more sophisticated, possibly demanding subdivision into three broad paths: science, arts and humanities
  • The idea that marketing is no longer a separate role but something everyone in an organization does to a greater or lesser degree
  • The technology revolution has altered the dynamic between an organization and its customers, increasing the power of the customer (the rebalancing we referred to earlier in this chapter)
  • The fragmentation of media and the increasing resistance of audiences to marketing communications
  • The increasing need for numeracy and research fluency
  • The role of people management in the marketing skill set.

While the following definition was mooted in the paper, the CIM does not yet appear to have officially adopted it, or one based on it:

The strategic business function that creates value by stimulating, facilitating and fulfilling customer demand.

It does this by building brands, nurturing innovation, developing relationships, creating good customer service and communicating benefits.

With a customer-centric view, marketing brings positive return on investment, satisfies shareholders and stakeholders from business and the community, and contributes to positive behavioural change and a sustainable business future.

The definition given in what many consider the seminal marketing textbook, Principles of Marketing [ISBN: 9780273711568], is:

Broadly defined, marketing is a social and managerial process by which individuals and groups obtain what they need and want through creating and exchanging products and value with others. In a narrower business context, marketing involves building profitable, value-laden exchange relationships with customers. Hence, we define marketing as the process by which companies create value for customers and build strong customer relationships in order to capture value from customers in return.

The American Marketing Association did, however, find itself a new definition in 2007, but to fairly widespread derision:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.

From my reading various reactions I can say that Mike Smock's blog post, 'Everything that is wrong with marketing can be found in AMA’s new definition,' appears to best capture the mood of those critical of the new definition. The primary criticism appears to be that, unlike CIM's current and drafted definitions – or indeed that provided in Principles of Marketing – the AMA fails to be explicit about marketing's role in contributing to the achievement of a for-profit organization's financial objectives.

The bit about 'society at large' also appears to have ruffled feathers as being too distanced from the cut and thrust of business, but from my perspective it's just one sign of many that marketing fancies itself as the guardian of all things in public relations. The CIM draft definition includes 'developing relationships'. The CIM paper, Marketing and the 7Ps, lists PR under the fourth marketing 'P', promotion. And its paper, Tomorrow's World, clearly references PR to mean spin (spin a yarn, make up a story) rather than anything public relations experts would recognize.

Public relations

I discuss PR with many people in my professional life and find that the majority only have a tenuous grasp of what PR actually encompasses, and many others simply have no idea or, worse, have it wrong. And, as we've seen, that includes professional marketers.

Believe it or not, I've met people who think PR stands for press release. And perhaps I should get over myself, but I have never liked the turn of phrase 'to PR' something. But by far the most common mistake I find is considering PR to be synonymous with media relations – journalist lunches and column inches.

I often start by telling people what PR is not. PR is not marketing. PR is not promotion (coupons, offers, etc.). For more on 'what PR is not', I found a similar list by Bill Sledzik on his blog ToughSledding [this URL is changed from when my book went to press].

The PR role encompasses aspects of publicity and many people referred to as PR practitioners invest much of their time wielding the tools of publicity: press releases, pitches, interviews, etc. (indeed, this aspect has been referred to as 'marketing public relations', which either confuses the matter or clarifies it, depending on your point of view). James Grunig's and Todd Hunt's '4 Models', first presented in 1984 [Managing Public Relations, ISBN: 9780030583377], describe four views of public relations, the first of which is publicity or 'press agentry'. The second is known as the public information model, the third asymmetric persuasion, and the fourth the two-way symmetrical model.

The renowned Excellence study [Excellent public relations and effective organizations, ISBN: 9780805818185] emphasized the fourth model and defined PR as:

a management function that focuses on two-way communication and fostering of mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.

The Public Relations Society of America puts it simply:

Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

Terry Flynn, Fran Gregory and Jean Valin actually set up a wiki to record various definitions and collaborate on consolidating a new definition for adoption at the Canadian Public Relations Society national board meeting February 2009:

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.

And according to the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR):

PR is the discipline that looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.

In a conversation with me, Jay O'Connor, CIPR President 2010, extended this definition by stressing the role that public relations must play at board level, helping to explore, define, plan and execute strategy. She particularly underlined its role with respect to reputational risk and opportunity, and good governance.

Note the consistent recurrence of reference to mutuality. Although this is invoked in slightly different ways, I take it to mean all parties having respect and understanding for others' points of view and working together to increase that respect and understanding. Of course, any organization may interact with two or more publics that disagree vehemently between themselves, meaning that the organization cannot be reconciled to all publics. Mutuality, however, doesn’t require reconciliation, but rather continued dialogue with the intent to understand and be understood.

Such emphasis on mutuality is core to the fourth model. And in words from Chapter 1 of the book summing up the findings of Grunig et al.’s Excellence study: 'As a result of good public relations, both management and publics should behave in ways that minimize conflict or manage conflict effectively.'

Two-way symmetric public relations relies on honest and open two-way communication and mutual give-and-take rather than one-way or asymmetric persuasion. It requires a management philosophy that recognizes that no organization stands alone but must instead adjust and adapt what it does and how it does it in order to align itself with its publics on the basis that this can only help not hinder the organization to achieve its objectives.

The Cluetrain Manifesto was the right way to say the right things at the right time, but it appears that its authors took their lead in part from the two-way symmetrical model and Patrick Jackson's compelling ability to convey the theory in practical terms in the pr reporter newsletter and other media. And they, in turn, on the prior perspectives of Edward Bernays (the original PT Barnum style publicist) and Albert Sullivan in the 1950s and 1960s.

For his part in asserting how his models apply in the digital age, Grunig re-endorses the two-way symmetrical model.

It's worth then finishing this section on public relations with an extract from the preface of the Excellence book. This concluded the Excellence team's 15 years of study, so I take its findings seriously:

In a nutshell, we show that the value of public relations comes from the relationships that communicators develop and maintain with publics. We show that reputation is a product of relationships and that the quality of relationships and reputation result more from the behavior of the organization than from the messages that communicators disseminate. We show that public relations can affect management decisions and behavior if it is headed by a manager who is empowered to play an essential role in the strategic management of the organization. In that role, communicators have their greatest value when they bring information into the organization, more than when they disseminate information out of the organization ...

We show that communicators can develop relationships more effectively when they communicate symmetrically with publics rather than asymmetrically.

So there we have it. The definitions of marketing and PR are contentious. They vary, overlap and contradict. These are not exactly ideal foundations on which to move forward, but as this isn't a philosophical treatise we don't require ideals; it's only important that we understand the current landscape.


10 thoughts on “Public Relations Defined – The PRSA invites you to help set a new definition of PR

  1. Philip,
    Thanks for posting the definitions of marketing and public relations and referencing our 2008-2009 definition (Flynn, Gregory & Valin). As you know our definition has already been translated into at least five different languages courtesy of Judy Gombita's post on PR Conversations in 2009.
    I for one look forward to the global discussion.
    All the best,

    1. Hi Terry, thanks for the reply and the tweet. As far as I'm concerned you chaps definitely set the bar for a thorough review of definitions, and I'm a fan of the one you settled on.

      Saying that, perhaps the two elements that might be open to constructive debate in this new review are: "management of relationships" and "through the use of communications". I say perhaps because it depends where exactly the profession wishes to draw the line.

      Anyone who has read my book will know why I pick on these two elements, and I'll try to explain very briefly here for those who haven't yet had the pleasure! ;-)

      "management of relationships"
      Relationships is quite clearly something with which public RELATIONS should be obsessed, but does 'management of' do this full justice? Can all relationships be 'managed'? How might relationships emerge in future? Is the idea of 'relationship' defined as human-to-human, or might machine-to-machine and human-to-machine be included?

      "through the use of communications"
      Communications evokes the idea of someone sending out a message and someone else picking it up; and then responding. But does this phrase encompass communications that are inferred? (See "machined media" in my previous post of 14th Nov 2011.)

  2. Great comments Philip and certainly important components of the definition -- the management of relationships and the use of communications. Interestingly most of the discussion or concern about our definition has been on another phrase -- "in the public interest". A number of practitioners suggest that doing public relations in the public interest might in fact conflict with their company's/client's private interest -- to which we have said, that if an organization is not doing things in the public's interest -- they will likely not be in business for too long. After all, it is the public that grants the license to operate to all organizations. In addition, and this was Jean Valin's point for the profession to reflect upon -- you could make the argument that the greatest number of professionals practicing public relations/communications management today, would for the public sector and it is in their own mandate to work in the public interest.

    1. Yes, I'm aware that this element attracted the most discussion / concern. But I agree with the assertion 100%.

      In the July-August 2011 Harvard Balanced Scorecard Report I wrote:

      "No organization is an island. Everything an organization does occurs in the context of a changing world, in a dynamic interplay with every entity around it. Organizations must cultivate a sensitivity to the new dynamic (one that's superior to competitors') and sharpen their ability to interpret and respond to the myriad communication flows issuing from all sides."

      So if you're not going to address the public interest, where does that leave your organization exactly? (Assuming you have a long-term interest in the success of your organization.)

  3. I'm doubtful that crowdsourcing a definition of PR is going to improve on the work of Bernays, Goldman and most recently Grunig. The relationship between organisations and audiences haven't changed, only the means of communication, engagement and participation. We’ve got much bigger issues to worry about as an industry.

    1. There are some things that crowdsourcing is good for, and some things for which it isn't typically intended. I wonder if this is one of them. Witness this Twitter exchange:

      #PRDefined PR has always been about building relationships with influential people and organizations that will impact your success.

      @vchereskin Don't remember "influential people" being a synonym for "publics" :-) #prdefined

      Perhaps the biggest problem isn't whether the current definitions aren't appropriate (although I prefer the CIPR and CPRS ones to the current PRSA one – perhaps why the PRSA feels a change is in order) but whether the majority of PR practitioners and those they work with appreciate current definitions and act accordingly.

      Anyway, I'm going to have a crack at a definition later this week, probably incorporating some of the aspects I've chatted with Terry about above, and the 'influence professional' job description in my book, and put it in the mix.

      I'm also going to ask Keith how the PRSA expects to reach a conclusion once the deadline is passed. Does it then get handed to an expert team to filter. Will a hybrid emerge, or will entry number 42 'win'?

What do you think?...