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Why modernise the definition of PR? PRSA chair Corbett explains


By The Drum Team, Editorial

February 6, 2012 | 5 min read

The Drum editor Gordon Young recently took a look at the Public Relations Society of America's plans to redefine the meaning of PR. Here, Gerard F. Corbett, chair and chief executive officer of the PRSA, takes time out to explain the changing role of public relations.

On the surface of it, the issue of properly defining public relations might not seem like a terribly important cause to take up. After all public relations has existed for more than a century. Why try to redefine it now?

And yet, as many readers of this publication know all too well, society has a preconceived notion of what PR professionals do — some concepts more targeted than others — but no universal definition exists that clearly delineates the modern scope of public relations in the 21st century.

In essence, we in PR admittedly have a PR challenge.

The Drum’s editor, Gordon Young, explored this issue in his Jan. 26 leader column. He reviewed an initiative — the “Public Relations Defined” campaign — led by my organisation, the Public Relations Society of America, and encompassing 12 global partners, to modernise the definition of public relations.

In addressing how public relations has evolved from a largely media relations-based discipline to a modern profession steeped in a complex mix of stakeholder engagement, reputation management and services that blend paid, earned and owned media (i.e., advertising, PR and marketing), Mr. Young clearly summarises the situation that plagues PR today:

For a profession on which businesses spend billions of dollars each year, there is remarkably little understanding of what we do.

Recent discussions, blog posts, tweets and mainstream articles paint a more nuanced picture:

• Public relations professionals continue to struggle with properly defining their work;

• Existing definitions are not sufficient; and

• No one definition is considered the de facto industry definition.

As it stands now, the common concepts of PR and what the public, media and business communities perceive of our modern role and value are not aligned.

Definitions that were apt 30 years ago can seem inappropriate today.

“Public Relations Defined” (hashtag: #PRDefined) is out to change this by engendering a dialogue and debate about what public relations is, what practitioners do, how we do it and who benefits from our services. The ultimate goal of this initiative is to develop an intuitive and universal, dictionary-like definition befitting the modern role and value of public relations.

Some have said this exercise has little relevance outside the walls of PR agencies and in-house communications teams. But few can argue that in the digital age much of what every marketer does can accurately be summarised as “public relations.” That, we believe, is a testament to the strength and vibrancy of the profession and a growing recognition among business leaders that public relations is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for any successful company.

Some have also claimed that public relations is indefinable, much as some have (rightly or wrongly) asserted that our profession’s work cannot be accurately measured. We disagree on both accounts.

In order to appropriately and objectively quantify public relations’ value, we must have a simple, universal definition that distinctly encapsulates our work. Anything else will perpetuate the continuing confusion and misunderstanding that exists; much of it of our own making for overlooking the evolving role and nature of our work.

The “Public Relations Defined” initiative is moving into its final phase, in which three candidate definitions, developed through analysis of nearly 1,000 submitted definitions, comprising 16,000 words, will go up for a public vote. What comes of that vote will be the new definition, and hopefully, will represent the modern concept of public relations for practitioners and the public around the world.

Most importantly, this initiative has prompted a discussion within the profession unlike any that has taken place in recent memory. That’s an endeavour well worth exploring for an industry built upon conversations and storytelling.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).


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