What is PR Again? Your Mom Wants to Know.

The joke in the PR profession is that, even though we’re communicators, we can’t explain what we do for a living to members of our family. Mothers, grandfathers, brothers-in-law all seem to be confused about the PR profession. No, we didn’t write the article that appeared in the newspaper, we just helped get it placed. We didn’t create the community program, but we helped promote it. And, no, we didn’t design that advertisement.

The recently revised definition of public relations by the Public Relations Society of America probably won’t ease those awkward moments at family reunions, but it needed redefinition all the same. The last time it was revised was 1982, just a couple of years after CNN became the nation’s first 24-hour news network, the same year that USA Today was launched as the nation’s newspaper and FedEx was telling us they were the best way to deliver a package “when it positively, absolutely has to get there overnight.”

Today, we can send mass amounts of data, video and other bits and bytes around the world in seconds. A mom blogger who is unhappy about the dud washing machine she was just delivered can launch an ongoing, international barrage of complaint until something is done about it. The world has definitely changed since 1982, so it makes sense that the definition of public relations would need to change too. So, here is what PR means today:

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

First, let me tell you what I like about it: The definition emphasizes the need to build relationships that benefit both parties. Too often, clients jump to getting news coverage, or more Facebook followers. The definition helps non-PR types understand the relationship in media relations, community relations or government relations should get equal, or perhaps greater emphasis.

It also includes “a strategic communication process,” which begs the question, “Why do you want to do that?” when clients request getting an article placed in the Daily Planet or generating more Facebook followers.

I also think the definition doesn’t go far enough in some areas. Of course, it probably won’t surprise you that I’m not the first PR pro to have reservations about the definition, as The New York Times reported.

My biggest concern is that the definition doesn’t include any reference to the aforementioned crowdsourcing of communication, i.e., the irate blogger. Mass media is still an important element of our society, but we have to understand that consumers and other publics receive information from a wide range of sources, and it’s unlikely that we can develop mutually beneficial relationships with all of them.

Crowdsourcing influenced the process of selecting PRSA’s definition. The organization asked members to define the profession and selected the top three candidates for a vote. It’s odd to use that communication process and not reference it in our definition.

My other concern is that we don’t explain to what end we want to build those mutually beneficial relationships. I will always believe that PR professionals should look for creative ways to engage publics in an attempt to change opinion, attitude or behavior.

So, next time Uncle Billy asks me what I do for a living, I’m going bring up building mutually beneficial relationships and see where it gets me.

– Jon Ratliff, Vice President/Account Group Director

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