PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Still seeking a definition after all these years.
© 2012 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author
Whether you consider the question "How do you define public relations?" appropriate only for classroom discussion or something you have to think about every time you're asked what you do for a living, don't you find it surprising that major public relations organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) have taken this long to come up with a definition they can agree on?

Do you, by chance, remember seeing an article headlined Public Relations Defined, After an Energetic Public Discussion in The New York Times on March 1, 2012? -- Did it surprise you? -- Many people probably thought nothing of it. Others never even bothered to read it. For others, their first reaction after seeing it was to wonder why a definition of public relations would be considered newsworthy enough to be reported in The New York Times. Still others -- perhaps the more cynical ones who had actually worked in or studied public relations -- thought: "Yeah, right."

The fact is that a universally agreed-upon definition of public relations, if it were ever achieved, would be news. -- Big news. -- This profession which is at least 150 years old has never had a universally accepted definition.

Lots of people have proposed lots and lots of different definitions.

You can explore some of the countless definitions that have been offered in An Assortment of Public Relations Definitions, a two-page handout of two-dozen definitions from various sources. Or, you can look at some of the professional trends that have been evident in The changing names of public relations over the years.

Scores of different, often conflicting, definitions of public relations have been proposed by scholars, practitioners, and professional organizations. An additional handful of definitions surface every year or two as new public relations textbooks come out with their own uniques definitions of public relations. But, until now, none of these definitions have been fully accepted by the people who study or work in the field.

Even the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the largest professional organization in North America devoted solely to public relations, has NOT had an official definition of public relations. Despite its best efforts, it could never get a majority of its members to agree on one. The closest it ever came was in 1988. After nearly a half-decade of discussions, resolutions, special committee meetings, and votes, the PRSA Assembly (PRSA's governing body) finally got a majority of its members to approve the following statement expressing what public relations does.

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

But, this is a description of what public relations does. It is not a definition of what public relations is. And, PRSA publications have carefully noted this. They have always stopped short of claiming to offer a definition of public relations. Now, however, that may be changing.

In 2011, the PRSA launched a multi-organization effort to reach consensus on a definition.

Public Relations Defined:
A Modern Definition for the New Era of Public Relations

The website cited above was established to track and report on PRSA's effort. There you can review the suggested definitions and many of the comments that were made about them. You can also see who participated in the discussions and who didn't.

Unlike earlier efforts by the PRSA (and similar attempts by other groups) which were limited to a single organization, this effort was open to all interested persons and organizations. The PRSA started it, but a total of 11 communication organizations representing close to 200,000 members around the world participated. Among them were:

According to the website, more than 900 definitions were eventually considered and commented upon. This massive array was then narrowed down to three final choices. These were put to an international vote during February 2012.

The top vote getter has now been adopted as the profession's current "working definition" of public relations. Here's what it is:

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

Will this really settle the definition once and for all?

Although it was the top vote-getter with 46 percent of the votes cast, compared to 30 percent and 23 percent for the other two choices, it was not approved by a majority of the voters. -- Whether this will become a point of contention and bring more competing definitions out of the woodwork remains to be seen.

For now, many of the influential thinkers and writers in contemporary public relations seem to be satisfied with the vote and the definition. The Public Relations Defined website specifically cites James Grunig and Neville Hobson as high-profile PR luminaries who "have given their blessing to the new definition."

Grunig is quoted as saying hes "reasonably happy" with the new definition.

Hobson called it a "far more contemporary interpretation of how the profession practices its craft."

Although neither of these statements is what I'd consider a glowing endorsement, perhaps I'm just being cynical. I have to admit that my overall reaction to the whole project is essentially: "Ho-hum." -- I really don't think it changes much, if anything. -- The so-called new definition is only a slightly modified version of PRSA's 1980s description of what public relations does, a statement I've very successsfully used in practicing and teaching public relations for decades.

Beyond that, the new definition didn't receive a majority of the votes cast; it's only a minority opinion. And, given the number of votes cast in relation to the total membership of the organizations involved, it's a very small minority, something less than one percent of the members of those organizations. -- That's far from overwhelming support. -- So, the "new" definition may be interesting, but it's certainly not compelling.

Perhaps more impressive than their "new" definition is the fact that the PRSA, the IABC, and the nine other often-highly-competitive professional organizations that contributed to this effort successfully cooperated and achieved a common goal. The entire profession would be better if this would happen more often.
Links to readings on related concepts or other recent trends in public relations
Assortment of Public Relations Definitions
(pdf - two-page handout)
Changing names of public relations Keeping pace with changing practices
in journalism
On the way to Integrated Marketing Communication? Three phases of PR development Calls to scrap public relations aren't new
Table of contents Content curation:
A new role or merely a buzzword?
Practicing Public Relations
home page
23 Nov 2012