Public relations defined for the 21st century




The Public Relations Society of America has sparked some interesting discussion by launching a ‘crowd sourcing’ initiative to create a new definition for public relations. Neville Hobson is encouraging people to take part and has helpfully shared some of the various PR definitions that exist – PRSA, CIPR and even Wikipedia. Danny Watmough has taken a more cynical approach and asks if the need for a definition is a sign of the PR industry in crisis?

Personally, I’m not that uncomfortable with existing definitions of public relations as I don’t believe the fundamentals of public relations have changed. It’s a myth to think that public relations wasn’t about conversations and two way dialogue long before the advent of the social web. What the social web does is provide us with even more opportunities to listen and converse. But fundamentally public relations has always been about behaviour. And that’s what too many people don’t understand and is the reason why a definition actually does matter.

The big problem that I see is that many people have a totally warped and inaccurate view of what public relations is. I think the main reason for this is that too many of those in ignorance about public relations actually work in the business and think they are practicing public relations. In reality they are frequently no more than publicists or media relations practitioners.

It’s good that the PRSA has partnered with other professional bodies and industry organisations including Arthur W. Page SocietyInternational Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication ManagementInstitute for Public Relations (IPR), International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

Unfortunately the PRSA forces you to make your suggestions in a rather rigid format, which makes it difficult to actually respond. My very rough definition would be something along the lines of:

Public relations is the discipline that looks after reputation. It is about how you can use an organisation’s behaviour and communications to affect its relationships and therefore create and maintain a better reputation.

It’s far from perfect, but for me it gets across the important points. It is critical that any definition makes it clear that public relations is as much about what you do as what you say. That’s why it has to include the word behaviour. It also needs to include the word communication as simply behaving well won’t enhance or protect your reputation if nobody knows about it. It does not need to say two-way or multi-way, as that should be self evident, because it is about relationships.

Comments, criticism and agreement all welcome!


The Business of Influence author Philip Sheldrake has also written an excellent post on this, which has just appeared in my RSS reader despite appearing to have been written on November 21! I particularly like the contribution from former CIPR president Jay O’Connor who particularly underlines the role of public relations with respect to reputational risk and opportunity, and good governance.

14 Replies to “Public relations defined for the 21st century

  1. Hi Stuart. Here we are again eh? 

    I agree with your points – as I have when you’ve made them in the past – and really like the combination of reputation, behaviour and communication.

    I was thinking about something along these lines: “Public relations is the discipline that ensures an organisation’s reputation is based upon a clear understanding of its behaviour through effective communication and open relationships with customers, shareholders, employees, legislators and other stakeholders.”

    But it’s getting a bit wordy.

  2. I believe that reputation rolls into a brand image–as well as behaviors, customers, relationships, etc. I’ve always considered myself (since I am a PR practitioner) to be more of a brand manager. I work publicly to ensure brands are seen in the correct light, and their customers are content with that.

  3. There’s a gag here somewhere. How many PR people does it take to define PR. 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.

  4. Stuart Bruce – PR Futurist 🛰️ Counsel and training for communications teams and PR agencies 📊 Strategist 🗣️ International speaker 📺 NED 📈 Author 📘 Mentor 👂
    Stuart Bruce says:

    Indeed  we do have bigger issues to worry about, but some of them are related to the perception of public relations amongst senior management which is frequently incorrect. One benefit of this initiative is the fact that the New York Times is carrying an article on what public relations really is. We need more of that type of thing in the FT, Economist etc. Won’t change things fundamentally, but all helps.

  5. Chris Norton – Leeds, UK – A Tech PR blogger that is listed in the world's top 100 marketing writers and doubles as an award winning online PR and social media specialist.
    Chris Norton says:

    Stuart, I see a lot of people constantly trying to redefine PR but it’s even worse for search engine optimisation. Every other day I have to read a post or two about the demise of SEO and people trying to claim it has changed etc etc.

    I did laugh at Wadds’ comment as it does make an amusing joke.

    I think I agree with you – PR has stayed the same it’s just the tools that have changed as we all know. It’s just the PR Agency business model that needs changing but that’s like any business you need to adapt to your business environment.

    It’s all about reputation management of a company or companies – end of.

  6. I’ve always wondered why PR seems to be so difficult for most people to grasp. Here in UK industry people use the term interchangably wih publicity, media relations and sometimes even all of marketing. It will be fascinating to see what new definition emerges! Phil Turtle

  7. I agree with your definition Stuart! I’m sure that poor implementation and even the derived ill-feeling that rival practitioners seemingly look upon PR with is fundamentally down to ignorance.

    Yes PR is about communication, yes its about reaching demographics but what about relationships, brand reputation and its unrivaled ability to build bridges and seek out new clientele? PR is the lifeblood of all organizations.

  8. The issue of an tackling an overwhelming definition is hugely relevant to the success of our beloved PR!!

    From my personal experience, at grass roots level at least, PR is all about creating communication, which in turn creates relationships. This ability to transmit on an emotion based level is what gives PR its edge, seeing it unrivaled by other practices. Great blog.

  9. “It is critical that any definition makes it clear that public relations is as much about what you do as what you say” < AGREE!
    People think this industry is about a quick sell to benefit the bottom line, showing little respect for others or those that stand in its way! This point needs to be stressed in a definition. PR is about so much more! I get fed up of people looking down on public relations as being just another marketing tool! 

  10. Jim Mignano – Rochester, NY – Jim Mignano is a young professional practicing and learning Public Relations in Rochester, NY. He is passionate about the possibilities that digital media provide and loves utilizing new platforms for a variety of functions. James' blog is about people and the technology they use. It's about communication and persuasion... the old and the new ways of doing things... the struggle between sticking to the tried, true recipes and experimenting with intuitive, innovative ideas. It's an extension and reflection of James himself: the convergence of ambition & ability.
    James Mignano says:

    I hate how often media relations and public relations are seen as synonymous. Thanks for the great read!

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