Home > PR and social media > Stop Trying to Define Public Relations

Stop Trying to Define Public Relations

Fine, maybe I can’t define public relations. So what?

Why does everyone suddenly seem determined to find a clear definition? What is public relations is a question that inspires lots of opinions, yet we never seem to get a final answer. Most of us that have been in ‘the industry’ for a long time feel like we know what public relations is, so here is my answer…

Wait a second. Why, do we need to do this again? Okay, sure, it is strange that the profession has been around a long time and yet, we still don’t seem to agree on the definition, but, do we need one?

Do we have a universally agree upon definition of Love? Marriage? Do we agree on what Fun means? These things are (sorry to say) more important to me than public relations.

Okay, philosophical issues out of the way. An industry probably does require a definition. So let’s take a look at some of the recent work that has been done in this area. While there is no shortage of attempts to define public relations, there are a few recent ones that inspired this post, so let’s start there.

I agree with Frank Strong’s assertion that – if you ask 10 PR pros to define PR, you’d get 10 different answers. But, I disagree with Frank’s definition of “third-party validation.”

I agree with Jason Mollica’s notion that – Defining what PR is now would probably be a good thing. But I disagree Jason’s definition – The practice of safeguarding a client’s reputation. Public relations can also be the driving force behind obtaining positive and effective publicity for an event or product.

Nope, I still can’t define public relations.

As difficult as it may be to put forth a definition to be criticized, it is inversely easy to criticize the definitions of others. It is easy to call BS on almost every attempt. Including the often-criticised  definition by the Public Relations Society of America – ‘Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.’ What?

Criticizing other definitions could take forever, so before we as an industry can define public relations, we need to agree to call BS on the following:

BS on any…overly strategic definitions: academic definitions that use phrases like ‘highly strategic,’ or ‘board level communication discipline’  etc. We all like to see public relations as strategic, but truth be told many PR professionals make careers out of simply pimping new products for companies that ignore all the strategic advice.

BS on any…singular focused definitions that confines PR to media relations. Public relations is a wide-reaching discipline.

BS on any…overly wide-reaching definitions such as ‘highly integrated communications that includes branding, message development etc.’ Again, if a large percentage of the industry is making a living in media relations the definition can’t be too broad.

BS on any…definition longer than a couple of sentences. The longer the definition the less helpful.

Still interested in defining public relations? Here are some good conversations and resources.

All interesting, but no, I still can’t define public relations.

My next post will include my definition of public relations. What can I say, I may not (currently) know the definition public relations, but I do know the definition of hypocrite. Guilty.

Images by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot (Stop) and Simon Howden (Bulls)

  1. March 31, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Nice post, Paul.

    It’s ironic that the folks charged with communicating for organizations can’t come up with a suitable sentence or paragraph to define their field. But I would disagree that there’s anything “sudden” about our quest for such a definition. I’ve been around the PR biz nearly 40 years now (as student, practitioner and educator). It’s been a long and ongoing debate.

    My 2008 post on this topic, “A sort of unified definition of public relations…” is among the most trafficked on my blog. It may add perspective, it may not. But I will warn your readers, it’s a tad long for the typical digital attention span. Some things can’t be rushed 🙂


  2. March 31, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    You’ve nailed it entirely, Paul, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad? I’ve made it my mission to see some fruition come from my exercise in futility to define PR. After 12 blog posts in this series and still a few more to come (I’m very tired), I’m going to attempt to conclude this puppy very fast.

    Sadly, I can already tell you, there will be NO consensus. And, why am I doing this at all?

    The newcomers to the field are not being taught in the universities they are in public relations — our vast and deep discipline that covers all things digital, too. Those clients who bash our entire profession (e.g. restaurateur ranter) and others need to understand that publicity is NOT public relations. Our own peers, who provided some highly interesting definitions in Heidi Cohen’s 31 Flavors of PR, perhaps can use some retooling of description, too.

    Because I’m a dedicated veteran keen on my profession (27 years), I’m going to see this through — to somewhere.

  3. SteelToad
    March 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    If somebody wants to charge me for a service, they had damned well better be able to define what that service is, and why I’m paying for it.

  4. March 31, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    This is a bit of a pickle, indeed, Paul!

    Part of the issue is that public relations touches on so many aspects that it influences one’s definition as a result. While I agree there should be at least some assemblence of a standard definition, I hesitate to put too much in writing, as communications is changing and will continue to evolve. I fear as soon as we define it, it will need to be defined again. However, to your point with the many other blog posts on the topic, I like that this gets people in the PR industry jazzed and talking!

  5. March 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Jayme and Paul…

    A lot of people arrive in PR with no formal schooling in the discipline. That’s OK. Some of my smartest colleagues and cohorts have degrees in English, philosophy — even one in architecture. But at some point it behooves PR professionals to read the literature of the field — including the scholarly texts. They aren’t exciting (by a long shot!), but they are illuminating.

    In that literature is a lot of discussion on definitions, missions, etc. It may not lead us to a universal definition, but it does raise the level of discussion, and it makes us all better professionals.

    I didn’t do ANY of this reading until I was in my mid-30s,and 13 years into my career. It happened because I wanted to teach a PR class (part-time). Also, at the same time, I sat for PRSA’s APR exam, which meant more study.

    As I said in my 2008 post on the topic (link above), the tools of PR may have changed in the past 50 years, but many core principles of the business remain intact. And you are right on, Jayme. PR is not synonymous with publicity. Publicity is just one tool some PR people use. Not sure why folks can’t get that simple concept.

  6. March 31, 2011 at 4:09 pm


    Thanks for including my post with yours. I’m flattered… but flattered more (honestly) because you disagreed. The one thing I would love is to see a solid definition for PR. It shouldn’t bad that hard, but it seems between Frank Strong, me and you, we are still trying.

    I’m glad the post continues to help challenge our industry to define itself.


  7. March 31, 2011 at 5:29 pm


    Many thanks for including my blog post as well! This is always such an interesting dialog.


    Ronnie Manning
    Mynt Public Relations

  8. March 31, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    when our customers start worrying about it, i’ll start.

  9. April 1, 2011 at 5:20 am

    Improving the quality of relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders.

    That’s what we do. The paths are many and varied.

    Take a branding path if it suits. Take a sales path if that’s your wont. Behaviour, perceptions, knowledge. Maybe that’s the goal.

    Whatever, it comes back to relationships. Are you succeeding?

  10. April 9, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Paul,

    It’s an important topic that we seem to keep coming back to in PR, but never reach a consensus.

    However, I have to agree with Craig’s comment above. While we may not be able to decide upon a universally accepted definition, what is at the heart and core of what we do as communicators is relationships.

    Be it through new forms of communication such as social media, or the older traditional forms of community engagement- it all comes back to our relationships with stakeholders and communities.

  11. February 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    After reading this post we became curious – just how many definitions are there? After a quick search we managed to find a heap. Here are just a handful…

    “Public relations is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation (or individual) and its (or their) publics. It’s the key to effective communication in all sectors of business, government, academic and not-for-profit.” – PRIA

    “Public relations is the business of helping organisations create policies, craft messages, and engage in conversations that enhance the relationships between the organisation and its key stakeholders in order to maximize the benefits of those relationships to both parties.” – blog.holmesreport.com

    “Public relations is the methods and activities employed to establish and promote a favourable relationship with the public.” – freedictionary.com
    “Public relations is the profession or practice of creating and maintaining goodwill of an organisation’s various publics (customers, employees, investors, suppliers, etc.), usually through publicity and other non-paid forms of communication.” –businessdictionary.com

    “Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives” -the marketingbit.com

  1. April 18, 2011 at 7:25 pm
  2. April 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm
  3. May 16, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: