Gini Dietrich

Redefining Public Relations

By: Gini Dietrich | February 13, 2012 | 

Right before the holidays, PRSA embarked on a new initiative: Redefining public relations.

An admirable undertaking and one that surely was not to please everyone, they made an impressive decision to have the definition crowdsourced.

There were, of course, some flaws in how you could submit your definition. In an effort, I would guess, to make everything uniform and make it easier for them to get through all of the responses (nearly 1,000 of them).

Last week they announced the final three definitions and voting is open for you to participate.

I have lots of friends at PRSA so I hope they don’t take offense to this: The definitions suck.

They are:

  1. Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.
  2. Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
  3. Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.

I’m a communication professional and I have no idea what any of these mean. They all are full of corporate, marketing lingo bingo.

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you what you do. You say PR. They say, “Oh! You know, I never understood PR. What is it?”

And you say, drumroll please, “Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.”

Say what?

Last week you read about The Difference Between PR and Advertising here. In the comments, Maddie Grant and I are still debating the difference. It’s an important conversation (even if you don’t agree with me).

It’s not quite a heated debate, but it certainly lends itself to the bigger conversation about the definition of PR.

Maybe it’s the difference between working for a large corporation (where Maddie got her early career experience) and a global PR firm (where I got mine). I never did much media relations, or publicity, when I worked for agencies. Now that I have my own, we rarely do any. And, if we do, it’s part of a larger marketing program.

But the point is not PR is not publicity (though it’s not – I’m not letting it go!), the point is, we’re communication professionals. Why is it so darn hard to describe what we do?

You can vote on one of the three definitions. Voting closes on February 26.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Sweet mother of confusing shit, that’s the best out of more than a thousand suggestions?? Let the confusion continue…

    • ginidietrich

      @DannyBrown That’s what I thought, too. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to define it in plain, clear language.

      • @ginidietrich@DannyBrown Because people are scared that by saying it plainly it will come off as diminished, or lightweight, or smarmy. So instead, they come up with these definitions, which officially ratify those shortcomings.

        • ginidietrich

          @JayBaer @DannyBrown In a profession that claims transparency is best, that really bothers me.

        • @JayBaer @ginidietrich Ironically, by making it so lingo-heavy, they come off as aloof and unapproachable. As Gini says, sad.

  • I’m so disappointed. We did a better job at my house last spring determining something more contemporary than “strategic process of engagement.” Sigh.

    • ginidietrich

      @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing I think so too, Jayme. In fact, when I went to submit my idea, I went back to your blog posts and pulled some from there. I think we were really hampered by the fill in the blank method. It makes me sad.

    • ginidietrich

      @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Oh. AND.


      • @ginidietrich @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing From me too!

        • @KenMueller @ginidietrich @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing And me, too!

    • @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Agreed! I was looking for something a LOT better – I voted anyway, but more along the lines of the lesser of three evils….

  • Sometimes communications professionals aren’t very good at communicating, eh?

    • ginidietrich

      @KenMueller It’s really terrible.

      • @ginidietrich We had the same problem internally in radio. amazing.

  • ginidietrich

    @paulroetzer Sigh…why is this so hard?

    • paulroetzer

      @ginidietrich Wish they would spend their time innovating and moving industry forward, rather than trying to define it.

  • Seems to me PR is ashamed to say we’re trying to – directly or indirectly – convince people to buy something (business), join something (association), support something (government or non profit) or vote for something (political). We get wrapped up in this idea that somehow we should be impartial. We are not. We shouldn’t pretend to be. We are advocating for a particular point of view, product or idea. Ultimately, our goal is to get other people to say nice things about whatever it is we are representing, in person, in news, in blogs or on social media. It’s third party validation and it has an important role in the sales process and we are all selling something, whether that’s tangible or intangible. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with picking a side. And that’s where I think as an industry we stumble.

    • @Frank_Strong I like where you’re going with this. @ginidietrich … I agree with you, and I feel bad, because I have a ton of friends in/at PRSA too. But this entire exercise really tires me. What’s the point, if the above three options are all they can come up with? What exactly is different, new, or understandable about them?

      • @Shonali @Frank_Strong @ginidietrich Each definition is essentially the SAME with word juxtaposition. I would pick #3 too as it’s just slightly more creative. Is it even worth a vote? What these are, though, are far better than what exists now via PRSA.

      • ginidietrich

        @Shonali I don’t think there is anything understandable about them. Next time you Skype with your mom, read them to her and then have her describe what you do. Heck, I can’t even tell you what we do from these.

        • @ginidietrich Now *that* would be the conversation that never ended…

    • ginidietrich

      @Frank_Strong Amen! It also really bothers me when PR pros say it’s the job of marketing to sell stuff…not ours. I almost got kicked out of a LinkedIn PR group because I advocate driving results to the bottom line. We absolutely have affect on the bottom line…and should not be ashamed to talk about it.

      • @ginidietrich Well, if you do get booted, Gini, it would be there loss. I give credit to PRSA for trying. Even had no issue with the delay; take all the time you need. However, the outcome is underwhelming. Part of the issue is that the way PRSA solicited feedback: it was very structured, which put the definition of PR into a box from the beginning of this project.

        • ginidietrich

          @Frank_Strong Totally agree, Frank. I was disappointed when my hands were tied in what I could submit. But there was an opportunity to at least make it easy to read and understand.

    • @Frank_Strong I really like what you’re saying here. That is what we do convince people. The only thing I’d add is that we also convince management / clients to put the right policies and practices in place so the right people can support them.

      @ginidietrich I’m glad you’re continuing the conversation on this. Those three options are just plain embarrassing.If that is the best PRSA can come up with using crowd sourcing then we in the industry should take up dairy farming. Those three ‘definitions’ are examples of things clients hire us to make sure they don’t actually let see the light the day. OK. My fuse is short this week so I’ll shut up there…

  • Thanks for keeping this conversation going! I’m planning a blog post too. I’m really shocked at how bad those PRSA definitions are. More soon.

    • ginidietrich

      @maddiegrant I’ll be looking for it!

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  • So this is what my dues went for, eh?

    Some people just don’t get the idea of simplicity. We counsel our clients that less can be more, but @PRSA didn’t get that memo or attend that class in school.

    I once told my then five year-old daughter, “Daddy gets paid to make other people look good.” What’s wrong with that?

    • ginidietrich

      @SidMaxPR There is NOTHING wrong with that.

      • @ginidietrich When I first read these definitions, I had to wonder if a copywriter wrote them. I was shocked to see them.

        • ginidietrich

          @SidMaxPR I think the issue is the way they crowdsourced it. You filled in the blanks. Public relations does X for X when X. So there wasn’t much leeway in describing what we do.

        • @ginidietrich Yeah, I was sent the invite about the definition. It makes me wonder why PRSA jumped on the crowdsourcing bandwagon as opposed to actually using their noggins. Innovation does not have to use technology, but the industry seems to be moving too far into that direction.

        • ginidietrich

          @SidMaxPR I get why they did it. I would guess they want to show they’re open to ideas from the industry. But I also wonder who made up the committee to vote on the ideas? Do they have PR experience or do they have experience running associations?

        • @ginidietrich@SidMaxPR That’s exactly it! It was crowdsourced and I can see the flip chart now, with the keywords. and then they were all incorporated into one sentence.

  • KDavispr

    @SpinSucks Could not agree MORE! Love your blog, too BTW.

  • This reminds me of when Bob Hoffman the Ad Contrarian makes fun of Advertising/Marketing Speak. Both Industries (Ad/MKTG is worse btw) to create a bunch of mumbo jumbo to sound more impressive or complicated than it is, thus garnering higher revenues and more job security.

    Like the CEO who says ‘Damn this PR Agency is great we haven’t had any PR Crises’. Without thinking that maybe the lack of crises is because they run their business right. Or the Brand CEO that credits the Ad Agency for the success of a product that sells itself (think IPod as a great example). “I read the report on the 360 degree touch points with multiple impressions and nodes of engagement..damn they are good’

    • btw I chose option 4 Public Relations is sending a Tweet

    • ginidietrich

      @HowieSPM This is slightly off-topic, but there was an article that one of the guys at Chiat Day wrote, after Steve Jobs died, where he practically took credit for the success of the Mac because of the advertising. I nearly fell out of my chair.

      • @ginidietrich They don’t like me because I keep telling Pepsi to change their creative agency because they are the root of their fall from grace. Curious what adscamgeorge thinks of them.

        Anyhoo now that we know PR is all about Publicity can we discuss a real profession? Like Skeet and trap Shooting. adamtoporek bdorman264

        • ginidietrich

          @HowieSPM adamtoporek bdorman264 Did you know Adam and Bill invited me to go shooting with them on my birthday? Best. Gift. Ever.

        • @HowieSPM @ginidietrich adamtoporek Those pesky skeet, we are trying to eradicate them before it turns into something bad like the python situation in the Everglades…..

        • @ginidietrich @HowieSPM adamtoporek Of course; we wanted to make it something special……:). Those skeet didn’t have a chance………

        • @ginidietrich @HowieSPM bdorman264 We invited her… then Bill wrote us both life insurance policies.

        • @bdorman264 @HowieSPM @ginidietrich Way we were going, those clays should feel pretty safe. Maybe we should have invited Howie and his alien laser.

        • @adamtoporek @HowieSPM@ginidietrich We might as well have been throwing rocks at them, huh?

  • JodiEchakowitz

    As a communications professional, one of the things I think we do really well is help the companies we work with either refine or develop their core messaging to ensure they can effectively explain what they do, why and how they do it, and why anyone should care. If we can do it for companies we work with, then we should be able do it for our own profession. This is just sad.

    • ginidietrich

      @JodiEchakowitz Right?!? We’re communication professionals, but we just can’t get this right.

  • DeborahInComms

    Surely all we’re doing is … helping… organisations… to communicate in order to help them achieve… their goals… or aims… or purpose? Media relations can be part of it – and so can advertising! So can a telephone call, a speech, a tweet, a blog post – a picture, research, even mediation. The fact that PR got stuck in the corner of media relations says more about the specialisation and skill sets of agencies – and those aspects of communications that businesses or organisations find difficult, which is handling stakeholders like journalists. Most organisations can cope with the kinds of conversations you have with direct customers to sell to them. But what do you say to everyone else to get their attention? Or when they think badly of you? Or if they think you’ve done something wrong? Or if another business is more interesting or impressive then you?

    I think the best PR leads to selling, the challenge is that it tends to be about everything but selling, because it’s usually about engaging people before they’re in buying mode and who will resist a sales message.

    • ginidietrich

      @DeborahInComms I AGREE!! The best PR does lead to selling. We tend to group goals in three areas: Brand awareness, increased profit margins, and shortened sales cycles. But everything we do is public relations/communication. It absolutely leads to sales.

  • Byron Fernandez

    @ginidietrich Hilarious. Will def check out the 3 definitions you included. And NO, publicity is NOT PR. It’s merely an outcome of doing PR in the right place, at the right time, for the right person and for the right reasons …

    • ginidietrich

      @Byron Fernandez You’re not a text book PR practitioner, huh? I don’t think any of us are.

      • Byron Fernandez

        @ginidietrich @Byron Fernandez Ironic… I think I attended (1) PRSA conference in college. Not to knock on the industry, which we all clearly deeply respect and love.

        But, to the same end, I was too busy working full-time, traveling and driving real-time change/campaigns in agency internships and for other community orgs to sit around and say I was the President of a Club, that asked for membership fees every month.

        Perception and impressions may be “reality,” but Reality, Truly? Is about perspective and results, not paved with surface appearances.

      • helenabouchez

        @ginidietrich @Byron Fernandez Depends on what book you’re looking at. Today’s “textbook” PR practitioner (which is an e-book, naturally) wears multiple hats — marketing, media relations, search optimization, writing, networking and sales. We are masters sales and marketing integrators. We are required to understand the client’s business so we can help them make it clear to prospects and influencers why they need to engage with or buy from them. Such unclear, jargony definitions of the profession are the exact opposite of this. How can we derail this and get them to start over?

        • ginidietrich

          @helenabouchez @Byron Fernandez I don’t know that we can. The reason they decided to take it on, in the first place, is because a lot of the PR bloggers were up in arms about the 30 year old definition. I respect they took it on. But it doesn’t get us further ahead.

        • Byron Fernandez

          @ginidietrich@helenabouchez What Gini said. Helena – your point exactly. WE can’t derail this and get them to start over, THEY must. They can respect the value of blending the “old” and “new” hats by putting to practice what they continue to scrutinize with a microscope. Time to take out the telescope and begin driving, not whining from the backseat saying “we don’t know what we are or how we’re getting there.” It’s the classic kid syndrome: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?!?!?” NO — and we may never get there. Move on, and do what you can with the infinite options you have available to you. Practice, practice, practice! 😉

        • helenabouchez

          @ginidietrich @Byron Fernandez It’s a branding issue that needs way deeper scrutiny and study than polling 1,000 people and making a tag cloud. It’s a forrest/ trees thing. There needs to be outside perspective and discovery as part of a story finding process that arrives at a definition (or symbol) we can all embrace as true and what’s happening now. Ultimately, whatever definition is chosen will languish on a mug or wiki somewhere but it won’t unite us or help our prospects and influencers better understand our true value. And that’s too bad.

        • ginidietrich

          @helenabouchez @Byron Fernandez Totally agree, Helena. Paul Roetzer said, on Twitter this morning, it’s too bad we can’t all work together to innovate and move forward. I’d love a regulatory body so things such as astroturfing and whisper campaigns don’t happen. I’d also love a unified way to measure results. It can be done, but it’s not required.

        • Byron Fernandez

          @ginidietrich@helenabouchez Yeaa…astroturfing is for Asphalts … (not expletive cause Dietrich no Like-y 😉

        • Byron Fernandez

          @ginidietrich @helenabouchez Yeaa! Astroturfing is for Asphalts … (play-on expletive cause Gini doesn’t like bad language 😉

  • Byron Fernandez

    @ginidietrich lisagerbertylerorchard Um… I couldn’t choose any of those. Guess I’m not a “textbook” PRactitioner

  • DeborahInComms

    An awful lot of PRs are better publicists than they are PR. And sometimes publicity is a useful tactic in PR – especially if you’re trying to aren’t sales or votes.

    • ginidietrich

      @DeborahInComms It definitely is *a* useful tactic. It’s just the *only* tactic.

  • jcmichener

    What surprised me is how devoid of any kind of emotional engagement all three definitions had. I’m not looking for purple prose here, but something to grab on to!

    • ginidietrich

      @jcmichener I don’t know…purple prose would work for me! 🙂 I agree…this doesn’t do anything more than give us a reason to include it in our weekly corporate speak bingo game.

      • jcmichener

        @ginidietrich LOL! Too true and that’s just too sad!

  • ginidietrich

    @orange_BLAST Sigh…

    • orange_BLAST

      @ginidietrich Great article!

      • ginidietrich

        @orange_BLAST Thanks!

  • Talk about not taking our own medicine, WOW! This made me laugh out loud, especially the cocktail party line. Waddya mean? I’d so say that at a cocktail party!!

    • ginidietrich

      @Lisa Gerber I”m going to say it next time we’re together. Just to see your face.

  • rustyspeidel

    So…take a crack at it! What is YOUR definition?

    • ginidietrich

      @rustyspeidel Who is this?

  • Leon

    G’Day Gini,

    I don’t know that it’ll be good PR for you, but this Aussie curmudgeon agrees that these definitions are gratuitous goobledegook! Remember; I’ve worked in and around HR for over 40 years. I’m an expert at recognising goodold “gratgobble.”

    I’ve recently been part of a “spirited debate” about leadership and management on LinkedIn. I pointed out that it was the great business eminence himself, Peter Drucker who said, “Leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”

    I’m a great believer in, as we old buggers used to call it, “defining your terms.” Of course, if what you say is clear, cogent, lucid and easily read, you don’t need to define your terms.

    Maybe your PR “friends” should try “defining” PR in terms of results clients can reasonably expect rather than meaningless mumbo jumbo. Wouldn’t that be a first for a so-called “Professional Association!”

    By the way: I tried to vote. But I couldn’t. I had to choose one of the three definition to move to the next page. As Louis Armstrong used to say; “that spoke a book.”

    Valentino Lives!

    Best Wishes


    • ginidietrich

      @Leon You know I completely and wholeheartedly agree with you. It’s also a conversation dougdavidoff and I have quite often…most communication professionals don’t know how to demonstrate results. And that really is the issue of all of this.

  • jcmichener

    About a bllion years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a PRSA writing workshop in NY with a VP at a big PR firm. He was great and this was his definition (I paraphrase and this is not word crafted). Public relations – messages that hit an audience emotionally and then give them the reasons to: do, not do, or allow you to do.

    • ginidietrich

      @jcmichener A billion years? You look amazing for being a billion years old! That’s a great definition. Why can’t we get closer to that?

      • jcmichener

        @ginidietrich Well, I just turned 54 so 1985 FEELS like a bilion years ago!

        • Byron Fernandez

          @jcmichener@ginidietrich That’s when I was born! Great year! And my Soul wholeheartedly concurs …

  • Maybe the P in the PR is Throwing people off. Before O started reading Spin Sucks, I was under the impression that you all were publicists or cleaned up on damage control. I’m not exactly a noob, but I’m sure my naivety is shared by others.

    Let’s re-invent the wheel and start calling it CR!

    • ginidietrich

      @SociallyGenius As in company relations?

      Also, I love the word noob.

      • @ginidietrich guess that’s why you’re the pro and why may

      • @ginidietrich Guess that’s why you’re the pro and I might be a noob after-all… Your C with company actually sounds better than the one was thinking of – communication 🙂

        • ginidietrich

          @SociallyGenius I just like calling you a noob.

        • @ginidietrich SWEET! Please excuse me while I go brag to my friends!

        • ginidietrich

          @SociallyGenius LOL!!

  • This whole redefining campaign really is kind of like a brand “trying” to go viral or trying too hard to be relevant. Like you I have some friends at the PRSA @ginidietrich but with that said, was this really needed. At the end of the day a “new” definition is just another look at me action and does not get to the root of the industry having an identity crisis. These definitions confuse me as they are just jargon. Also will the new definition have any kind of ability to hand-smack or penalize people who go about their business in a less-than-up-and-up manner? Probably not. Will it change perception about PR? Again, probably not. So 0-2 and what do we have here? A whole lot for nothing.

    • ginidietrich

      @jeffespo Well, you know I agree on the regulatory body thing. But that’s not the purpose of PRSA. They are a membership organization. We’ll have to create the regulations on our own.

  • mitchellfriedmn

    @ginidietrich this issue of #Redefining #pr appears to be the gift that keeps on giving 🙂

  • mikelleliette

    It definitely is hard to explain or ‘define’ what Public Relations is. I feel like we could go on and on about what we do, and each PR professional could probably say something different about what they do, because we do a lot of different things! But why is it so hard to ‘define’ PR? I think it’s hard to do because our role changes so drastically day to day and job to job. Is it possible to even define PR?

    • ginidietrich

      @mikelleliette It’s funny you say that because Maddie and I are debating that very fact. Why can’t we say we do XYZ to create improved margins and shortened sales cycles? I know that goes a bit into what marketing does, but the lines are really blurred now. May as well show real results for our efforts.

  • Trace_Cohen

    I choose option 4. None of the above.

    • ginidietrich

      @Trace_Cohen LOL! I don’t think that’s an option.

  • Without claiming that the three are wonderful, truly capture what PR/Communications people do, or aren’t FOJ (Full ‘o Jargon) I’m laying down a new decree: No one is allowed to knock PRSA’s current definitions without suggesting a different, and hopefully, better one/s. This is an extremely difficult exercise, and one that’s badly needed. They’re not there yet, but wouldn’t we help the industry by attempting to improve what they’ve come up with to date, or even offering up something better, rather than just saying that what they’ve created isn’t good enough? (I realize that they serve us, the members, but let’s help them.) You’ll notice I’ve not offered up a definition, because I’m still wrestling with this myself!

    • ginidietrich

      @KensViews We did this last year. About 10 bloggers did it. It was painstaking and we spent many weeks on it. When it came down to it, though, none of that mattered because we were boxed into fill in the blanks. That said, I think that campaign had an influence on helping them decide to take on this initiative. I respect them for doing so…it’s just not quite right.

      • @ginidietrich It is painstaking. I tried a few times, and gave up. Went back to the work of helping PR firms. (And the work of marketing myself to get known by said firms!) Might there be a point in re-floating the bloggers’ ideas? Sometimes large organizations get input, but then edit the life out of it. Maybe they need to be politely reminded to consider putting back some of the “color” you no doubt gave them!

      • @ginidietrich Gini, would you share a link where you have those definitions?

  • Can an amateur try?

    PR is the single human face for an organization of many people.

    (always best to keep it simple, and when defining the undefinable use a touch o’ poetry)

    • ginidietrich

      @wabbitoid I like the amateur try!

  • Best definition I’ve ever heard of PR was from Seth Godin: “PR is the strategic crafting of your story.” Not my industry, but I don’t think I’ve heard a better one yet.

    • ginidietrich

      @adamtoporek I suppose that’s good. I’d like to see something that ties to the results we accomplish. But there is so much negativity around saying we actually help a company sell that may never happen.

  • PaulRobertsPAR

    Great post Gini. While, unlike you, I don’t actually have any friends at PRSA, I did support the idea of redefining PR and I agree that none of these even come close to hitting the mark. In same ways it is probably a good thing that our industry is so diverse that it is difficult to capture in one statement, but it is still sometimes a little embarrassing. I just going to start telling people I’m in business communications.

    • ginidietrich

      @PaulRobertsPAR I have a friend who stopped saying she’s in PR. She does communication for a global hunger so, instead, she says she helping the world end hunger. It never comes up that she’s in PR.

  • GalaxyKannanGtp

    PR definition has been redefined & redefined but still no end……. when r u going to decide a PR definition??????

    Bensie Dorien

  • Blech! Gobbledygook (love that word from David Meerman Scott) galor! Public relations is interesting when it comes to describing what it is ‘you’ do and the functions under that umbrella because it is so diverse. Some PR firms are still focusing on the media mentions (I had one even tell me they still kept clip books for clients) while others (like Arment Dietrich) are going beyond that to integrate PR functions into a communications strategy which may or may not include content marketing and social media.

    Any exercise a company or industry performs in an attempt to define themselves often has a gobbledygook outcome. Even working on the ‘about us’ page on a website, companies throw so much internal lingo on technology that they forget to mention the very problem they are trying to solve for their customers. It’s very rare to see one that does communicate in a succinct manner that makes sense to not only the target market, but the general population.

    • ginidietrich

      @C_Pappas Please tell me you’re joking that some firms still keep clip books??

      • @ginidietrich @C_Pappas

        Im not naming any names but I nearly fell over in my chair when they said it in a pitch. Right after that, they said they loved trade shows and wanted to work our booth at all of them. LMAO

  • jenzings

    Those definitions are yuck. I think part of the problem is that PR is constantly defined as a “thing” when in fact it is a process or activity. PR seeks to improve communication between audiences. Whether it’s public affairs or crisis comms or publicity, the objective is always improved communication, isn’t it?

    I get that this is hard. But this has produced exactly what I thought it would–incomprehensible gunk that is no better than the last definition. And it, sadly, will do nothing to improve the reputation or understanding of PR.

    • ginidietrich

      @jenzings It would be great if the definition tied to business results. But so many are afraid to say (and show) they can help a company produce sales. It’s not how we work, but I know we’re in the minority.

  • Ouch. Your last qurestion is a good one and it smarts, but one answer, I think, comes from the type of communication you do. From what I’ve learned, it’s so big picture it’s hard not to fall into glittering generalities every now and again… although I have to say none of those have much sparkle to ’em.

    But to be fair, though, they are defining here, and that’s different than explaining…

    • ginidietrich

      @ShakirahDawud That’s a great point…it’s a definition, not an explanation.

  • You know I love you Gini but I have to say that I’m more in @KensViews camp on this. I too have friends who work at PRSA and many other friends, like you, who are active members and volunteer leaders. It’s really easy to sit here and cast stones. Creating a new definition is important and it was bound to be controversial. I agree the definitions have more jargon than I wish they did.

    However, can we please find some common ground to 1) provide some positive input to PRSA and the 11 other groups involved in the task force; 2) commend the groups involved and the individuals on the task force for the hours they have spent on the project and 3) recognize that the definition for PR isn’t the one we’ll ever use at a cocktail party, or even with our mother.

    A definition for a worldwide profession can’t be the same as the description of our day to day job. Our profession is so broad and practices so varied that my definition of what I do every day is very different from yours. You always tie PR to sales but I tie it to changing behaviors. One isn’t right and the other wrong. That list of comparisons could go on and on. In the end, we each need our own elevator speech and an understanding of our differences, as well as a broader text book type definition.

    Can we please all try to work together for positive change rather than tearing things down? Seems to me that’s a better way to find a solution. Go to and add your two cents to the project. That’s where the committee is looking for your feedback.

    • @mdbarber Yes, thanks to PRSA for trying and to all the people that put in the effort. It’s a thankless job. I think even the most outspoken critics could find common ground there.

      However, the outcome still doesn’t meet the needs, as indicated in these comments. Customers don’t buy services they don’t understand – and PR happens to be a service many do not understand. It needs to be simplified — it needs to be a definition that can be understood at a cocktail party. It’s why the industry ranks about $10 billion, which is less than 1% of an all-marketing inclusive industry that comes in at about $1 trillion.

      I take some of your points to provide a conclusion that’s inverse to yours: a compelling reason why this definition is so important. None of the options on PRSA’s survey are viable in my opinion — and in many of the views reflected here. There’s no way to provide that sort of feedback in their voting mechanism in the link PRSA offers. Further, there wasn’t a way to provide that feedback when PRSA initially asked for definitions in a box. The web does provide that forum and this very discussion, while it contains tough criticism and — with all due sensitivity to the good people that have volunteered their time — is in fact a very positive effort by passionate PR people who care enough about their chosen profession to appeal for the leading professional PR organization to listen.

      • DeborahInComms

        @Frank_Strong @mdbarber I find most customers of public relations know what they’re buying – though that doesn’t mean the definition works at the cocktail party and with one’s mother. Isn’t the challenge that the definition needs to be more encompassing to help transform the perception that PR = manipulation + media coverage?

        • @DeborahInComms@mdbarber I think there are many more customers out there if PR was well defined. That’s the crux of my argument. People who get it, buy or hire PR services because they believe in them. No business case needed.

          However, Deborah, I think you are on to a very key point. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a post: PR does have baggage associated with propaganda. Edward Bernays actually called it propaganda: (a video well worth watching). In fact, I think that’s central to this definition debate: we are so conditioned to be hypersensitive to being called manipulating, that we tip toe around the definition with ethereal terms like “mutually beneficial relationships.”

        • @Frank_Strong@DeborahInComms Frank, first let me correct a point you made in your initial reply: “There’s no way to provide that sort of feedback in their voting mechanism in the link PRSA offers. Further, there wasn’t a way to provide that feedback when PRSA initially asked for definitions in a box” That’s simply not true. The project is using a blog format for all of its communications. There was a way to provide feedback and there still is. Each of the posts about the project has a spot for comments just as this blog does. The first post on the subject ( had lots of comments. And the one asking for the latest round of votes ( has a spot for them as well. I encourage you and others commenting here to add your voice there.

          Most companies can say that their product/service could have more customers if more people understand what their product/service provides. If you’re looking for ways to tell the PR story for your organization, be sure to check out the Business Case for PR ( where there are many resources available for folks to use.

          I continue to believe it’s really hard to settle on one simple definition for a profession that is made up of lobbying and government relations, public affairs, investor relations, Media relations/training, crisis communications, community relations, employee communications, event management, issues management, brand building…you get the picture…

          I completely agree with you that the longer we talk about PR as spin, propaganda and publicity the more credibility problem we’re going to have. I’m sure that’s at the core of why this project and the Business Case were started.

        • @Frank_Strong @DeborahInComms @mdbarber I’m not a pro. so take what I say as you will.

          It seems to me that PR has bad PR, and the PR profession has no idea what to do about it. Aside from the irony of this situation, it should be obvious that what people are doing is, more or less, exactly the wrong thing to do.

          Escaping into “professionalism” and a cold industrial jargon has not helped anyone define the profession, much less turn the image around. The only possible solution must be the opposite:

          You are human. Your job is to be human in the face of cold professionalism that sometimes scares the Hell out of people. Be human.

          That is why I posted the alternative definition I did. No escape into cold professional jargon will get you anywhere other than a more cold industrial feeling that doesn’t help perceptions one bit.

          Ignore me if you like, I’m not a pro. Then again, it seems that the pros aren’t getting anywhere on this.

        • @wabbitoid No one is ignoring you. But I think it’s really important to understand there are a lot of people trying to do what’s right, and quite frankly making some headway. Some of the folks are here in the comments and some are involved directly in the PRSA work that I outlined above. None of this is every easy. Myself, I’m grateful for the folks who are at least trying. Thanks so much for your feedback. And I do like your definition…it just doesn’t work for what I do. I’m not a face for a corporation…because corporations aren’t people but that’s a subject for another day. Have a good one. @Frank_Strong @DeborahInComms

        • ginidietrich

          @DeborahInComms @Frank_Strong @mdbarber I’m not sure I agree most know what they’re buying. They think they’re buying media relations, unless they’ve had a large PR team or an external agency in the past. If it’s their first trip around the block – and it is for many, many mid-sized businesses (and I’m talking $100-$300MM companies), they think they’re buying their names in lights. We do a TON of education around what it is we do … and it’s not getting them in the NY Times.

        • DeborahInComms

          @ginidietrich @Frank_Strong @mdbarber Perhaps this is a cultural difference UK vs US? Not sure. Many din’t know everything that PR can do – but you know, most people also only use 10% of the functionality of their PCs. The truth is that more and more people are grasping what it is that corporate marketing, PR and comms is there to do – and they din’t always like it, and social media is where they get to answer back. A lot of people see through the fact that we talk brand, engagement, dialogue, relationship but really it’s all measured in pounds/pence. One of the challenges business faces is they only talk to us when they want to sell to us – but they say it’s more. It’s about loyalty, trust. Have you read Kevin Roberts on Lovemarks? But really it’s selling marks. I hope the PRSA comes up with a new definition of PR – and perhaps they might reach out to the PRCA over here for input too Yes we need a better definition.

        • @DeborahInComms Thanks Deborah. Those cultural differences are, I believe, a big part of the challenge here. I recall several discussions, even around the ethical practice of public relations, where what’s right/wrong/practiced in the US was different from guidelines around the world. It tends to make things very interesting. I know the Global Alliance was one of the 12 partners on this project but I’ll let PRSA answer specifically about PRCA. (@arthury) @ginidietrich @Frank_Strong

    • ginidietrich

      @mdbarber Mary, you know I love you too, but we did all of this. Last year. We spent A LOT of time on it. PRSA heard us, but didn’t take the work we’d already done into consideration. I think the issue is that we’re not tying our definition to what we do and the results we bring. It’s too far and wide. With marketing, they are willing and able to say they help generate, cultivate, and convert customers. You know what? We do too. We just use different tactics to get there.

      That said, PRSA is guest blogging for us tomorrow. I like their response.

      • @ginidietrich As a former member of PRSA’s board I can tell you this has been a discussion for many years. (I can hear the comments now — that’s the whole problem you haven’t done it.) But we have tried and tried and this year is yet another attempt to make everyone feel as though they are part of the definition process.

        The difficulty comes in that “far and wide” you mentioned. For example, I don’t convert customers. I change behavior that may result in a sale but many many times it doesn’t. Say no to drugs didn’t result in sales. The PR efforts that caused people to start wearing bike helmuts were to keep people safe. United Way’s campaigns doesn’t result in sales; they change lives and communities.

        Believe it or not, we also had the “communicators” discussion at assembly three years ago…and lost. Seemed silly to me because I believe we are all communicators, but it’s another of those factions that believes we are “different” and ruled the day.

        I’ll be interested to see PRSA’s response tomorrow, and really have to commend them for spearheading this effort. It is my hope, as altruistic as it may sound, that we can all work together toward a positive outcome. In fact, maybe you just put yourself on a committee!

        • @mdbarber I , Ken Jacobs, AKA @KensViews , do hereby officially volunteer @ginidietrich to serve on the PRSA committee of your choosing, and do state that I am authorized to volunteer her for said committee

        • @KensViews Thanks Ken! I love it. And I’m pretty sure you do have the authority to do that. I’ll let them know @ginidietrich ready, willing and hoping for some action.

        • ginidietrich

          @mdbarber @KensViews LMAO!!! When I was president of the Chicago chapter, my favorite thing to say to critics was, “Love your feedback! Can we count on you to serve on XYZ committee?”

          That said….been there, done that. Though I really would love to see some unified messaging around what the heck it is we do. If that means I serve again, I’ll do it.

  • DeborahInComms

    Gini – I don’t even know you but I think you’ve fired up an impressive debate here. Who would have thought so many people could get so excited about a definition of PR? And yet – it’s telling of a “profession” that I have seen lack belief in itself, whilst at the same time claiming to embrace so many vital components of corporate strategy and execution. A profession that I have seen undervalue itself – even whilst so many proponents will vaunt their abilities and skills.

    Gini – you seem to have a talent for attracting constructive polemic – perhaps you should be picking up this issue more closely with the PRSA?

    • ginidietrich

      @DeborahInComms I did – and I have. 🙂 They’re going to guest blog here tomorrow. I figured this would get people fired up (which is why I wrote it) and PRSA would respond. It definitely opens the conversation and hopefully moves us forward. We’re an industry that needs that very, very badly.

      • DeborahInComms

        @ginidietrich Good for you. As long as we remember it’s PR not ER.

        • ginidietrich

          @DeborahInComms So funny you say that. I occasionally will say to someone on my team (who is freaking out), “Did anyone die? No? It’s OK, then.”

  • Gini, just out of curiosity and going off of your above cocktail party scenario, how do you usually explain what PR is to someone not familiar with the communications industry AT ALL? Those are the people (cough, parents, cough, boyfriend) who I usually have a difficult time explaining to without their eyes glazing over!

    • ginidietrich

      @jacque_PR It depends on who it is and where I am. I talk mostly in results: We combine email, social media, search, and content (such as white papers and blogging) to drive new sales for our clients. And then, if they want to know more, I use a case study that talks about how much revenue or improved margins or shortened sales cycles that we’ve been responsible for doing.

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  • I never heard the word “publics” until this article – is it even in the dictionary ?

    There are demographic, political, etc. subcategories of people that we have to communicate with. Because of our blind devotion to semantic simplicity, we used to call the set of these subcategories the “public”. We got pretty smug doing this “abstraction” thing.

    Fortunately for us, PRSA has ripped the cover off of this “public” thing and, to our horror, showed us that there is this entire seething Hieronymus-Bosch-like collection of separate groups inside here ! My God, we have to add an ‘S’ !!

    Seriously, just to be trendy, PR has to show that it too has been profoundly influenced by string theory. If our universe has become “universes”, then certainly our “public” has become “publics”


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  • GnosisArts

    The #PRDefinied initiative fails because it neglected to first ask the really hard meta-question: What does it mean to define a concept, and how do we do it?

    • ginidietrich

      @GnosisArts I wonder if that was part of what they did? Or if they just went for it?

      • GnosisArts

         @ginidietrich I don’t think so, Gini. I think they just put together the form to gather responses, and just started asking PR pros et al. I didn’t read anywhere that a meta-discussion on definitional process was undertaken.

  • You hit the nail on the head with those definitions. No one talks like that. And if I gave one of those definitions to an exec, he’d/she’d smile, nod and cut my budget after I walked out of the room. Heading over to read the PRSA guest post now.

    I applaud PRSA’s effort to try and define PR, because I know they are trying to help paint PR in a better light. But I’m not sure defining PR is what’s needed here. Imagine if instead of trying to define our discipline, we focused more on the value what we do — communications — can bring to a business.

    • @JGoldsborough For more than a year, PRSA has had a campaign making “The Business Case For Public Relations.”

      • @KensViews Thanks. I will check this out. And for the record, I think this type of an approach to show business value is MUCH more important than defining PR.

    • ginidietrich

      @JGoldsborough I agree with you. It’s a HUGE undertaking and they can’t please everyone. But these definitions tell us nothing. If we’re going to redefine the industry, let’s do it in a way that opens the conversation to getting our seat at the proverbial table.

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  • Hi Dave:
    Congratulations on taking part in this discussion on the quest for a definition of PR by 13 PR organizations. You note at one point that you are “trying to keep the Alabama legislature happy” while also heading the “PR Defined Task Force.” You are SVP-communications of the Birmingham Business Alliance. Birmingham has a big PR problem these days following the New York Times story Sunday Feb. 18 on the bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Ala., of which Birmingham is the biggest city.
    That city is called “a monument to urban blight” where “a quarter of the people live below the poverty line.” Civic and business leaders are accused of “graft and contract padding” and former mayor Larry Langford got 15 years in prison. I think it is relevant to this discussion because PR people can only be as good as their clients. The link to the NYT story is here: This discussion of the meaning of PR excludes any input by reporters. None was sought. There’s no doubt many in the press are angry at PR. We have covered PR 43 years via our website, newsletter and magazine and have never seen such a gulf between PR people and the press. Instead of trying to define PR, PR groups should be meeting with severe critics of it in the press. David Carr of the NYT has just said (Jan. 29, 2012) that he is fed up with “slop” delivered to him by PR “underlings.” CBS-TV on-air editor Andrew Cohen said in 2008 that PR having an ethics code is like a group of burglars having a code against stealing. He said what PR people do is trying to “turn milk cows into race horses and turkeys into eagles. Gene Weingarten, columnist for the Washington Post, in 2007 called PR people “pathetic dillweeds.” Annoyed at the mountains of e-mail, releases and phone calls he gets from PR people, he tried calling some of them up and asking questions. All he got was juniors who couldn’t answer anything. PR people, besides angering reporters, are the least trusted people in any company or institutions. They are the corporate “snitches” ready to pounce on anyone who says a negative word about the employer. At major companies and institutions, their every word on the phone or in e-mails is monitored by lawyers. Corporate “PR” has all but disappeared and almost totally resides in the agencies these days which talk to reporters. Check out this gag policy by Viacom: The PR Society and the Rockefeller Foundation paid $150,000 for research that conducted live interviews with 2,000 Americans. Published in 1999 after five years of work (including two years on the interviews), the study found “PR specialist” to rank 43rd in visibility on a list of 45 sources. The Society did nothing about this finding except to try to hide it and forget it. It never printed the table in the monthly Tactics nor anywhere. Only when PR groups and PR individuals face the above facts and actually talk to reporters will something be done about the image of PR. Rickey points out that only 15% of Society district, chapter and section leaders use “PR” as part of their titles. Only six of the 50 largest U.S. PR firms as tracked by use “PR” in their titles. Less than five of the 150 blue chip corporate “communications” executives in (PR) Seminar use “PR” in their titles. This 65-year-old group of communications heads at big companies itself dropped “PR” from its title three years ago. There are ten books about PR with “Spin” in the titles. Who is going to put Humpty Dumpty together again? Actions by PR people, including contact with critics such as Carr, Cohen and Weingarten would be a start. –Jack O’Dwyer

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  • KateRobins

    @JGoldsborough None of them. #pr20chat

  • jspepper

    @pr20chat Re: #PRDefined, PR is the only navel-gazing, hand wringing discipline. Marketing and Advertise don’t worry like PR does. #pr20chat

    • justinmwhitaker

      @jspepper @pr20chat Marketing and Advertising shouldn’t be so short sighted. Legal is worried about what they’re doing too! #pr20chat

      • jspepper

        @justinmwhitaker @pr20chat It’s not short-sightedness, it’s PR obsessing over things that really don’t matter in long-term.

        • justinmwhitaker

          @jspepper What does matter long term? #pr20chat

        • jspepper

          @justinmwhitaker Profit margin as most PR firms (and ad and marketing) are owned by conglomerates. #pr20chat

        • justinmwhitaker

          @jspepper Balance sheet perspective, marketing, advertising, PR are an expense. Even as part of a conglomerate. #pr20chat

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  • janefairfax18

    I think the fact that they tried to crowdsource this endeavor is the perfect illustration of the evolution of public relations. Many firms are leaning toward a new approach these days, one that can be traced to nonprofit organizations. These companies are letting the public speak for themselves and become involved. It’s no longer trying to assume you know what the public wants, it’s actually asking them. They are being allowed to be a part of things, which is a great plan for creating loyalty and personal relationships. I personally hope this trend continues.