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Gini Dietrich

Redefining Public Relations

By: Gini Dietrich | February 13, 2012 | 
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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.

145 comments
jspepper
jspepper

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

KateRobins
KateRobins

@JGoldsborough None of them. #pr20chat

opjacklucy
opjacklucy

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: http://nyti.ms/AiOHYz 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.” http://bit.ly/A5rWeG. 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. http://bit.ly/6nlrKA 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. http://bit.ly/yHC6ff. 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: http://bit.ly/bx2FKP. 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 odwyerpr.com 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

JGoldsborough
JGoldsborough

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.

GnosisArts
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?

Glenn Ferrell
Glenn Ferrell

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"

Gag.

jacque_PR
jacque_PR

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!

DeborahInComms
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?

mdbarber
mdbarber

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 http://prdefinition.prsa.org/ and add your two cents to the project. That's where the committee is looking for your feedback.

ShakirahDawud
ShakirahDawud

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...

jenzings
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.

C_Pappas
C_Pappas

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.

GalaxyKannanGtp
GalaxyKannanGtp

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

Bensie Dorien

prcompanionpr@gmail.com

www.prcompanion.com

PaulRobertsPAR
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.

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

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.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

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)

KensViews
KensViews

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!

Trace_Cohen
Trace_Cohen

I choose option 4. None of the above.

mikelleliette
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?

jeffespo
jeffespo

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.

Latest blog post: Cartoon of the day

TonyBennett
TonyBennett

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!

jcmichener
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.

Leon
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

Leon

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel

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

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

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!!

jcmichener
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!

DeborahInComms
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.

Byron Fernandez
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 ...

DeborahInComms
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.

JodiEchakowitz
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.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

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'

SidMaxPR
SidMaxPR

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?

maddiegrant
maddiegrant

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.

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

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.

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