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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, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

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)

justinmwhitaker
justinmwhitaker

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

Latest blog post: The Trouble with PR Links

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

Latest blog post: The Trouble with PR Links

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

Latest blog post: The Trouble with PR Links

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

Latest blog post: The Trouble with PR Links

jspepper
jspepper

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

GnosisArts
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.

mdbarber
mdbarber

@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!

DeborahInComms
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?

justinmwhitaker
justinmwhitaker

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

jspepper
jspepper

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

Latest blog post: The Trouble with PR Links

KensViews
KensViews

@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

mdbarber
mdbarber

@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

DeborahInComms
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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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.

Latest blog post: The Trouble with PR Links

mdbarber
mdbarber

@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

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

@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.

mdbarber
mdbarber

@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 (http://prdefinition.prsa.org/index.php/2011/10/30/public-relations-defined/) had lots of comments. And the one asking for the latest round of votes (http://prdefinition.prsa.org/index.php/2012/02/09/final-candidates-for-a-modern-definition-of-public-relations/) 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 (http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/BusinessCase/) 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
Frank_Strong

@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: http://youtu.be/V0OrT-8gXMs (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."

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