Sunday, April 22, 2012

Defining Public Relations

Defining the term “public relations” can be a daunting task, even for a trained professional. For the uninitiated, it may nigh be impossible.

In fact, asking three people on the street to define public relations would be akin to having them describe their perception of a sasquatch when they have never actually seen one. One might characterize a sasquatch as a “wookie.” Another might say: “tall gorilla.” A third might reply: “wolf-man.”

Such is the case when defining public relations. Part of the problem is all the titles that exist in public relations. In my 30 years working in public relations for several organizations, I have had 13 different titles despite the fact that my job duties never changed.

The reality is that public relations has been defined in many different ways since the genesis of the discipline in the early 20th century, with the definition evolving along with the changing roles of public relations and advances in technology.

One definition notes that “public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, aligns the policies and procedures of organization with the public interest and executes a plan of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”

Another defines public relations as “the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders and implementing planned programs of action which will serve for the the organization’s and the public’s interest.”

The classic definition from my text in Principles of Public Relations is this: “public relations is the planned effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance, based upon mutually-satisfactory two-way communication.”

Now, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has released the results of a crowdsourcing campaign and public vote that produced the following definition: “public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

I must say I like its simplicity, as well as its focus on a communications process that at its heart is strategic in nature and benefitting both parties in the relationship.

And as most public relations practitioners will readily acknowledge, this new definition aligns nicely with the informal description of public relations: “doing a good job and letting people know about it.”

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