ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
December 9, 2011

More Than Words: How to Really Redefine the Term “Public Relations”


There’s big news in the public relations industry this week as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently announced that they are embarking on an international effort to modernize the definition of public relations. Chartered in 1947, PRSA is the world’s largest and foremost organization of public relations professionals and boasts a community of more than 21,000 members across the United States. Their current definition of public relations — “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other” was last updated in 1982, before Twitter, before Facebook, hell, even before you had a computer at your desk. Technology has changed a lot over the last 30 years. So to have the ways in which organizations and their publics relate to one another, it’s definitely time for a change.

Adam Lavelle, a member of the board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and chief strategic officer at the iCrossing unit of Hearst, agrees. In the New York Times article linked above, he says:

“Before the rise of social media, public relations was about trying to manage the message an entity was sharing with its different audiences. Now, P.R. has to be more about facilitating the ongoing conversation in an always-on world.”

Unfortunately, ever since the days of Edward Bernays, public relations has had its roots in “managing the message.” Public relations grew out of propaganda, spin and manipulation — no wonder we’ve had an image problem for the last 100 years! Too many public relations practitioners have become so focused on the message that they have totally forgotten the relations part of public relations. As The Cluetrain Manifesto taught us way back in 1999 (also before social media), “public relations does not relate to the public; companies are deeply afraid of their markets.” From press releases that sound like this and media pitches like this, public relations practitioners have gotten lazy, hiding behind words and messages instead of building an actual relationship.

PRSA (disclaimer: I’ve been a member of PRSA or PRSSA since 2000.) should take this same advice while redefining the definition of public relations. The words might end up being totally accurate and insightful, but if public relations practitioners don’t also change their actions, the perception of the industry will never change. I hope that all PRSA members would realize the perception of public relations is about more than words — it’s about actions. And with that, here are ten actions that I’d like to become part of the new definition of public relations:

  1. Instead of spamming my email pitches to massive distribution lists, I will put in more than ten seconds of effort and personalize it to the reporter/blogger/writer/anchor/editor I’m contacting.
  2. I will stop being a yes-man for my clients and actually provide the expert communications counsel I’m (hopefully) being paid to provide.
  3. I will learn how to speak with an actual human voice instead of the voice of mission statements, brochures and marketing pitches.
  4. I will not forget the relations in public relations and will try to develop real relationships with the members of the media I work with instead of treating them like pawns that can be manipulated.
  5. I will stop snowing my clients and inflating my value through the use of ambiguous outputs like hits, impressions and ad equivalency, and instead focus on the outcomes that public relations has helped accomplish.
  6. I can no longer be the man behind the curtain, ghostwriting messages and press releases while I hide behind my brand or organization. I will take responsibility for my strategies and tactics.
  7. Regardless of my age, I will recognize that keeping up with and understanding technology is now a job requirement.
  8. Likewise, I will stop assuming that social media IS public relations and vice versa. Social media is becoming a much larger aspect of public relations and present practitioners with new tools to use, but they are not one in the same.
  9. Public relations cannot exist in a vacuum — I realize that my public relations efforts will be more effective if I collaborate and communicate regularly with marketing, advertising, strategy, operations and other groups throughout the organization.
  10. And finally, I will recognize that good public relations isn’t about manipulating media coverage — it’s about helping an organization create and maintain stronger relationships with all of its stakeholders.

Redefining “public relations” is a crucial first step, but changing the perception of public relations will require more than words — it will require a shift in the thinking and the actions of thousands of public relations professionals. Let’s start modeling the behaviors we hope to instill in all public relations practitioners and start taking public relations from messages to actions.

This post previously appeared on Social Media Strategery.

Steve Radick is the Lead Associate with Booz Allen Hamilton‘s digital strategy and social media practice. You can follow him on Twitter at @sradick.

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