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: