After a lengthy crowd-sourcing process, the Public Relations Society has come up with its new, official definition of public relations, and it makes a compelling argument that the wisdom of crowds is not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, when so many people have a say in the process, the result is the worst kind of lowest-common-denominator pabulum:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
My biggest problem with the definition, not surprisingly, is the emphasis on “communication.” It’s an emphasis that diminishes what PR people do, that reduces it to the tactical rather than the strategic. It implies, to the long-term detriment of the discipline, that public relations is merely the art of explaining policy rather than an essential consideration in setting policy. It ignores Arthur W. Page’s dictum that “public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and ten percent by what it says” by focusing almost entirely on the latter.
And frankly, the gratuitous inclusion of the word “strategic” in front of “communication”—as if to compensate for the lack of ambition by emphasizing the obvious—only serves to underscore the lack of self-confidence and ambition on display.
Perhaps equally egregious is the complete absence of any attempt to focus on business results. I guess if you were being generous you could make the case that building “mutually beneficial relationships” is slightly more useful than simply generating a ton of media coverage.
But relationships, mutually beneficial or otherwise, are not an end in themselves; they are useful only insofar as they help organizations achieve real business objectives. This definition will do little to convince CEOs that public relations activities are designed with a hard, bottom-line impact in mind.
If the goal was to come up with a statement that sets the future agenda for our industry and recognizes the opportunity for public relations to play a central management role in the organizations of tomorrow, this definition is inadequate at best, counter-productive at worst.