Why I hate the PRSA’s new definition of public relations


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.

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14 Responses to Why I hate the PRSA’s new definition of public relations

  1. Amith says:

    Can’t agree with you more. I wish better thought had gone into this. But The Holmes Report at its Miami global conference can come up with a broader, better definition of Public Relations.

  2. Jack O'Dwyer says:

    Paul: If PR people are going to set policy as well as publicize it and explain it, then they are responsible for bad policies such as took place at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, all the banks, the speculating investment houses, etc. They all had PR people.
    You should read \Howling with the Wolves\ buy Stephen Bomba in which he noted that Ivy Lee was helping Hitler to set strategy and policy. If you \howl with the wolves\ then you are a \wolf yourself,\ he correctly wrote.
    Another problem with the definition is that it’s a prayer rather than a definition. It says PR \builds\ relationships when what it hopes to do that. You might as well say journalists write the truth. They certainly try.

  3. Nick Kalm says:


    Right you are. And, as I’ve commented elsewhere, limiting the audience to “publics” ignores one of the most important areas of PR — employee communications/change management. Employees are not a “public.”

  4. EMEKA ONUOHA says:

    Your opinion is right on target and taking a cue from Jack, we as practitioners need to bear in mind PR is wholesome and cannot be in bits and pieces. More importantly as we have a deficit of trust globally as a result of the monumental level of corporate misgovernance in both the Public and Private sector, care should be taken not to erode the salient role occupied by PR in the scheme of things by altering the mexican statement 1978 defination of PR which i feel is apt

  5. Paul, you are on the right track. To take my turn dancing on the head of the PR pin: What is called public relations is the process of creating stakeholders in the organization’s success.

  6. It is also worth reading Harold Burson’s take on this, which I’m pretty sure you would agree with Paul. Harold also gets my vote for bringing hip-hop into the equation: http://bit.ly/xhroPr

  7. Pingback: Reactions to the New Definition of Public Relations | PRSAY – What Do You Have to Say?

  8. Paul I couldn’t agree more. It’s very close to a definition I remember reading when studying PR in the 80s – why bother.

    Harold Burson refers to a definition by L.Bernays who published ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ in 1923. It’s almost 90 years old and is way better than any modern definition I have seen:

    Public relations (pub’lic re-la’shuns) n. sing. – An applied
    social science that influences behavior and policy, when
    communicated effectively, motivates an individual or
    group to a specific course of action by creating, changing
    or reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective
    is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed,
    must serve the public interest.

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  10. Pingback: Me and Harold and Jack and some final (I promise) thoughts on that whole definition issue | blog.holmesreport.com

  11. Paul – I haven’t been shy in my views on this topic … and they agree with you. My biggest issues are two-fold: This definition isn’t more than marketing lingo and it doesn’t speak to any results. Until the industry can find standards in measurement, we’ll always fight the tactical vs. strategic war.

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  14. Dave20 says:

    Really impressed! Everything is very open and very clear explanation of issues. It contains truly information.

    MMI Marketing

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