Categories: PR issues / Trust and reputations

16 January 2012


For PR’s reputation: let’s define ourselves candidly

Why are so many PR pros embarrassed by what they do for a living? This normally hidden angst becomes transparent whenever they attempt to define the essence of our trade. Nothing illustrates this better than the four supposedly modern definitions of PR being discussed by PRSA and CPRS, all of which share one fundamental flaw: evasiveness about what PR is really about.

Before I counterattack with some beef, we need to review the four definitions currently on offer. The definitions all presuppose (or purposely pretend) that PR is mostly concerned with managing relationships between an organisation’s stakeholders and publics. That was a misconception addressed in my recent post PR is more about messages than relationships. Anyway, here comes PRSA’s three proposed definitions in their full glory:

No. 1 

Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results. (Read the annotated version here.)

PS’s comment: this is a loose, slippery definition. How do you define, or who gets to define, what constitutes “collaborating ethically”? The words “mutually beneficial” are waffle because only one side pays our fee and we can’t represent both sides’ interests equally. There’s something anodyne about “mutually beneficial” because the perception of “mutual benefit” sustains relationships of all sorts. Moreover, every management function involves “engaging, communicating and collaborating with stakeholders” or it is not a management function. The words “achieve results” provoke the question: results for whom?

No. 2 

Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.

PS’s comment: the logic of this definition is that if you are doing tactical and reactive PR you are not doing PR at all. Moreover, tough luck if you are not on the “key publics” list. Yeah, right. (Read the annotated version here.)

No. 3 

Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals. (Read the annotated version here.)

PS’s comment: What if your goals and those of your client are not strategic? How do you define strategic? As for individuals, they rarely relate to institutions strategically. Greenpeace might understand the nuclear industry and vice versa: so what?

Problems with PRSA’s method

What’s amusing about the three PRSA definitions is that they were the result of the collaborative work of hundreds of professionals who submitted their own definitions of public relations during a two-week crowd-sourcing phase. As the PRSA explains:

Working from a qualitative and quantitative analysis of this input, PRSA’s Definition of Public Relations Task Force proposed six possible definitions, which were circulated to our global partners. Based on their collective feedback, the three candidate definitions… emerged.

Attempting to define PR through crowd-sourced inputs is a recipe for producing confusion and compromise rather than clarity. The likelihood is that the blind will continue to lead the blind in the wrong direction. Indeed, the old saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee springs to mind. Be that as it may, the process of deriving the proposed definitions is not my main concern: I’m more interested in the what than in the how.

What PRSA fails to grasp is that PR is a trade, not a profession. PR is not comparable to law, medicine, accounting or even to architecture. They have a specific body of knowledge to master in order to qualify and then professional bodies and codes to regulate practice backed by a legal framework.

Assessing CPRS’s definition of PR

Before I spell out the real role PR plays in the real world, let’s examine in some detail why the fourth definition from the CPRS is far from honest. CPRS’s definition, which they’ve adopted and others believe has universal validity, claims:

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

This definition throws up a host of issues. First there is the question of whether our first duty as PR advisers is to our clients or to the public. Do we swear allegiance to both on equal terms even though it is our clients, rather than the public, which pay for our services? Would it be ethical to treat both responsibilities equally?

Proposition A (“realise organizational goals”) is scuppered by Proposition B (“and serve the public interest”), unless we are to have a rather strained oxymoron.

PRs are paid to promote the interests of their employers. They promote A within the bounds of decency and the law. They do this – if they do it properly – professionally in the best sense of the word. That is in the public interest (B) in the sense that having one-sided advocacy is a part of free society since freedom is not merely the right to speak but the understanding that truth and good sense emerge from competing arguments.

In other words, the defence advocate is serving the pubic interest almost whatever the merit of his or her client. Almost all the time, the PR’s job is to persuade the public that A equals B. But unless these two propositions are simply supposed to be coterminous (which is a stretch) there is often an important tension between propositions A and B. In reality, PRs have to favour A under the cover of espousing B.

The honest PR would admit that PRs dress up A as B. They would insist that his or her professionalism dictates that they should warn the public about the threat of “deception” (or at the very least, one-sidedness) which lies therein. This is why it is so unprofessional and sad and demeaning that PRs should (often do) pretend that A and B are always, or even should or must be, a good match.

It has always been a comfort to me and to colleagues that doing A is clearly defensible (within limits) and doable whilst achieving B is as hard to achieve as it is to define.

Public interest is hard to define

It is the impossibility of defining pubic interest (B) which has reinforced our civilisation’s conviction that lots of A (“realise organizational goals”), done competitively but within limits, is really the best way of achieving B. I say this in the spirit of how markets, democracies and debates are organised in the free world and how they actually behave in practice.

None of this is to deny that a PR may want to enrich an employer’s view of what A is, and do it by framing a view of B which could be promoted. A good example of this is corporate responsibility (CR) and a commitment to sustainability.

Hence, the honest PR needs to make a distinction between espousing B as an instrumental matter for pursuing A, and as a goal in its own right. He or she also must distinguish between pretending to know what B really is, and adopting a popular view of B, or a view of B which was plausible but also suited A.

Obviously the more B is bent out of shape so as to fit A the less the PR can claim a real moral power for his use of B, or for his employer as it claims to adopt B. Therein lies the accusation of greenwash and much more, as the rift between reality and practice produces a credibility gap.

It is my view that authenticity, truthfulness and being aligned with reality will nearly always and in the long run trump fluff, flannel and puff (spin) when it comes to winning long-term public trust; even if the case put is uncomfortable and unpopular. That’s to say: the long-term “organizational goals” will usually be best met with honest PR. With any luck, being honest will usually strike the public as having been in the public interest too.

The idea that PRs serves the public interest has rhetorical appeal precisely because it is a loose proposition. We all have our own wildly differing definitions of what it is; even if sometimes it is also clear to all (most) of us what it is not. In contrast, being honest – and prizing honesty – is a principle that has stood up pretty well over time.

That is why it may be best to leave the public interest out of it. The International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Gold Paper No: 6 seems on safer ground when it notes that:

‘[According to the Dutch PR association] Public relations is the systematic promotion of mutual understanding between an organisation and its public‘. Or, as the British express it: ‘Public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its public’.

I have a fairly decent quibble with the British definition. To “maintain goodwill” might involve a good deal of deception or systematic lack of frankness. “Mutual understanding” has its attractions because to understand something includes the idea that what one is learning is not untrue. (The English language does not allow that one can “know” or “understand” an untruth.)

My view of what PR is about?

If forced to pick one word that captured the essence of public relations I would opt for “advocacy”: the act of pleading or arguing for something in the court of public opinion to influence an outcome on behalf of clients, preferably by using two-way communication techniques. That is to stress that I am not all that interested in PR which persuades people to think a certain thing unless the PR has invited and accepted and met informed challenge by the target audience. However, I’m not convinced that we could ever arrive at a “catch all” definition of our multi-faceted trade.

At the end of the day, PRs have to acknowledge that they are not in business to push their own varied agendas on to their clients. Rather they represent – advocate – their employers’ interests. PRs are more like barristers than priests. True, they can – like doctors or management consultants – help fix their employers’ problems. True, they can – like diplomats – bring the wider world to their employers and sensitise their employers to the wider world’s needs. Be they however sophisticated, flacks are hacks – they are for hire. That does not mean they leave decency or professionalism behind when they go to work.

Indeed, the definitions I recommend for them may be more rigorous and personally costly than swimming with the tide of fashionable nostrums, which is my beloved trade’s commonest activity right now.

(Apologies to regular readers of 21st Century PR Issues who might just recognise some of the text above, which originated here)

Recommended additional reading:

Heather Yaxley: Why I don’t care about defining public relations

PR Conversations: A defining moment for public relations

Stuart Bruce: Public relations defined for the 21st century

Please Revise…: “Defining” Public Relations 

21st-Century PR Issues: How PR sells firms and trust short

4 responses to “For PR’s reputation: let’s define ourselves candidly”

  1. Not at all embarrassed by what I do Paul, though misrepresentations via the media certainly make me cringe. Gotta say this not the typical ‘define PR’ post – love it. Especially the honesty that “not one PR definition will fit all.”

    In today’s business world – heck, even academia – there are too many different voices, opinions, functions as defined by other players. For many, PR will still be considered (wrongly) solely publicity and media relations; others it’s all about supporting marketing/advertising; others it’s corporate communications with various stakeholders like investors and analysts. Every company, client will put PR in its organizational matrix its own way, based upon whatever definition – and priority/budget – it assigns.

    I like ‘advocacy’ as one word. We absolutely are supposed to be advocates of our companies and clients, and I’d argue that yes, ethics, good-faith and integrity should be part of that as in any profession. My one-word is probably still “communication.” A business or organization can’t do a thing – clean the desks, hire qualified staff, sell its wares or provide customer service without doing that one not-at-all simple thing, communicating. I think PR permeates almost everything a company does, and I value the more complex and honest definitions you shared. FWIW.

  2. Eric Bryant says:

    This is a terrific post, Paul. As usual, I agree with pretty much everything you say, and the way you present the dishonesty of these namby-pamby, association-driven, overly-obfuscating definitions. Rather than crowdsource definitions – which is a flawed method to begin with – the #PRDefined initiative would have done better first asking the tough question: “What it means to define a concept?” That may have gotten to initiative off to a better start.

  3. Have to say I agree with Eric – still not sure what the point of this exercise really was (apart from publicity for PRSA – ironically). You need to understand what is meant by definition first IMHO. As for ‘modern’ and updating from 1982 – no evidence that there’s any advance here on what Bernays suggested nearly 100 years ago…

  4. Mat Morrison says:

    Excellent post, thank you. For years I’ve heard marketing and communications people claim that we’re representing the customer inside the organisation. I think this might be tantamount to treason.

    Here’s a recent (unedifying) exchange:

    On a more considered note: individual PR agencies should define themselves based on the job that clients want to hire them to perform, the problem they solve, and the budgets for which they want to compete.

    A consensus opinion is at best useless, at worst counterproductive.