As stated in several of my previous blogs, public relations is a tricky thing to define, probably because there is not a universal consensus of what it is (PRSA Staff, 2012). The components of PR like advertising, marketing, and journalism are generally straight-forward, but with PR having a finger in every pie, it’s a little more complicated. To understand how the definition and PR in general has evolved and how the current PRSA definition came to be, it’s necessary to examine where American public relations began.
Contrary to PR’s portrayal as a “modern phenomenon”, it’s really only the name “public relations” that is modern. The principle of communicating with publics to create positive opinions can be applied to European monarchs greeting their citizens and making a show of kissing babies and giving grain to the poor and even earlier, but the United States can witness the events leading up to the Revolutionary War as a public relations circus (Raaz &Wehmeier, 2011). This includes the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence; these events communicated messages to multiple publics (The British Empire, U.S. colonists, British loyalists, for example) (Raaz &Wehmeier, 2011).
Obviously, since then, public relations has expanded since the 18th century from war tactics to become an industry, and with conscious actions taken by organizations, political parties, and more, there is a need for a definition of what they were doing to create and maintain image. 2012 marked the year the Public Relations Society of America decided to update its 30 year old definition: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other” (PR Daily, 2012). PR is a constantly adapting business with new media being created all the time, and of course updating what we call it is a part of the changes being made (Raaz &Wehmeier, 2011).
The PRSA hosted a campaign to vote for a new definition in 2012, with its blog “Public Relations Defined” as the center of the debate. The definition “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” was the victor. (PRSA Staff, 2012) It beat two other definitions “Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships” and “Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals” (PR Daily, 2012).
Although there was a winning definition of the campaign, it won with a 46.4% vote, not quite half of the participants who were given the power to decide the definition (PR Daily, 2012). A quick Google search would demonstrate an obvious discrepancy in how we should define PR. To me, that points to the fact that public relations is fundamentally different varying on who is using it. If company A has different policies than company B, then of course they will define PR differently. A basic definition is of course important for people new to the field and those who have never heard of it, but having so many different ways to approach PR means that an objective definition is impractical.
Razz, O., & Wehmeier, S., (2011). Histories of Public Relations. Journal of Communication Management, 15, 256-275.
PR Daily. (2012, March 2). PRSA announces the final definition of ‘public relations’. Ragan’s PR Daily. Retrieved from http://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/PRSA_announces_the_final_definition_of_public_rela_10993.aspx#
PRSA Staff. (2012, April 11). Public Relations Defined: A Modern Definition For The New Era Of Public Relations. Public Relations Defined. Retrieved from http://prdefinition.prsa.org/index.php/2012/04/11/the-modern-definition-of-public-relations