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Believing our own PR

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The great definition debate has leapt back into the PR spotlight after the PRSA revealed it's latest attempt at justifying our existence.

So, here we go again.  As a Public Relations practitioner and lecturer in PR, there was a certain inevitability in having to follow the latest efforts to define what I, and the rest of my PR colleagues, actually do for a living.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), after a long and convoluted process which even included a Summit of PRs great and good, finally narrowed the definition down to a shortlist of three.  More voting ensued and...drum roll please...the winner is:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

So that's the output.  But what's the outcome?  Well, it's certainly stimulated debate - not least the "cut the crap" spat between Steve Barrett the industry's own media organ - PR Week - and the PRSA's Arthur Yann, who responded in kind with "Crap? Bloody brilliant, I'd say...".  Barrett did, however, quote Harold Burson's definition as a suitable alternative.

In the UK, there was a mixed, but lukewarm response.  The CIPR's CEO, Jane Wilson, gave it a 'congratulations, good discussion, but one size doesn't fit all', while the PRCA (via its panellists) offered a somewhat more sniffy 'thanks for the effort, but we won't be using it'.  PR commentator and educationalist, Heather Yaxley, thinks that it's time PR came clean and just said: 'look, we communicate to build relationships, but we're a promotional industry and we're in it for the money'.

But is debate enough of an outcome for all the time spent on defining ourselves and justifying our existence. Should we just cut the crap and get on with our jobs?  I think Jane Wilson's comments have resonance and I believe it's important to be able to define what you do with 75% of your waking life.  A sense of purpose is important.  But, the audience you're talking to and the aspect of PR you're dealing with at the time will determine the most appropriate definition.

Burson's academic approach is excellent, but would you really say that at a party if someone asked you what you do for a living?  The new PRSA is a great generalist tag line, but what about reputation, persuasion and behaviour change?

Many commentators ask "does it really matter?"  Well, yes, I think it's important to have a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve and why when you sit down at your desk every morning.  But what gives me the most satisfaction is the variety in what I do. So why can't I have variety in the way my job is defined?

Published 12th March, 2012

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