Some may find it odd that a large, established profession of communicators is less than united about how to describe itself. My view – as expressed to the New York Times recently – is that every profession evolves, and ours is evolving more rapidly than most, due to the global communication revolution and its massive decentralization of communication power.
I was honoured to receive PRSA’s invitation to participate in its ‘Public Relations Defined’ working group. Not only was I pleased to support the world’s largest industry association as it updated its definition of PR, but I also welcomed the opportunity to bring an international perspective to the table. I applaud PRSA for consulting both within and beyond America’s borders, and believe the product will be stronger as a result.
The last major international effort to define public relations came from Canada. After surveying countless definitions and collecting input from other countries represented in the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the Canadian Public Relations Society adopted the following definition:
Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals and serve the public interest.
This definition has several strengths:
- It builds on many themes familiar to public relations theorists, educators and students: PR as a management function, with a focus on relationships, and on the connection between communication and mutual understanding.
- It goes beyond stating ‘what’ PR is and enters the helpful domains of how it is done, who does it and why. PRSA is following a similar model in the way it is asking contributors to frame prospective definitions.
- It is consistent with other prominent definitions of PR. For example, here are a few other English-language definitions from the U.K., Australia and South Africa.
- It does not stand alone; it is accompanied by a set of values and connected to a code of ethics.
The most fascinating area of debate was – and is — around the ‘why,’ because of the potential tension between organizational goals and the public interest. Some disagree vehemently with the inclusion of the ‘public interest’ test, arguing that organizational and societal goals will not always be aligned.
I support the ‘public interest’ vision because it speaks to the communicator’s fundamental duty to the truth, and to the idea that great communication balances the interests of the organization with its publics. It also forces us to ask ourselves a simple question: if our organization’s actions do not benefit society over the long term, perhaps its communication needs to acknowledge that – and then change.
Will PRSA’s definition be the last word on this question? No. But it will have currency, reach and influence – particularly if it secures widespread participation. The participation itself – and the dialogue – it generates may be the greatest gift of all.
I believe passionately in the power of ethical, professional communication to improve our troubled world; there is no organization that cannot be stronger through better communication.
That’s why there’s value in professional communicators honing their own definition(s) of what they do. By redefining the essence of professional communication today, we are more likely to be persuasive in making a case for its value; if we do that, are we not more likely to earn more opportunities to apply communication to benefit our organizations — and our society?