Stuart Elliott, The New York Times
The public relations industry has decided that it may be a good time for, well, a public relations initiative.
The industry’s largest organization, the Public Relations Society of America, is embarking on an effort to develop a better definition of “public relations,” one more appropriate for the 21st century. The effort, to begin on Monday, will solicit suggestions from the public along with public relations professionals, academics and students.
The effort, of course, has a catchy name, Public Relations Defined, and a logo, too, that proclaims its goal: “A modern definition for the new era of public relations.” The effort is being spurred by the profound changes in public relations since the last time the organization updated its definition, in 1982.
Attempts to write new definitions in 2003 and 2007 did not move forward, leaving in place this vague definition: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”
Perhaps the most significant changes have occurred most recently, as the Internet and social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter have transformed the relationship between the members of the public and those communicating with them. A process that for decades went one way — from the top down, usually as a monologue — now goes two ways, and is typically a conversation.
That has generated a spate of new terms that are used with, or even in place of, public relations, among them earned media, word of mouth marketing and buzz marketing.
The search for a new definition also follows several embarrassments for the industry as new media make it easier for consumers to learn about the mix-ups and blunders committed in the name of trying to influence what they buy and believe.
Among the more notorious examples are BP’s mishandling of the aftermath of its accident in the Gulf of Mexico; Facebook’s hiring of a public relations agency to try generating articles that would criticize the privacy practices of its rival, Google; how ChapStick increased complaints about a new campaign, which asked consumers to “Be heard at facebook.com/ChapStick,” by repeatedly deleting negative comments about the ads from the Facebook page; and how Netflix lost hundreds of thousands of members with a plan, later rescinded, to divide into separate businesses.
Finding a new definition for public relations is “a process we know is overdue,” said Rosanna Fiske, the chairwoman and chief executive of the public relations society who is also associate professor and global strategic communications program director at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. “We felt we could no longer let it go.”
“My parents, for the longest time, have been trying to figure out what I do for a living,” she added, laughing.
The process started on Sept. 30 with a meeting in New York of representatives of the organization and 10 others, among them the Institute for Public Relations, the International Association of Business Communicators and the National Black Public Relations Society.
“The definition is ripe for a refresh,” said one participant, Adam Lavelle, a member of the board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association who is the chief strategic officer at the iCrossing unit of Hearst.
“Before the rise of social media, public relations was about trying to manage the message an entity was sharing with its different audiences,” Mr. Lavelle said. “Now, P.R. has to be more about facilitating the ongoing conversation in an always-on world.”
A new definition will also help with recruitment, he added, because “to find someone good at P.R., you need some rigor around the practice.”
Another participant in the meeting, Dan Tisch, chairman of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, said he considered the search for a new definition “a critical exercise” because “we as a profession have to explain what we do, in terms that are memorable, relevant, clear and consistent.”
“In a world where the ordinary consumer is walking around with global publishing power in his or her pocket,” said Mr. Tisch, who is also chief executive at Argyle Communications, “the role of public relations and corporate communications has shifted from creating content to attempting to influence the content that’s created by others.”
Public relations “has, at times, had an image problem,” Mr. Tisch acknowledged, “this is because people quite often view public relations as ‘spin.’ ”
A reason for that, he added, is that “only roughly 10 percent or fewer” of those who work in public relations “are actually members of professional associations, subject to standards of practice and codes of ethics.”
Ms. Fiske outlined the plans for the creation of the new definition, which are centered on her organization’s Web site, prsa.org.
On Monday, a section of the Web site, prdefinition.prsa.org, is to go live, and, using a crowd-sourcing model, visitors can submit suggestions through this template: “Public relations (does what) with or for (whom) to (do what) for (what purpose).” So-called word clouds will be generated, based on the words and phrases contained in the submissions, which will be accepted through Dec. 2.
The submissions are to be reviewed on Dec. 5 by those who attended the September meeting and from those suggestions they will come up with three proposed definitions. The finalists will be posted on prdefinition.prsa.org from Dec. 6 through Dec. 15, where visitors can vote for the one they deem the best.
Ms. Fiske and the others involved in the effort said they hope to be able to announce a new definition by the end of the year.