The Definition of Public Relations…Hmmm, Looks Familiar

March 4th, 2012

On March 1st, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) announced a new, modern definition of public relations. This definition came after nearly a year of research, hundreds of submissions, public commentary, and a formal vote. Below is the result:

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

At this point, a feeling of déjà vu may be coming over some of you who are in the field of public relations. Don’t you feel like you’ve seen this before? I know I did. In fact, I believe I saw something like this in a textbook I am using for my PR Research course I’m teaching this year. So, I did a little bit of my own research.

Turns out, I have seen something like this before. It came from a bunch of guys named Cutlip, Center and Broom and their definition of public relations. Their definition goes:

Public relations is the management function that identifies, establishes, and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics on whom its success or failure depends.

Some other guys (Grunig and Hunt) used an even simpler definition back in the day. It went something like this:

Public Relations is the management of communication between and organization and its publics.”

Call me crazy, but those last two definitions sound strikingly similar to the new, modern definition that PRSA just released. What is amazing to me is that these last two definitions have been around for quite a long time. I don’t know exactly how long, but I do know that I memorized them back when I was in college…and that was quite a while ago!

What does this mean? It means that the actual definition of public relations hasn’t really changed much over the years. However, what has changed – and has changed dramatically – is how we do public relations.

As public relations professionals, we still build relationships between our client/company/organization and its publics. How we do this is through a strategic communication process. That’s where things are now different.

In years past, the communication process related to things like mailing out news releases, doing newsletters, special events, one-on-one interactions, and a couple other tools we had in our tool boxes that allowed us to communicate with our publics. Today, that toolbox is overflowing! We’ve added social media tools, digital communications, and dozens of other new communication devices that allow us to talk with our publics. However, through it all, one thing has remained the same – the personal connection.

With the thousands of messages we are bombarded with every day, sometimes it is the simplest connection that makes the biggest impact. Receiving a handwritten thank you note from a business you used for the first time. A sales person remembering your name. Even a quick Facebook note on your birthday. These are the contacts that we remember, and the businesses that understand that are seeing success.

So while the definition of public relations hasn’t changed much over the years, I think it was a good idea that PRSA reminded us of what it is we are supposed to be doing. We use strategy to determine the best way to communicate with those publics that directly affect us – both positively and negatively. How we do that though has changed dramatically since the first definition of public relations was written.

Another thing that hasn’t changed though is the importance of providing excellent customer service. But I already covered that in another blog post!




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