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PRSA’s #PRdefined: Please Don’t Redefine Failure

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

That’s the old definition. There are three options for a new definition:

“Public relations is the management function of researching, communicating and collaborating with publics to build mutually beneficial relationships.”


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


“Public relations is the strategic process of engagement between organizations and publics to achieve mutual understanding and realize goals.”

PRSA has listed these definitions here; notice there’s not a single comment on a post that so far has garnered a mere 25 tweets (currently) according to the counter PRSA has implemented on the site.  Redefining PR?  25 tweets? That alone should be a red flag that something is wrong.

For a project that was announcedwith | so | muchfanfare, was months in the making, involving 12 organizations and reviewing 1,000 suggestions, according to David Rickey, it didn’t get very far. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Criticism | has | been | sharp — even CIPR, an initial partner in the project, has distanced itself from PRSA’s proposed definitions.

Consequently, PRSA turned on its damage control machine and has put its project “Task Force” on DEFCON | ridiculous.  For security purposes, everyone is getting patted down in the comments, you’d better have your PRSA membership card, and don’t dare try to smuggle in any new apples from afar.

The PRSA rebuttal messages, as I assess them, from the various communique (besides the fact the “Task Force” chair publicly agreed with one commenter that the new definitions “suck”) are:

  1.  We’ll never get 100% consensus.
  2. We didn’t make the definition, you did.
  3. This was never about changing the profession’s image.
  4. The academics agree with us.

Really?  PRSA’s spin sucks too.  Rotten apples.

Did we all read the same New York Times article that announced the project?  It absolutely was about changing the image.

“The public relations industry has decided that it may be a good time for, well, a public relations initiative,” read the story lede.  Further, the new chair Gerard F. Corbett said in an interview with The Drum, “In essence, we in PR admittedly have a PR challenge.”

PRSA’s messages in announcing the project and defending the results are not aligned.

With so many competing ideas, no one would expect 100% consensus, but I’m willing to bet PRSA doesn’t have the votes for a simple majority.

As for academics (and I really do love communications theory), scholarly citations are useful for a literary review, but are a poor substitute for a thesis: Grunig, Wilcox, Kent, Taylor, Hugh Rank (my personal favorite) et al., are indeed all great scholars, but academia trails the profession.

Example? Show me their social media contributions. They hardly exist (in 2012), yet social media is not new anymore and it is an enormous part of a PR professional’s focus.

I contend PRSA’s method for soliciting input — its crowdsource methodology — was biased.  The PR community was asked to fill in the blanks on a sentence that was already three-quarters complete. That’s a leading question and suggests to me the committee started with a prejudicial definition. This is not research — yet PRSA’s defense is that we’ll hey, everyone else is doing it.

So much for differentiation.  It reminds me of the famous psychology experiment with monkeys, bananas and a sprinkler system. The monkeys end up avoiding something new but do not understand why.

I find it absolutely mind-numbing that PRSA publicly agrees the new definitions “suck,” yet has resolved to stay the course.

“Regardless of what you think of the final candidate definitions, you can rest easy no one is forcing you to adopt the ‘winning’ definition,” wrote David Rickey in a SpinSucks blog post defending the definitions.  “PRSA will, and if you’d like to do the same, great; if not, that’s fine too.”

“Wow,” wrote Maddie Grant in a comment beneath Rickey’s words.  “If that’s not a ‘F you’ then I don’t know what is.”

So PRSA is thumbing the eye of its community and is stubbornly going to stay the course.  It doesn’t care what the community has to say and it’s going to adopt one of these three tragic manifestations of a definition anyway.  The trouble with that logic is if no one else adopts PRSA’s definition, then by definition, it’s not a definition. If that happens, everyone loses.

Why should PR pros care?

The PR market accounts for roughly $10 billion annually — PR is a very small part of a much larger $1 trillion dollar market. This is because there is so much confusion in the space that prospective customers do not understand PR — and people don’t buy (or hire) services they don’t understand.  It’s like PR is stuck in a perpetual early adopter side of Geoffrey Moore’s market chasm.

How have PR people adapted?  

PR pros have dropped PR from their titles.  Rickey wrote in his post earlier that only about 15 percent of leaders in the District Chapter had “PR” or “public relations” in their title.  I recall Brian Solis, a long-time PR practitioner, openly stating during a presentation to PR pros I attended, that he avoided the term PR because it kept him from getting the ear of business leaders. He said he’s a “recovering” PR person.

Mr. Solis may have been joking about recovering, but these facts should send a chill down PRSA’s neck. This definition matters. Words matter.  And if the leading PR organization in the U.S. goes forward with this farcical definition, then we — you and me — are just letting this opportunity slip away.

My Challenge to PRSA

On SpinSucks, I’ve already publicly challenged PRSA in the comments to at least stop and consider what they are doing.  Get feedback — real feedback — from the PR community both members and non-members.  I propose they do the following:

  1. Publish all the notes, interviews and data PRSA has compiled.  Who you talked to, what questions were asked and the unedited answers.
  2. Invite pros from all ranks — make it big — 20 of them — to post on ComPRehension. The split should be 50-50 — for and against.
  3. Conduct a survey, open to the public, as to whether or not these proposed definitions are worth pursuing.  Ensure the community sees the questions and has a chance to comment before you use them — most of us in PR are smart enough to recognize bias in market research surveys.

How Can You Help?

If this bothers you as much as it bothers me, do something — take action.  Comment on every blog post you see.  Tweet every story published about the project.  Write your own blog posts as Jayme Soulati has:  We Cannot Define PR.

PRSA would like to label me, and others who tore into the comments on Rickey’s blog post as “detractors.”  I think PRSA is not only insulting its own community, it is misguided — there’s a groundswell — and ask you to take part in it. I’m doing this because I care about the profession, I love my job, this is a great line of work. I can’t see doing anything else. I chose this path because I think the PR industry desperately needs an industry organization that leads. I want to believe in PRSA.

It’s not dramatic to say the future of PR is on the line. This definition will either be a rallying cry, or it will continue to see the words “PR” dropped from many more job titles.  It is my hope it’s the former.

Additional posts on PRSA’s definition:

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Why We Can’t Just be PR Pros Anymore

Photo credit:  Pixabay (CC0 1.0

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