Home > PR > PRSA’s #PRdefined: Please Don’t Redefine Failure

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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18 Responses

  1. Anthony_Rodriguez

    I was anxiously awaiting this post after reading your comments at Spin Sucks. And I must say it did not disappoint. Great job, Frank! Great job.

  2. Soulati

    Frank, I applaud your passion about this. I've already been flagged in comments by various task force members for trying to encourage detractors against the process.

    I'd like to see a back-to-the-drawing-board approach that doesn't have to start from scratch.

    Those of us against the definitions? I bet you $$ if we're invited to the table to hash this out, we'd come.

  3. Frank Strong

    Amazing Jayme. It takes unbelievable gall to try and stop someone from expressing their views. Maybe there should be an ethics session on that!

  4. Krista

    All I can say is wow! Of all your posts, Frank, this one is so precise and logical that I think it has *officially* blown my mind. Now, allow me to pick up the gray matter and try to compose a comment ;)

    I can't even consider myself a detractor because I've already been almost a year out of PR, but this sort of thing would totally rile me up if I were still in the business. Mostly, I'm riled up from reading the Spin Sucks response post and how the comments were responded to by the chairperson. It's really hard to pull PR tactics with other PR folks, and that's what I'm gathering from this whole discussion. (you know that old phrase, "you can't BS a BS-er")I think the PRSA should be realistic and at least be straightforward with their members but still recognize that non-members have just as much to say about it.

    Okay, I thought I didn't have much to say about this and I guess I might. I should tell Jayme she was right and try to make sense of my gray matter over the weekend. I guarantee you, it will not be nearly as good as yours, Frank!

  5. Frank Strong

    Thanks for chiming in Krista. The good thing is — it's never a competition. Everyone's posts are perfect in their own little way. I always like to think I blog for myself first — a way of thinking — and if someone else likes the post…well that's the bonus. In this case, the bonus counts for a lot and it's good to see other people like you, who I think are sensible share a common view of these definitions.

  6. Chris Nahil

    Frank — New reader but "old" PR guy here (found you via @paulrobertspar). PRSA's effort is misguided, at best, and has resulted in three "choices" that sound as if they were written by stereotypical PR people — meaning PR types who don't fully understand PR, in the first place. Outside of the fact that each one is more bereft of meaning than the one before it, the whole effort smacks of a panicked attempt at niche-carving for an industry that has always spanned great swaths of the business spectrum. Engineers don't go through this hair-shirted, forelock-tugging, knuckle chewing exercise every time a disruptive technology makes their job a little different and allows then to do new, better work. No, they take the technology, understand it, adapt it, and use it bring new products and services happily to life. The public relations business as represented by PRSA should worry less about DOA definitions of the art and science of PR and just get on with the work as the world turns. The last workable and accurate definition of PR died with Ivy Lee and we've been making it up as we go along since. So, let's revel in our adaptability, get our messages straight, and keep delivering to the right audience at the right time, via the right earned/owned channel.

  7. Frank Strong

    Chris, thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts. I've got a couple of posts planned, but your comment makes me think a post on why a definition is so important is a priority.

    During my impressionable first gigs at PR firms, I had the perception that marketing led business and PR people led marketing. Years later when I jumped over to the corporate side, I learned the perception there was very different.

    One product manager, a really brilliant guy (as many product managers are) and I were chatting about a marketing initiative of which neither of us were fond. He blamed it on my colleague the marketing guy and criticized him as being obtuse and stupid. "But marketing has always has the dumbest people in business," he commented. And PR people? Well, he gave me a rare exception (which I hope was honest) they are usually worse.

    I was aghast. I had never heard this before. It flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about my job and the culture of business. However, as I continued to work in-house, I noted this was indeed a common perception.

    I think part of what drives this is the ambiguity around the profession. The PR community need a mission statement — with the task to accomplish and the purpose to achieve. This cannot be done if we can’t adequately define the profession.

    Walk into any board room and say you're building "mutually beneficial" relationships, and they'll at least kick you out, and at most, cut your budget and maybe your job too.

    I'll tell you though, that's not just true in business. Non-profits don't have money to throw around either, they run lean and mean and every penny need to go towards creating value. Depending on the position in government, that's the same way too. Stand in front of a General Officer or SES manager with some ethereal nonsense about "collaborating with publics" and there's a stiff finger chest poke coming your way in front of all the other staff. I've seen this first hand.

    PR isn't hard to define. It's very practical, tangible and provides demonstrable value to the organization. When PR pros say PR is hard to measure, to me that's an indication about what they are not doing.

    Many thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts.

  8. Gini Dietrich

    I'll repeat what I've said in other places: I'm a member. I never once, as a member, received communication about this undertaking. I initially found out about it because a friend from PRSA sent me a private email and asked me to take a look. That was the first iteration…to get people to submit answers.

    I never heard about it, in communication from my industry organization, as a member. They required me to read their blog or follow their tweets to find out about it. I can tell you that 32,000 PRSA members DO NOT use social media (which is a darn shame, but an entirely different subject).

    They had 1,000 entries. Not from 1,000 people, though. I submitted five different ideas (though was very unhappy about having to fill in the blanks). Their website says there are 60,000 PR pros in the U.S. Which means less than one percent of pros participated. Heck, less than one percent of members participated.

    I just went back and looked at how you answered PRSA's question about how you'd like to get involved. Your suggestions on what they should do are very, very good. It's too bad they stopped the conversation at that point.

  9. Frank Strong

    Pretty powerful point about 32,000 members and the communications behind this inititiave Gini.

    The fill in the blank answer was a terrible idea and the results are pretty clear. When PRSA delayed the project announcement, I was releived. I thought perhaps they were fixing the process — had come to their senses.

    This whole thing is such a dissappointment.

  10. Frank Strong

    Brian, for some reason, I cannot seem to access that link. I saw you post it elsewhere earlier and have tried to open it on different browsers to no avail. Thanks for contributing to the good fight!

  11. I applaud you for keeping this yawner alive. Why are we so done with this topic? I’ll re-read your post and tell you. It’s a true disappointment; it’s an issue that’s dear to me, and I am one of those 28-year PR veterans who has removed PR as my primary title.
    I’m still proud to be in this profession; yet the flack we take requires a bullet-proof vest. Easier to skirt around it and deliver my skills anyway without the client knowing they’re getting a healthy dose of PR.
    Again, my applause for this excellent, in-depth post, Frank. What a discouraging chain of events. I appreciate the link love, for sure.

  12. Pingback : PR Interview with Jayme Soulati « Paul Roberts on PR

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