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The essence of the PR’s drama

“Art is why I get up in the morning; my definition ends there. You know it doesn’t seem fair, that I’m living for something I can’t even define. And there you are right there, in the mean time.” Ani DiFranco

def·i·ni·tion:  a : a statement expressing the essential nature of something Merriam-Webster

Ask 10 PR professionals to define public relations, you’ll likely get 10 different responses.  Ten different responses can only mean the essence is not known.  If the essence of PR is unknown, then like silence in a crisis, the function and industry will continue to be defined for us.  

There’s an acute problem with the unknown:  It is impossible to present a consistent and cohesive value proposition around a function that we cannot define.  

This is the motivation behind PRSA’s well-intended attempt to tackle the definition of PR. However, the resulting PR definitions have left much to be desired. They are not suitable PR definitions. While there’s several discussions aimed at improving these definitions, I think there’s a subconscious catalyst for how we arrived here:  an aversion to PR’s history and lineage of propaganda.  

A pioneer of PR, Edward Bernays unabashedly referred to public relations as propaganda.  It’s important to point out this occurred before propaganda earned a negative connotation (Bernays attributes this to Nazi Germany).  Needless to say that connotation took hold and consequently, the industry today tip-toes around the essential nature of PR by merely adding more lipstick on the proverbial pig.

The challenge here isn’t that we don’t understand the definition, it’s that because of its history, we shy from saying what it in fact is out loud.

It seems to me, PR is ashamed to say we are trying convince people to buy something (business), join something (association), support something (government or non profit) or vote for something (political).   The industry gets wrapped up in this idea that we are impartial, liken ourselves to journalists, and focus on “mutually beneficial relationships.”

We are not impartial.  We should not pretend to be impartial. We should not strive to be impartial.  And if we think we’ll be invited to sit with senior management to discuss “mutual understanding” with “publics” — then we are collectively on a fool’s errand.

We are advocates for a particular point of view, product or idea.  Our job is to convince people to say nice things about whatever it is we are representing, in person, in news, in blogs, or on social media. PR is about third party validation.  And you know what?  There’s nothing wrong with that!  Further, it should not prevent us from developing a statement that expresses the essential nature of PR.

Rest assured, if we do not define PR, or we do a poor job of defining it, everyone but us will continue to define it:

“Yet, after a century of spinning, PR Man remains uncertain of his proper role. Is he a master manipulator? Is he the devil’s advocate (as long as Satan pays his fees)? Or is he a benign bridge-builder between the corporate world and the public?” The Economist, December 16, 2010

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5 Responses

  1. Maddie Grant

    I agree 100%, which is where my own (not entirely satisfying) definition of PR as "protecting the positions of the organization" came about. I think you've hit on the elephant in the room. The public (whoever they are) no longer wants spin, but it's still ok – necessary, even – to be FOR something, to have a position, to be partial. Pretending to hide that by couching PR in terms of the meaningless "mutually beneficial relationships" is just what you say – lipstick on a pig.

  2. Frank Strong

    Thanks Maddie! Any conversation promoting the re-examination of PRSA's propose definitions is a step in the right direction.

  3. Jeff Domansky (@ThePRCoach)

    Frank, I really like your point about our role in "advocacy." It's unrealistic not to acknowledge it as a core part of PR. Thanks for a really important insight!

  4. Frank Strong

    Thanks Jeff, the more we talk about this, the more I'm convinced a much longer, and more thorough, process is needed before claiming a definition. It'll be decades before the next rev.

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

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