Tuesday, February 19

Reconciling Definitions: PR Is Not A Communication Process

It didn't hit me until I tried to teach it, but the most recent definition of public relations offered by the Public Relations Society of America is wrong. It isn't a little bit wrong. It's a whole lot wrong.

It's wrong because public relations is not a strategic communication process. There is much more to it than that. Even my students crinkled their brows when the full force of comparison was offered for consideration. And then I gave them a working definition I've been crafting  for some time.

Why The PRSA definition feels different from the First World Assembly. 

The public relations definition works to streamline and simplify what eventually becomes a determent. Specifically, it pigeonholes public relations into precisely what many executives criticize it for — public relations is a whole lot of talk as if talk alone creates mutually beneficial relationships. I don't think so.

"Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics." — PRSA, 2012

By taking even a portion of what was decided at the First World Assembly of Public Relations in 1978,  we find something more tangible. Specifically, the First World Assembly model did not rely on communication alone. It hinted at something else practitioners could do — take real action. 

"Public relations is the art and science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequence, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing programs of action which will serve both the organization and public interest." — First World Assembly, 1978

Whether you like this definition or not (there are dozens of definitions out there), what I submit is that it is much more tangible than a communication process. It hints at programs instead of processes. 

In considering the full scope of what I will be teaching this semester, it seems to fit. You can see for yourself by taking a look at the deck. It includes the definition I have been working on, but I want to break that definition into its very own section as a concluding thought. 


As you might have noticed, the definition I have been working on from time to time is included. And whether or not you like the definition, it's the thinking behind it that I submit for consideration. 

"Public relations is the art and science of developing and managing immediate to long-term programs that strengthen the relationships between the organization and various publics; researching trends within the environment where the organization or those publics exist; determining the impact that those trends or other events may have on the organization and those publics; and providing for an open communication exchange that ensures mutually beneficial and measurable outcomes for the organization and those publics." — Richard Becker, 2013 

Yes, I know. I receive "no votes" for making it too long to print on a lapel pen, a travesty given I take pride in writing tight as a copywriter. But then again, this is tight. Even if someone argues I hardly need to keep mentioning "the organization and/or those publics" again and again, it's so incredibly important. 

Why? I'm happy to share with you. I consider it the fun part. 

Public relations is really about taking groups that might consider themselves "us" and "them" and turning the whole thing into a "we" that can get something useful done. The job requires much more than persuasion. It requires much more than manipulation. It's requires much more than lies and spin. 

The most successful public relations campaigns in history have always hinged on whether the organization and publics are willing to work together, and the extent to which they work together. If they don't work together, the campaign fails. If they do work together, the campaign succeeds. 

Years ago, one of the very first public relations campaigns I worked on did exactly that (and we didn't even call it a public relations campaign). The agency I was working with had to develop a plan to manage an open exchange of communication for a program that was in everyone's best interest. 

Specifically, houses would sometimes float away every time Southern Nevada flooded (a trend). So this project (simplified) consisted of seven primary groups, three organizations and four primary publics that wanted to stop houses from floating away during floods. 

It might sound like a no brainer, but there are always consequences when prevailing thought to stop houses from possibly floating away might impact the environment, change property values, disrupt views, cause inconveniences during construction, cost taxpayer money, etc. This is the kind of stuff that can transform a "we" problem into an "us" vs. "them" vs. "them" vs. "them" overnight. 

While I won't go into the specifics of the plan from start to finish today, we can suffice to say that everything we did — from hosting open, two-way communication town halls to recapping everything into a customized residential newsletter — was designed to ensure all seven groups shared a common mission to protect the public from flood waters literally washing their homes away. 

We accomplished this not by jamming the ideas of lead organizations down the throats of residents impacted. We did this by nurturing open communication that had direct impacts and influences on the actual construction of a solution. Public relations didn't talk about it. We effectively transformed how everything would be done and what the flood control detention basins would look like while ensuring that the entire program maintained a "we" against dangerous flood waters vibe. That's public relations.
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