Monday, December 31, 2007

Defining PR

There has been a lot of discussion of public relations and ethics in the past few days in West Michigan. So I thought it'd be helpful to post a common definition of public relations. This might be remedial for some practitioners, but since my blog received a lot of non-PR readership in the past few days, I thought I'd add this.

Keep in mind that there are many 'definitions' of public relations. Also, public relations is a very diverse field, with many sub-specialties. Some PR people don't do any media relations, some do nothing but that. Nevertheless, this definition is the most common one used in public relations programs at universities across the country:

"Public relations is the management function that seeks to identify, build, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depend."
(Source: Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H., & Broom, G. M. (1994). Effective public relations (7th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.)

It's a mouthful. Let's break it down:

  • management function = PR people don't just communicate policy, they help make it.
  • identify, build and maintain = the work of PR is essentially one of relationship building. Communication is a tool to do that, not an end in itself. PR people identify publics and build and maintain relationships with publics that other managers might overlook.
  • mutually beneficial relationships = the nature of those relationships is inherently ethical. PR, by this definition, does not exploit, it draws together. Another way to think about this is the Latin root of communication, communis, which means 'to make common.' You can also consider the common four-part typology of PR models by James Grunig, which culminates in the "two-way symmetrical" model, meaning that organizations change to adapt to public needs and do not merely attempt to influence publics.
  • all publics = too many organizations focus narrowly on key beneficial publics, such as customers for a corporation, or donors for a nonprofit. Those are important publics of course. But PR as a profession has a much broader view than marketing or development professionals. PR people consider communicating and forming relationships with a vast array of publics, and thus we have PR specialties of employee relations, community relations, government relations, investor relations, etc., in addition to donor relations, consumer relations, media relations. According to this definition, we also must foster relationships with specific publics who may appear to offer no material benefit to an organization.
  • success or failure = that's right, PR is not fluff work. It's vital. All of the above should be done proactively. If you have bad communications, bad relationships, ignore a public, and so forth, you have bad reputation and harm the organization's mission.

    Again, there are other definitions of PR. I admit that this one is 'normative,' meaning it describes what PR SHOULD be, not what it actually is in all cases. I would argue though, that PRSA and its Code of Ethics and Accreditation program are helping to encourage more PR people to think of and practice PR this way. Even if some might say this definition does not match reality in the field in all cases, as a professor, I am unashamedly idealistic in teaching what PR ought to be. That's in keeping with GVSU's mission of "educating students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies." I hope my students practice ethically, speak truth to power, and enhance the profession as well as society when they graduate and practice PR according to these standards.

    It's also why I maintain this blog.

    Happy New Year!
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