March 5, 2012

Harold Burson's Blog

A ‘Modern’ Definition of Public Relations? Why?

Posted By Harold Burson

Receiving more recognition than it deserves is a recently-voted ‘modern’ definition of public relations, resulting from a competition sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). It was selected in a voting process in which 1447 votes were cast, presumably most of them members of PRSA and the International Association of Business Communicators. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 275,200 individuals were employed in public relations in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available. It is likely that even more are employed today. In a cursory personal survey, none of the six well-known public relations executives whom I polled participated in the vote; only one was vaguely aware there was a vote.

Last April I wrote a blog titled ‘Public Relations Defined’ in which I bemoaned the fact that ‘so many who profess to be public relations or communications specialists are so far off the mark in their attempts to define public relations.’ I would count the 671 who voted for the new ‘modern’ definition (‘Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.’) among them.

In my blog, I go on to write “A major problem for us public professionals nowadays is that too many of us believe the communications part of our job is the totality of what we do. Many of us fail to realize public relations consists of two major components. The first (and most important) has to do with influencing our employer’s behavior. What I am talking about is best summarized in the rapper line ‘if you’re going to talk-the-talk, you gotta walk-the-walk.’ I don’t know of a more succinct definition of public relations. While we commit ourselves to serve and get paid by our employer, we who choose careers in public relations also have an implied obligation to what we call the ‘public interest.’ To what’s best for society – which, in the long run, is what’s also best for our employer. Our function as public relations professionals is to help reconcile employer goals with the public interest.

The second component of public relations is effectively communicating information that reflects employer actions and behavior. It’s a necessary and important part of the equation.

The principal purpose of public relations is and has always been persuasion — persuading an individual or group of individuals to a specific course of action. To vote for one candidate over another. To vacation in a location deemed to be more favorable than others. To buy a certain brand of cereal or toothpaste or toilet tissue. To gain community goodwill so as to cultivate a loyal customer base.

Appropriate behavior in the public interest underlies every successful public relations initiative. This means that the public relations ‘process’ starts with behavior. Acting in the public interest is an absolute essential for long term success; that’s why the public relations professional must have a voice in the decision making process; it’s — or should be — part of the job. Some look at it as being the company conscience; others the role of ombudsman.

The public relations ‘process’ has changed little over the past century since it was first offered as a commercial service in 1900. But changes in how information is disseminated have been momentous. An entire generation around the world now receives most of its information digitally. While ‘traditional’ media, print and electronic, are important, their roles have changed – they are not as timely, not as personal.

As for a definition of public relations, I believe the most authoritative goes back to Edward L. Bernays’s classic ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ published in 1923. It forms the basis of a definition I have valued through the years:

Public relations (pub’lic re-la’shuns) n. sing. – An applied
social science that influences behavior and policy, when
communicated effectively, motivates an individual or
group to a specific course of action by creating, changing
or reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective
is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed,
must serve the public interest.

Yes, communications and establishing relationships are part of the mix, but the process must start with appropriate behavior that serves the public interest. Our role as public relations professionals is more than communications. So what’s the point in defining what we do in a manner that actually diminishes the value we add?

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Harold Burson
March 05, 2012