A starting point for anyone seeking to understand public relations ought to be a definition. However, the fact that there are several hundred formal definitions and myriad contradictory views to choose from means there is no easy way to know what PR is about.
What does it say to students who see that every text book, professional body, consultancy and individual practitioner – let alone others who comment on PR (such as journalists) – explains public relations in their own way?
Some explanations are positivist and present a description of what PR involves in terms of tactics. This may be helpful in telling students what is involved in a career in PR. However, there are so many aspects to the practice of PR – many of which are not exclusive to us either – that a long list of tasks doesn’t effectively do the job. Such lists are invariably “pick and mix” too, so don’t clarify what every PR practitioner does.
We also have the problem that others’ views of what we do can be negative – such as the highly critical comments from journalists that can be found with a quick Google search.
The contrast to these “do do” explanations of public relations comes in the form of academic or official definitions. These tend to look at the ideal of PR practice and focus on what practitioners “should do”. Such normative definitions may be useful as an aspirational explanation and help PR put its best foot forward in clarifying what it is about. Normative definitions may help encourage students to practice in the most ethical manner.
Rather than simply asking students to write their own definition or consider on various viewpoints, I find a useful exercise is to map a wide range of statements on two axes – normative (should do) and positivist (do do). This helps individual and group reflection on where views or definitions fit into four categories:
- What PR is and should be
- What PR isn’t but should be
- What PR is but shouldn’t be
- What PR isn’t and shouldn’t be
Discussion can now centre on which aspects are purely aspirational, what is considered as best practice, what viewpoints are damaging and which are misguided. It can lead into a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) for public relations and help students see there can be value in different opinions.
From a starting point where too many definitions can seem overwhelming and contradictory, we get to a position of analysis and critical reflection. Rather than seeking a single “best” definition, surely it is more helpful to consider what we do do and what we should do in a more intelligent way?