Introducing a new, maple-infused definition of public relations, in both official languages

Wiki method for creating CPRS definition receives attention in Philip Sheldrake

At the Canadian Public Relations Society’s Annual General Meeting, held on June 7, 2009, in Vancouver, British Columbia, CPRS member in attendance were introduced to new, official definitions (in English and French) of public relations. Both versions were adopted by the CPRS National board in February 2009, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. They are as follows:

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

Par relations publiques, on entend la gestion stratégique des relations qui existent entre une organisation et ses divers publics, en ayant recours à la communication afin de parvenir à une entente mutuelle, d’atteindre les objectifs organisationnels et de servir l’intérêt du public. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

The initiative to create and adopt the (bilingual) definition did not happen quickly, nor was advance research and deliberations undertaken easily or lightly. The triumvirate of “defining” architects included Dr. Terence (Terry) Flynn, APR, FCPRS (professor and director, Masters in Communication Management Program, DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University and recently elected president, CPRS), Fran Gregory, MCM, APR (currently professor, public relations, Conestoga College, with prior and extensive senior-level corporate communication experience at companies such as Mutual Group (Clarica) and Babcock-Wilcox) and Jean Valin, APR, FCPRS (director general communications, Transport Canada, past president, CPRS and past chair, Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communication Management).

According to correspondence from Terry Flynn, the project began in September 2007, when educators from across Canada were surveyed to understand what definition(s) of public relations were being used in relevant courses. Over the course of that term, the working group received a number of responses. During the summer of 2008, Terry, Fran Gregory and Jean Valin embarked on the project to develop a new and distinct Canadian definition.

(For many years CPRS had a posted definition of public relations on its website, but apparently there is no historical record as to how or why that definition was chosen.)

The research and process to define public relations:

1. In July 2008, Terry Flynn initiated a dedicated wiki, Defining Public Relations, for the working group. The wiki identifies a double-digit number of existing definitions of public relations from literature (primarily drawn from American resources).

2. Next the real slog work began, as Terry, Fran Gregory and Jean Valin conducted a content analysis of all definitions: identifying common themes and constructs that could (or should be) incorporated into the new CPRS definition.

3. The next step saw the working group beginning to write preliminary definitions—and revising along the way.

4. They arrived at a common understanding in January 2009, which was presented for approval at the first scheduled CPRS National board meeting held in February 2009.

I recommend you pay a visit to the dedicated wiki, as it includes comments from educators, the 19 published definitions and the working group’s “matrix of constructs.” The transparency of this exercise is evident, as readers can even review Terry, Fran and Jean’s deliberations over wordings.

This definition is a product of the Education Commission. It has been incorporated into the outreach of CPRS’s Pathways project. A soft launch of the definition has been completed under that program’s phase 1 consultation. It is slated to be added to the CPRS website shortly, under an easily found navigation tab.

(Thank you to Terry Flynn for providing me with an historical backgrounder and access to source material, and allowing me to share the process and final definition(s) with our international readership on PR Conversations.)

During the CPRS On The Edge conference’s Tuesday plenary session, “PR in the Vanguard: How Practitioners Can Lead the Way in the Economic Recovery” (see live-blog archive), presenter Paul Mylrea (a CIRP/UK representative on the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management) spoke about what he considered the essence of effective public relations. I’m paraphrasing his words, but basically Paul detailed the ability to take a really complicated concept and distill it into simple and clear communication that is easily understood by the majority of people.

(From the live bloggers: “Erin Raimondo: Holy Grail of PR–get to the simplicity that goes beyond complexity…communicates perfectly the true essence of the message so that it resonates.” “Alyssa Smith: Key to developing messages is the simplicity at the end of complexity. Meaning that a message must take all the complexity and get it to real truth of it in order to have it resonate with an audience.”)

I believe the official, new definition(s) for public relations introduced by the Canadian Public Relations Society meets that criteria. Agree or disagree?

Updates:
Gigi de Mier (Puerto Rico) has supplied a Spanish translation of the definition (via Jean Valin, APR, FCPRS):

Relaciones públicas es el manejo estratégico de las relaciones entre una organización y sus diversos públicos, mediante el uso de las comunicaciones, para alcanzar entendimiento mutuo, lograr las metas organizacionales y servir el interés público. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

And from Toni Muzi Falconi, the Italian translation:

Per relazioni pubbliche si intende la gestione strategica delle relazioni che esistono fra una organizzazione e i suoi diversi pubblici, attraverso la comunicazione, per raggiungere la comprensione reciproca, gli obiettivi organizzativi e servire l’interesse pubblico. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

A proposed German translation from Markus Pirchner (Austria):

Public Relations sind das strategische Management der Beziehungen einer Organisation mit ihren verschiedenen Öffentlichkeiten mit den Mitteln der Kommunikation, mit dem Ziel, gegenseitiges Verständnis zu erreichen, Organisationsziele zu verwirklichen und dem Gemeinwohl zu dienen. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

João Duarte has provided (the requested) Portuguese translation:

Relações Públicas designa a gestão estratégica de relações entre uma organização e os seus diversos públicos, fazendo uso da comunicação, por forma a desenvolver um entendimento mútuo, alcançar as metas organizacionais, e servir o interesse público.(Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

December 2011 Update: New visitors to this post are recommended to also read Terry Flynn’s recent guest post, A defining moment for public relations, including its very active comments section (amongst many others, James Grunig weighed in).

Links to this blog post:
The New Canadian Definition of Public Relations (PR-Bridge)
Definitions of PR: keeping it honest (21st-century PR Issues)
The Week’s Best, 22 June 2009 (Teaching PR)
Sales promotion is now PR (Greenbanana)
Social Media Top 5: WTF II, What is(n’t) PR, & Mom-Bloggers PR Boycott (Doug Haslam)

Comments

  1. says

    Now this is what I would call a major step forward.

    My excellent Jean has once more come up, with the active help and guidance of two academics and the cooperation of the many who actively or passively followed the wiki experience from many parts of the world, with an outcome which is truly a major performance and is only equal to what he already had achieved with the global ethics protocol whne he was chair elect of the global alliance.

    These two achievements certainly place the canadian profession in a pivotal position in the global community and Jean undoubtedly deserves to be in the hall of fame of professional leadership.

    Having said this, the next step is that, with or without the GA (but here is today no reason why it should not) to ask its 66 association members to follow the cprs example. As for me, I have already submitted this proposal to Ferpi and it will appear on the association website in a couple of days.

  2. says

    Update: Jean Valin, APR, FCPRS, has now supplied me with the Spanish translation of this definition:

    Relaciones públicas es el manejo estratégico de las relaciones entre una organización y sus diversos públicos, mediante el uso de las comunicaciones, para alcanzar entendimiento mutuo, lograr las metas organizacionales y servir el interés público. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

  3. Jean Valin says

    Toni could easily pass for my agent if I had one !…

    Thank you for the kind words. We tackled this at CPRS from a global perspective because as Toni knows I see the potential for adopting a global definition BUT the timing must be right for GA members to agree to adopt this or even consider it as a priority.

    I know only too well that several associations spent an inordinate amount of time crunching words to adopt a defintion that they are comfortable promulgating.
    If FERPI wants to adopt it, I am sure this will help create some momentum.

    I took the liberty of asking my good friend, Gigi De Mier, from Puerto Rico to translate it to Spanish and have sent Judy a copy so she can add it in addition to the French and English version. When Toni completes his arm twisting at FERPI I suggest he gives us the Italian version, which we can add to our list.

    I am also planning to ask our Portugues friend Joao Duarte to translate it to Portuguese.

    So to be transparent about this, I would like to determine how many other countries are interested in hearing about the process we used to arrive at a possible, global defintion and then ask who is ready to adopt it?

  4. says

    Now received from Toni Muzi Falconi, the Italian version:

    Per relazioni pubbliche si intende la gestione strategica delle relazioni che esistono fra una organizzazione e i suoi diversi pubblici, attraverso la comunicazione, per raggiungere la comprensione reciproca, gli obiettivi organizzativi e servire l’interesse pubblico.(Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

  5. says

    Terry, thank you and very much looking forward to seeing you in Rome. I wish to apologise for not having sufficiently underlined your decisive role in the initiative.

    Although Jean denies it, I am his agent….. and now many years of intense dedication, give and take, mend and amend, disrupt and reconstitute….have created some sort of bond.

    I provoke, he mends. He goofs, I correct.

    I exaggerate, he sobers me up.

    He sees the glass half full, I see it half empty.

    Some call us Tom & Jerry…

    His Canadian diplomacy is blended by French cynicism while my Italian nihilism is blended by AngloIrish passion…

  6. Patricia Parsons says

    First, I want to commend Terry, Jean and Fran for taking on such an onerous project. I also appreciate being able to see the process since it helps me to understand how this came to be our ‘official’ definition. The final definition is interesting but I’m troubled by a couple of things.

    First, it seems to be a definition derived from definitions. The process appears to focus on the semantics of trying to capture the normative definition of PR as it has been articulated through recent history. This approach presupposes that the definitions were ‘correct.’ Those of us who have been in the field for a long time and teaching it for almost as long, are only too familiar with the plethora of definitions, each just slightly different from the last. It has often occurred to me as I have reviewed yet another text on public relations, that each author seems to be creating a new definition to reflect his or her personal paradigm rather than an objective inference, or perhaps they all want theirs to be the one that actually ’catches on.’
    The process used also might suggest to those looking in from the outside that we are focused on the past and how things have been done rather than on forward-thinking research on what public relations is and should be today and in the future. I’m not suggesting we completely ignore the past: the truth is that although everything has changed, much has not (plus ça change… )

    The second thing that bothers me is the implication in the definition that we are now confined to public relations strategies that are communication strategies only. I would argue that although communication is a part of everything that we do, overall strategies to develop and maintain relationships are not always primarily communication strategies – they may utilize communication tools and tactics, but the strategy itself might be broader. This new statement is very confining. So, now one is moved to begin thinking that communication and public relations are synonymous – I do not believe that they are.

    Finally, Judy cites John Mylrea as having suggested that public relations practitioners take complicated concepts and distill them into simple and clear communication… which implies skills in knowledge translation. I believe that this is true – but only as an example of one of the skills required to achieve public relations objectives. The new definition does not say this at all. It implies clearly that public relations practitioners manage relationships by using communication… Although I’m not suggesting that it should; rather I’m raising a discussion point.

    The process seems to be unfinished.

    Patricia Parsons APR, FCPRS
    Professor
    Department of Public Relations/Communication Studies
    Mount Saint Vincent University
    Halifax, NS Canada

  7. says

    As German translation I’d like to propose:

    “Public Relations sind das strategische Management der Beziehungen einer Organisation mit ihren verschiedenen Öffentlichkeiten mit den Mitteln der Kommunikation, mit dem Ziel, gegenseitiges Verständnis zu erreichen, Organisationsziele zu verwirklichen und dem Gemeinwohl zu dienen.”

    (May be improved, of course).

    Btw. For years PRVA, the Austrian PR Association used to have a PR definition which is quite similar to the CPRS version. Currently, the board of PRVA is working on a renewed definition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the CPRS definition and the conversation it sparked here would have some influence on the result. 😉

  8. says

    I applaud the effort to create a new definition of public relations. While the blog title muses that it is “maple-infused,” I would counter that it is more closely “Grunig-infused.”

    When one reads “strategic management,” “mutual understanding,” and “serve the public interest,” obviously this is a nod to Grunig’s work, particularly his thoughts about two-way symmetrical communications.

    As a result, I wonder if “maple-infused” communicators (and others around the world, if the many commentators posting the definition in their languages is any indication of its burgeoning popularity) who do not see Grunig as the end-all theorist of public relations will get much out of this definition.

    I am dubious of “official” definitions, particularly of a field as amorphous as public relations. Why, for instance, the never-ending emphasis on “strategic management,” as if the only way businesspeople will take the field seriously is by throwing “strategic” in? And, why the need for “through the use of communication?” This clause broadens the definition to include so much, but says little about what the field actually is.

    If one looks at the three-pronged monster of what public relations “is,” then, it is “mutual understanding,” “realize…goals,” and “serve the public interest.” Under this new definition, does that mean that if realizing org goals are independent of mutual understanding that it is no longer public relations?

    My thought after reading this definition was basically, “why, why, why?” Do we need yet another attempt at fencing the field in? And, if so, then why does it just have to be derivative of Grunig and all the other tired definitions that already exist?

    Thanks,
    Bob Batchelor
    School of Mass Communications
    University of South Florida

  9. Jean Valin says

    If you will allow me to address Patricia and Bob’s points and add some context.

    My interest in joining Terry and Fran on this project- Terry had already gathered over 400 defintions- was to see to what extent we could determine what the most commonly used defintions were in fact communicating about our profession. As we did at the GA when we anlysed codes of ethics, the gamble was that we were all using slightly different versions of the same principles/constructs.

    Also I had a practical reason, the GA is just embarking with Dr. E. Toth’s help in a major global survey of curriculum in use around the world. An obvious question before you answer a survey about how Public Relatiosn is taught in your country is ‘ What do you mean exaclty by Public Relations?”.

    Theerfore we felt we need to ‘land’ somewhere to spell out a definition that would be derived from what was most in use around the world AND fits the ideals and aspirations we have for the profession. The alternative would have been to pick one of the oldies like Cutlip and Center’s and go from there but somehow the second ‘door’ looked more promising.

    The triumvirate then analysed the 20 defintions we selected as the most prominent and most widely used and arrived at the analytical grid displayed on the wiki to disaggregate the words and quantify the concepts/constructs being used in the different definitions. It certainly is not based on the personal paradigms of the three authors. By extension it may be based on the personal paradigms of the many many voices who were behind the publication of the 20 definitions we analysed. As we know ‘official definitions’ adopted by associations are the product of a consultation/political process of back-and forth within the membership of the associations. The CPRS definition is no different. It is simply based on a larger sample of definitions that have been refined over the years.

    The result is what you see. I do not pretend it is perfect or too narrow or overly broad. It is a reflection of what we saw.

    I do not think it is based on the past as many of the concepts are aspirational e.g. mutual understanding, two-way, serve the public interest.

    Communications is the main strategy in managing (to the extent that one can manage) relationships. It is by no means the exclusive strategy but a dominant one.

    Is it too Grunig-like? I don’t know. Their theories have certainly influenced many around the planet. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt on our part- again it reflects what we saw as the dominant themes in official definitions.

    The definition was good enough for CPRS and apparently for FERPI and Austria. It may not work for others. Time will tell.

    Here is a challenge for those who don’t like what they see. Have a look at the wiki: http://definingpublicrelations.wikispaces.com/

    Please stick to the concepts found most often in the 20 definitions and offer your own variation on the wiki space.
    If you truly believe that these definitions are somewhat lacking, or not modern enough, add your own flavour.

    Let’s keep the discussion going by suggesting the definitive global definition and we will see if there can be consensus!

    If that indeed possible I will start believing in Utopia :-)

  10. fraserlikely says

    The field/profession has been chasing its tail on this ever since our associations came into existence. And, it will for years to come. I appreciate, though, that CPRS and the GA are attempting to “modernize” a definition. As a GURUnig, I like the conceptualization (and Bob the fact that Jim’s work is more valued outside of the US than in probably says more about the present condition of the US and what the US did that got all us into the current financial pickle than anything else). Picking up on Pat’s second point and a couple of Bob’s, here are my nitpickings.

    “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communications, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.” (Flynn, Gregory, Valin, 2009)

    First: strategic
    Over used and ill-defined term within PR. What is the difference between strategic management and management? Given that relationships are a two-way street, can the organization chose the relationships it wants to be in (and thus being strategic about its choices)? I don’t think so. While using strategic as an adjective here seems to imply an increased empowerment to PR, it actually is just an unneeded flowering of the language. Redundant.

    Second: management
    Like management of reputation, management of relationships is impossible. Neither the organization, nor PR, can “control” a relationship. We can manage the organization’s responsibilities/approach/endeavour/effort/contribution/response in a relationship, but we can’t manage the relationship itself. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to promote that PR manages the actual relationships with stakeholders or publics. No symmetry in that! Very bad optics.

    Third: publics
    In the J. Grunig sense, stakeholders and publics are different. Doesn’t PR work with both? I believe both should be reflected, because an organization will have relationships with both. A stakeholder may never become a public, which may be a good thing – and thus an acknowledgement of the value of the role PR has played.

    Fourth: to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest
    Are these not mutually exclusive goals? Can success be achieved only if all three goals are met? For example, an organization may achieve mutual understanding with its publics and serve the public interest – but not achieve its own organizational goals. Or, for example, an organization may achieve its organizational goals and serve the public interest – but not achieve mutual understanding with one particular public. Or, for example, an organization may achieve understanding with one or all publics, meet its organizational goals – but not serve the greater public interest.

    At the least, the sentence needs an and/or: to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and/or serve the public interest. But that really does not meet the implied intent. This section perhaps should read something like: to realize organizational goals while at the same time developing mutual understanding with its stakeholders and publics and serving the greater public interest.

    Fifth: communications
    Communication is singular. In this case, it is the act of, not the means of (i.e. news releases; blogs; etc.)

    Therefore:
    “Public Relations is the management of an organization’s responsibilities in its relationships with its diverse stakeholders and publics, primarily through the management of its communication, for the purpose of realizing organizational goals.

    OR

    “Public Relations is the management of an organization’s responsibilities in its relationships with its diverse stakeholders and publics, primarily through the management of its communication, for the purpose of realizing organizational goals – while at the same time for the purposes of developing mutual understanding with its stakeholders and publics and of serving the greater public interest.”

    Fraser

  11. says

    There are some more tough questions to be considered.

    How do PRs define the public interest and the client interest?

    Is our first duty to clients or to the public? Do we swear allegiance to both on equal terms, even though it is clients, rather than the public, which pay us? Would to do so be ethical professionally?

    Do we take the law as our starting point? Are we saying that anything that’s legal is ok?

    The notion of the public interest is somewhat loose. We all have our own wildly differing definitions of what it is; even if sometimes it is also clear to all (most) of us what it is not.

    To what extent are we in business to push our varied agendas on to our clients rather than to represent – advocate for – their interests? Are we more like lawyers, doctors and accountants as a profession, or priests?

  12. says

    What an interesting discussion….

    Allow me to express some minor points and then a more basic one, beginning from the bottom:

    Paul:
    your points are well taken.

    Prconversations has often debated the issues you raise and, quite frankly, as much as they may be relevant (which they of course are) non of them actually bend by an inch the structure of the definition we are discussing. As much as a definition is relevant (last point of this comment), the points you raise have to do with its implications and I can think of no definition of anything which also contains descriptions and interpretations of its implications.
    Would very much welcome to learn from you of any case to the contrary.

    If you and others think it is worth while I committ to open a discussion sometimes next week on the very issues you raise in your comment;

    Fraser:
    I agree with almost every one of the points you raise and before discussing them I hope that Terry, Flan and Jean will want to address them so that we receive a wider interpretation of the context in which the definition process worked.

    In general, I would only say that the great relevance of the proposed definition, rests on its publication and the very discussion we are in now which implies that we are taking it very seriously;

    Jean’s point is excellent and I much appreciate the way he steps back and, in describing the process, sort of says: hey guys, these are not our personal ideas but what emerged from our analysis.

    Objectivity and reason are an oxymoron, as we all know.

    Bob:
    Why, why, why? you ask.And add: Do we need yet another attempt at fencing the field in?

    To be very frank, when Jean told me some time ago about this effort which he had undertaken with the others I reacted somewhat in the same way.
    My view was (and still is..) that we do not really need a new definition because all definition of other professions (from legal to medical, from accounting to management consulting to research and others) have since fallen apart, and any serious practitioner of any of those professions knows very well that borders and paradigms have all crumbled in the last few years.

    Even more so, the fact the pr did not have one standard definition but hundreds of them might have been a handicap some years ago but today could well be taken as an added value…

    The real value of this definition is the fact that it is the result (certainly not final, as Frasers comments strongly suggest)of one hell of a piece of work and that it has been eagerly adopted by one of the more relevant institutions of our community.

    And now to a very important point raised by Patricia: the connection between relationships and communication.

    I have often thought and written that communication is one of the tools which form a relationship. A very important one of course, but only one.
    When my interlocutors ask me, which are the others? I am frankly embarassed because all the answers which come to my mind involve some form of communication.

    So I endorse Patricia’s point i.e. that quote overall strategies to develop and maintain relationships are not always primarily communication strategies – they may utilize communication tools and tactics, but the strategy itself might be broader. This new statement is very confining. So, now one is moved to begin thinking that communication and public relations are synonymous – I do not believe that they are.unquote

    So do I Patricia, but please give us some elaboration of what you mean…

  13. Bill Huey says

    Public relations is what public relations people do.

    PR is defined by its practice, and all the prescriptive theories and definitions in the world won’t change that. Or at least they haven’t so far.

  14. says

    Toni, you reply well to me. I accept that my reservations have been well discussed over many years. But your reply reinforces my opinion that the weakness of all definitions of PR has been the fuzzy meaning behind the words. And, in my view, this definition will also not help the industry keep a fixed course or explain itself coherently to the world.

    For instance, Propositon A “realise organizational goals” is scuppered by Propositon B “and serve the public interest”, unless we are to have a rather strained oxymoron; because they are not coterminous.

    I fear, therefore, that Bill Huey makes a valid point when he says PR is defined by its practice. Or, as an Hegelian might say: the spirit of PR is involved in self-realization by the process of movement, development, evolution and progress. I shall give it some more thought and perhaps write something on this on my PR blog.

  15. says

    Hi all, great PR conversation (ha, ha, pun intended). My concern has always been along the lines that Paul discusses: what happens when our client/company interests do not necessarily serve the “public interest?”

    Whenever this point is raised to “Grunigites,” they respond with extreme examples that indicate a fundamental need to act for both sides. However, practitioners have to cope with this on small scales on almost a daily basis. Ethics is certainly a major factor.

    Great thoughts and clarifications. I wish this kind of discussion reached a broader audience (and our students), that needs to think about these issues.

  16. says

    Dear all,
    Thank you for your insightful and meaningful contribution to this dialogue. If I could elaborate on just a few points (I’m trying to pull together my third-year review file for my reappointment before I leave for a family vacation — and unfortunately don’t have a great deal of time to deeply engage in this conversation at this present time).

    If I can provide a further context to this discussion — which may or may not answer any of the concerns identified thus far. In September 2007, the Task Force on Public Relations Education in Canada was asked to review the current status of post-secondary education in Canada (an significant task as post-secondary education is provincial regulated in Canada and the standards and credentials are vastly different and unique).

    As we began to develop a framework for our task, we sought to understand the definitional landscape that educators were using (Grunig, Cutlip, Center & Broom, etc.). We didn’t provide the educators with any definitions but rather asked them to provide us with the definitions that they would use in instructing their students (the collection of definitions used can be found on our wiki). We reported this finding back to the CPRS board and in so doing, asked the Board for CPRS’s official definition — we could not find an official definition but did locate a definition on the CPRS website that was a mix of a few other definitions (no record of whether the published defintion was approved by a the CPRS board).

    It was then that Jean, Fran and I embarked on developing a definition for the CPRS — our original intent was to develop a global definition but that idea was quickly stalled — for reasons that Jean can explain.

    We then followed the process that was previously explained.

    Once we finalized our definition we proposed it to the sub committee on Education Standards (now part of the Education Council of CPRS — over the two years of the project, the CPRS board elevated the role and responsibilities of the Education Committee to a full Council just like the Accreditation Council — in recognition of the important role that education (post-secondary and membership driven professional developement) plays in the ongoing success of our profession.

    As part of the Education Council’s work on curriculum development, the new definition and a new values framework were adopted in December 2008. These two items became important building blocks for the first draft of the new curriculum project entitled “Pathways to Excellence” — I believe that Judy already supplied a link to the values statement as well.

    The Pathways project (including the definition and the value framework) was approved by the CPRS board at its February 2009 meeting. That project will begin its second phase of consultation — as it is proposing the creation of a new student certification program “CPR — Certified in Public Relations”. We have had a number of preliminary discussions with a number of educational institutions in Canada and will begin a comprehensive student and institutional consulation in the fall — we had a great session with those educators and students in attendance at our annual conference last week in Vancouver (representatives of the GA and IPR also participated).

    We (Jean, Fran and I) realize that no definition is perfect — given the diverse field of practitioners that our profession represents…government (in Canada there are more government communicators — federal, provincial, municipal — than any other group of practitioners), institutional, NGO, not-for-profit, corporate and consultancy.

    I’m grateful for Judy for asking to post our new definition — it has certainly generated a wonderful conversation thus far. I’m very interested in your perspectives and will attempt to add to the discussion in August (as I mentioned I’m heading off on a family vacation to Europe in July). I’m not running away from the conversation but just trying to recharge the batteries as I complete my first two weeks as the newly elected President of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

    Terry
    (just a clarification — while I appreciate Judy’s elevation of my title to professor, I am merely an assistant professor of communications management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. I joined DeGroote five years ago after completing my Ph.D. at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. I defended my dissertation (Elizabeth Toth was my advisory)on my 45th birthday — I’m a slow learner — this was after 20 years of public relations consulting in both Canada and the United States. Therefore my academic perspectives on such things as definitions, values, ethics and research are grounded in my experiences as a consultant over that time.

  17. says

    João Duarte has provided (the requested) Portuguese translation:

    Relações Públicas designa a gestão estratégica de relações entre uma organização e os seus diversos públicos, fazendo uso da comunicação, por forma a desenvolver um entendimento mútuo, alcançar as metas organizacionais, e servir o interesse público.(Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

  18. says

    Paul, these are translations into several languages the definition of public relations that the Canadian Public Relation Society’s board adopted. Sorry, but you don’t get a say in accepting offers to translate it. 😉

  19. says

    Oh dear, I wasn’t clear. I sought no control over such issues. The more languages the definition is translated into the merrier. But I would like the PR industry to reject the CPRS definition of what PR is about. That’s the debate that should rumble.

  20. says

    Paul,
    The term pr industry evokes the phantom of ailing conglomerate agencies licking their blood trying to meet those quarterly results… and has but a very slight relationship to the majority of public relations professionals in this world who operate (60%) in the public sector, in the social sector (7%) and in the private sector (30%) leaving a bare 3% to the ‘industry’ (agencies, consultancies and solo consultants).

    So please do gather your pr industry representatives and get them to reject…
    But if you begin with rejection… what is the debate about? Some intelligent comments worthy of serious considerations have been made in this discussion without an a priori rejection.
    I cannot see debates rumble by sheer rejection.
    I just see debates stop, which is certainly not the mission of this blog.
    Ce n’est qu’un debut…continuons….

  21. says

    Toni, I don’t get your point. To seek to have a definition rejected by the wider PR community is not the same thing as cutting off debate.

    Your point about the different sectors in which PRs work needs clarification. Are you saying that just because most PRs work in the public sector, by default most PRs serve the public interest? In my experience, the role of PRs in the public sector is as contradictory as it is in the private one. For clarification, PRs in the public sector answer to a multitude of different bosses, most of which have conflicting agendas, which PRs advocate.

    In my view, there’s an element of deception inherent in the CPRS definition of what PR is about. So I’m advocating more debate.

  22. says

    No, no, no…. Paul, I apologise, but you have totally misinterpreted.
    If anything, I am convinced that there are more pr’s who forget to consider the public interest in the public sector than in the private sector.
    I introduced this variable in my reply because of your reference ot the pr industry, which is only a very small segment of our profession.

    I would like to know where you see the deception in the definition.
    Should it be in the inclusion of the public interest, as I wrote recently in another response, this blog has at lenghth discussed the issue in the past.

    Basically what some (I hopr many, and possibly most) of us believe is that a public relator, in performing h/is activity, needs to keep in mind , recognize, understand and attempt to balance three levels of interests:
    a- his client/employer interest
    b- stakeholder interests (these are many and conflicting)
    c- the public interest (interpreted as the integration of active citizenship interest with the legal framework).

    Is this more clear, now?

  23. Bill Huey says

    After re-reading these posts, it seems more useful to develop a “description” of public relations rather than a global “definition.” The very word says, “this is it, these are the boundaries, no other interpretations accepted.”

    That’s not where the field is today.There may be a desire to “land somewhere,” but if you land in mud you want a way to get out.

  24. says

    Toni, thanks. I did misunderstand you. We actually agree about the public sector. Moreover, when I used the term PR industry I was referring to all who work in PR.

    I have examined in detail on my PR blog where the deception in the CPRS definition lies (link in previous comment). In essence, the definition does not pass the honesty test that PRs should set, and it undermines the industry’s credibility as a result. Perhaps you could read the article and let me know there where you think I got it wrong.

  25. says

    Paul, I don’t think I know to which (if any) national PR association you belong. If you are a current member in good standing, perhaps you could share the definition your PR association espouses? Plus whether or not it suits you?

    And your national PR association would be the obvious place to lobby against it “adopting” the “deceptive” CPRS definition. Or at least asking your national PR association (if it is a voting member of the Global Alliance) to vote against its acceptance…if, in fact, this is ever proposed.

  26. says

    Judy, CPRS has endorsed a so-called new definition of PR, which some people want to see adopted by our trade globally. Therefore, my starting point in this particular discussion rests on the innate flaws of the definition itself. In short, some people are pushing in one direction and I am pushing back. Moreover, others seem to share my views, if I am any judge of the comments on this blog.

    Let me speak plain. I maintain that CPRS’s definition of what PR is about does material harm to our trade because it misrepresents what we do. Hence, I would contest the definition even if it was envisaged as only being applicable to Canada.

    I am a member of IPRA. And I have discussed CPRS’s definition, and the wider issue of PR association definitions of PR in my remarks on IPRA’s Gold Paper 6, in my article here:

    http://paulseaman.eu/2009/06/definitions-of-pr-keeping-it-honest/

  27. says

    Toni, your points a, b, c, unravel under scrutiny. You say that PRs must balance:

    a- his client/employer interest
    b- stakeholder interests (these are many and conflicting)
    c- the public interest (interpreted as the integration of active citizenship interest with the legal framework).

    It’s true that PRs have to “keep in mind” these competing and vague things. But when we define PR we are looking for guidance and priorities and they need to amount to a list which picks its way through themes rather than an all-enveloping cloud which hopes that bunging in everything that might matter somehow helps you work out what matters most (That’s a point Bob Batchelor made well above in his first comment to to this discussion).

    The merit of bluntly stating the employer-interest as being number one is that we are warning our audiences to keep their wits about them. CPRS’s feel-good alternative has the horrid effect (not anyway achievable, and that’s where our reputation becomes tarnished) of hoping that we can put the audiences off-guard, and make them more receptive – but receptive of course, and really – to what we’re paid to say.

    So, PRs can be blunt and helpful or mushy and dangerous. That’s why I believe we should reject the slippery spin in the CPRS definition of PR.

    Last, defining public interest as the “integration of active citizenship interest with the legal framework” bamboozled me completely.

    As PRs, we should lead by example with the use of plain language, the meaning of which is unambiguous. That’s what transparency is all about, surely? Hence, I say CPRS is guilty of being opaque about we we do.

  28. says

    Paul, these are not, as you say, ‘vague’ things.

    Related to each of the specific objectives a public relator sets out to work on they are very detailed.

    If your employer is setting out to prepare the ground for a merger or an acquisition (only to cite one situation), the interest of the organization is clear and defined: complete the transition successfully as quickly as possible.

    Then come the specific interests of the various stakeholders (i.e. employess, shareholders, local communities etc..). The public relator should listen carefully and define for each of these their specific interests.

    Thirdly, the public relator should make every effort to consider the legal and institutional framework in which the activity of his employer takes place as well as interpret the active citizenship level of interest in that specific organizational action.

    The result is, for each organizational objective in which the public relator is involved in supporting his employer, a ‘map’ which allows him to find the best possible balance between the various interests and come out with a specific public relations policy.

    Does this not sound rational rather than merely feelgood as many like to say simply because they don’t want to take the time to think about what they are doing?

    Let me put it this way…. in a recent post http://www.prconversations.com/?p=552 I attached excerpts of a chapter of an upocoming book in which I try to conceptualise and suggest operative guidelines for a global public relations practice approach.
    It is a call for help for a peer review.
    Sofar a few of my mentors have replied (privately) giving me a lot of suggestions and criticisms.
    Why don’t you do the same?
    thank you.

  29. says

    “… through the use of communication …”.
    Care to enlighten me on exactly what that means. Everything we do in every aspect of our lives involves comnunications. Try to live without it. While PR does indeed use communication, so what?
    Between suggesting we communicate, seek mutual understanding and do it all in the public interest, there is an attempt to make it sound like a very lofty and higher calling somewhat akin to the United Nations.

    Nice attempt to draw in a variety of opinion and analysis but it has become a rather hollow and comnmittee driven definition that would nicely include my family doctor.

    Mike

  30. says

    If I wasn’t cooking a chicken I’d have read farther than half way through Mr. Batchelor’s post.

    But I’ll read the whole thread after dinner.

    But, based on so-far… Ms. Parsons refers to definitions — I’m on her side. Once we define strategic, and once we define communications (does paid product advertising count?) and once we explain to people that public interest and interesting to the public (Michael Jackson’s death) are diffferent, we’re in business with the new definition.

    I look forward to CPRS arranging interviews with Dr. Flynn, conducted by the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, CBC Radio (hardly anyone listens, but who cares), CBC Television, Business News Network, Financial Post, etc.

    Cutting to the chase — it’s a too-short definition, but if it’s the one CPRS has thought about and agreed to, I can live with it, so let’s get behind it.

    BAK

  31. says

    This debate is also raging in Italy on http://www.ferpi.it with comments (in Italian of course) from various relevant sources:

    Emanuele Invernizzi, professor at IULM, says that the definition is too short and simple and does not account sufficiently for the strategic and not merely communicational and operational aspects of public relations.

    Semiologist and management consultant Umberto Santucci comments that the inclusion of the public interest as one of the aims of public relators confuses the issue as it is clear that we serve the private interest.

    Young professional, and past director of Ferpi, Enrico Fantaguzzi laments that the definition is expressed in terns which are interpretable only by experts and that it should be much more simple.

    Senior professional Claudio De Monte instead reflects on the possibility of other forms of relationships which do not necessarily involve communication and also integrates the public interest part of the definition with the issue of responsibility and sustainability.

    The discussion continues….

  32. says

    First off, I want to say that I had no idea that when I posted what I saw as mainly an “information” item about the work of Flynn, Gregory, Valin/the recently adopted definition of public relations by the Canadian Public Relations Society’s elected board, that it would spark such a lively and vigorous debate. As I said on a recent LinkedIn update, I’m both amazed and gratified. Why? Because it shows that academics and practitioners—from different parts the world—care a great deal about the words defining what we, as public relations practitioners and educators, do and teach.

    This post has also demonstrated the real power and potential of social media platforms. First, from a self-publishing point of view (i.e., it was my idea and decision to post the definition, not that of the CPRS, although I did receive full support and assistance from our new president, Terry Flynn). I posted the information and my take…but now we all get the advantage of reading the words from so many others, with considered information and opinions.

    Second, the speed at which something new (like a definition) can gain profile and credibility via Internet search vehicles in terms of indexing. To give you an example, I witnessed on PR Conversations’ backend a recent Google search from India on “definitions of public relations,” which placed this post seventh on the first page (after fewer than two weeks of it being live)…even though no one (to my knowledge) from India has commented or linked to this post from a local blog. I’m also quite thrilled that my post has provoked an equally lively discussion on the website of a sister GA association (FERPI)…in a second language!

    So thank you to everyone who has weighed in already or may do so in future. At a minimum, we may be participating in (or witnessing) a real-life case study demonstrating the power of two-way symmetrical communication. Maybe CPRS will revisit the definition in future and revise it (or not). Perhaps FERPI will adopt it, in whole or in part. Or not. And maybes the Global Alliance will also decide to make the Flynn, Gregory, Valin definition its official one, in whole or in part. Or not.

    Brian, in light of what I’ve written above, I’d like to comment that I disagree with your proclamation, “I look forward to CPRS arranging interviews with Dr. Flynn, conducted by the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, CBC Radio (hardly anyone listens, but who cares), CBC Television, Business News Network, Financial Post, etc.”

    Why? First off, because I’m less than convinced that those are the right mediums for information dissemination or discussion on this issue.

    Why should the mainstream media care about a new definition for public relations?

    Why would their readers, watchers or listeners care?

    This is mainly a discussion for those of us in the field. I believe industry publications—or, better yet, online mediums such as PR Conversations—are much more befitting in terms of PR 2.0.

    Besides which, I believe that Terry Flynn, who is called upon frequently by the Canadian media as a subject expert on public relations, is already making use of this definition, just not overtly. An example is when he discusses the “A+” (Terry’s grading) public relations and communication management practices of Maple Leaf Foods. To my mind Maple Leaf Foods was already fulfilling the Flynn, Gregory, Valin definition of public relations, even before it was researched, debated, articulated, voted upon (by the CPRS board) and shared here. (Including the addition of a blog, Our Journey to Food Safety Leadership.)

  33. Bill Huey says

    Our cousins to the north are rightly proud of their CPRS definition, and it is fine as far as it goes, but it’s rather like defining an architect as one who designs buildings and supervises their construction.

    That definition is accurate enough, but it doesn’t begin to describe the scope of practice or range of activities undertaken by architects: giant firms, solo practitioners, academics who freelance, government and institutional architects, corporate and in-house architects, and so on. One might do nothing but design post offices all day, while another–like Robert Venturi–does stunning, world-beating designs from a two-person firm.

  34. ana-maria ciobotaru says

    Hello, this is the Romanian translation for the definition. Thanks a lot for the article, it is very comprehensive and useful. Here it goes: ”Relațiile publice înseamnă managementul strategic al relațiilor dintre o organizație și diversele ei publicuri, prin folosirea comunicării, pentru a obține înțelegerea reciprocă, pentru a realiza scopurile organizației și pentru a servi interesul public.”

  35. says

    Thanks, Ana-Maria! I’ve now added the Romanian definition into the blog post proper, and let the original architects (Flynn, Gregory, Valin) know about your contribution. And thank you for your kind words about the blog post.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS): “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.” (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008) […]

  2. […] were a definition adopted by the Canadian Public Relations Society in 2009 and referenced in this PR Conversations blog post (full definition below), and the Public Relations Society of America’s much discussed […]

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