A defining moment for public relations

By Terry Flynn, PhD, APR, FCPRS

Setting the stage for a defining moment for public relations

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of public relations professionals were engaged in the Public Relations Society of America-led initiative to “redefine” public relations. This program, which includes the support of various public relations organizations—such as the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management (GA)—has sparked interest, debate and dialogue across the practice.

This, in its own right, could be an advantageous outcome of the initiative.

While it is important and necessary to ensure that our professional associations and their members agree upon a definition that is relevant to the practice and profession today, I would suggest that the #PRDefined project has missed an opportunity to look North (and into the near past, as discussed in a 2009 PR Conversations post) and incorporate the results of a redefinition project that was initiated by the Canadian Public Relations Society.

An opportunity for renewal

Nearly three years ago, a number of CPRS educators and members met to begin a process of understanding how public relations was taught across the country. While post-secondary education in Canada is a national priority, it is governed and regulated at the provincial level. As such, Canada has 13 different curriculum standards for public relations education. And as the profession is not licensed in Canada (or in most countries for that matter), there has not been a regulatory or industry-supported approach to learning strategies and outcomes, including programs of study, certification or accreditation, areas that should be reflective of current practices.

Under the leadership of the CPRS national council of education, we set out to understand and achieve agreement on a model or models of post-secondary public relations education that could be adopted by institutions.

In order to do this, however, we agreed first to take a step back and review our values as a Society and how we (as a professional organization) and our members define the practice of public relations.

This step of “defining” the practice was important for CPRS as there was no official Canadian definition of public relations. After researching the matter, we determined that our educational institutions were using a wide variety of definitions, usually based on the textbooks that instructors used for their introduction or public relations theory course.

This exercise also coincided with the Global Alliance’s efforts to develop new global standards for the practice of PR and the development of a global definition. It became evident that the best use of our working group’s time and efforts should focus on our national task of defining public relations in Canada, leaving the task of developing a global definition to the GA.

Following the June 2008 conference, 20 educators, practitioners, members of the Global Alliance and CPRS board members participated in a visioning and values session, led by our esteemed colleague and former national president, Joan Yates. During this facilitated session, we agreed upon some key characteristics of the practice of public relations in Canada—recognizing that we, as Canadian practitioners, believe that the practice of public relations is culturally dependent, especially in a country that encompasses two very strong and interdependent national cultures (English and French).

Setting the vision and values

Our visioning and values session was encouraging, inclusive and reflexive of the current state of practice in Canada. Those gathered agreed on five important values that were important for CPRS members and differentiated their practice of public relations. Core values revolve around:

1. An ethical practice

2. A strategic practice

3. Achieving mutual benefit

4. Demonstrating leadership and engagement

5. A commitment to continuous learning

See the expanded CPRS “Our Values” Statement, which includes additional commentary and examples.

Key link

The deliberate process of refining the values of the Society was fundamental for the board and the national council on education, as it provided a key link between the practice and the curriculum framework planning group—the group that would eventually write the recently launched “Pathways to the Profession” white paper on the future of public relations education in Canada.

Understanding what a professional organization values helps to conceptualize, clarify and build consensus around the eventual characteristics of a definition of the practice.

The important, missing step

This is an important step that I believe is missing from the current #PRdefined project. While there has been tremendous interest in the initiative—including, we’re told, 16,000 web page views, 900 submissions and 70 comments—it appears obvious from the current comments on PRSA’s dedicated website that there isn’t a clear consensus among the participants on the fundamental nature of the practice.

For many public relations is primarily media relations, while for others it is about engaging the public through social media platforms.

What is valued?

But what do members of our profession value in the practice of public relations?

Do they believe that the practice should be based in ethics and transparency—an  important issue in society today with the recent “phone hacking” scandal in the UK or the growing “Occupy Movements” that began in New York and then spread to various parts of the world? Do practitioners believe that public relations should be practised in the public interest—a fundamentally democratic value that recognizes that all organizations are granted a license to operate through public consensus?

Not to forget that the majority of professionals who practise public relations in various parts of the world work or are employed in public or government institutions, with all of the legal and regulatory obligations that those roles encompass and entail. (See the South African example.)

A wiki approach to redefinition

Appreciating there were already more than 450 published definitions of public relations, our team—Fran Gregory, Jean Valin and I—set out to analyze a sample of those definitions through the filter of the CPRS Values Statements via the Defining Public Relations wiki I set up.

Through a selective process, we whittled these down to fewer than 20 definitions, posting them on our research wiki in late 2008. Through our research and a series of online discussions and teleconferences with expanded individuals and input, we agreed on six theoretical frames that we believe have informed, current academic thinking and practice-based discussions. They were:

  • relationship management
  • reputation management
  • serves the public interest
  • strategic and tactical
  • managed function
  • two-way symmetrical communications

Informed research and analysis

Each of us then analyzed the selected definitions to see if one or more incorporated all six theoretical frames. None of the selected definitions incorporated all the elements, leaving it up to the researchers to propose a new definition. After much discussion and research, we also came to the understanding that a good reputation is an outcome of positive relationships and therefore our definition didn’t need to specifically set out to incorporate this theoretical frame.

In August 2008, after proposing a number of drafts, the research team agreed on the following working definition:

Public Relations is the management, through communication, of strategic relationships between an organization and its publics to achieve mutual understanding, meet organizational goals, and to serve the public interest.

This draft incorporated most of the theoretical frames, with the exception of reputation management.

A focus on PR as a management function that encourages mutual understanding and the public interest

The definition set out to place public relations as a “management function,” through the recognition the primary responsibility of professionals is to manage the relationships between the organization and its public and being accountable for the strategic outcomes of those relationships in order to “meet organizational goals.”

This definition also incorporated the desire to achieve mutual understanding between the organization and its publics—implying that the act of relationship building is built on mutuality, where both parties have power and voice.

Finally, that the intent of all organizational communicative activities is not only to meet the goals of the enterprise but in fact, those goals are in relation to the overall public interest—the nexus between the organization’s interest and the community’s interest.

Final CPRS definition approved

After a number of discussions and revisions, the research team agreed on a final definition in January 2009:

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.

The key changes noted in this final version are modification of the term management to “strategic management”—implying that the function provides the best value to the organization when it provides “C-Level” counsel and direction to the organization’s leadership team. Furthermore, this definition modifies the term publics to “diverse publics” in an effort to signal that an organization has a diversity of stakeholder groups that it needs to engage in order to realize its goals. The term diverse was also used to suggest that these stakeholder groups represent broad and unique perspectives that should be recognized by the organization.

In February 2009, both the Values Statement (developed by the national council of education) and the above definition of public relations was passed unanimously by CPRS’s board of directors and adopted as its official definition of public relations.

Since that time (and thanks to Judy Gombita and others involved with PR Conversations), the CPRS definition has been translated into at least five different languages and has been suggested as a possible global definition of public relations.

The critics

There are, of course, those that believe that our definition is too “aspirational” or too “idealistic”—and we, as the authors, don’t dispute or disagree with some of the criticism. After all, our task was partially to fill a then-existing void in Canadian public relations scholarship and practice.

In close…

While we believe that our definition has the necessary theoretical grounding and provides students, researchers and professionals—and even our mothers—with the necessary normative directions and practical considerations, we understand that the practice of public relations is culturally dependent.

Therefore, while we believe that this definition provides the necessary framework for the practice of public relations in Canada, without empirical testing, its application in other countries and contexts is yet to be demonstrated.

We applaud the PRSA in embarking on their definition project and wish them much success in developing a one-size-fits-all definition for the practice of public relations in the United States.

As stated at the opening of this lengthy post, the process of discussion, debate and dialogue about the nature and definition of the profession may be the ultimate winner in this initiative.


Terence (Terry) Flynn, PhD, APR, FCPRS is a faculty member at McMaster University, a past president of the Canadian Public Relations Society and the senior associate editor of the newly launched Journal of Professional Communications (JPC).

He was a 20-year public relations consultant prior to obtaining his PhD from Syracuse University in 2004.

Read his blog, follow him on Twitter or connect with Terry Flynn on Linkedin or by email.


Hourglass photo by Erik Fitzpatrick (also known as graymalkn), via Creative Commons.

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110 Replies to “A defining moment for public relations

  1. I like the definition. Have enjoyed reading much of the comment area as well.
    I see one element missing from the definition. I would call that area ‘culture bound’ practice for lack of a better expression to make way for the bias and prejudice in the symbol-making, especially in language, that a culture undertakes.

  2. This is the 100th comment on this post! I’m minded to ponder how Samuel Johnson would have fared in compiling his Dictionary of the English Language with the help of social media back in the mid-1700s. Turning to the modern crowd-sourcing font of knowledge (Wikipedia), I’m advised that Johnson was dissatisfied with dictionaries of his time, took nearly nine years to complete his and was paid a sum equivalent to around £230,000 today. Good job he didn’t need to include PR in his tome back then…

  3. Like Jim Grunig, I believe PRSA choose the best of three imperfect definition options. I, too, am reasonably satisfied with the definition under the circumstances, as amended by Jim. “Mutually beneficial” relationships are not always achievable; “satisfactory” relationships usually are. I would prefer saying something like “constructive relationships built on mutual understandings.”

    What’s missing from the definition, in my opinion, is a statement of what the process of public relations seeks to achieve through the strategic use of communication. The goal, I, suggest, is enhancing an employer’s or client’s visibility and reputation in order to help it achieve its goals.

    So I would amend the PRSA definition to read:

    “Public relations is a strategic communication process that establishes constructive relationships between organizations and their publics based on mutual understandings in order to enhance the visibility and reputations of organizations and help them achieve their goals.”

    I know that’s a mouthful and it needs tweaking, but I think something along this line is necessary. Without it, the definition is all process and fails to state the obvious, which is we work to advance the interests of those who pay us.

  4. Well, we finally have a definition of what we all do. It’s flawed, for sure, but better than what we had before. Actually, I prefer the Canadian definition to what PRSA has come up with.

    My biggest problem with the U.S. definition is the phrase “mutually beneficial relationships.” The Canadian “mutual understanding” is more practical and realistic. There will be times when it is simply not possible to have a “mutually beneficial relationship” with the public, since the organization’s goals are so much at odds with what benefits the public. An example would be tobacco companies. Knowing what we know now, how can the corporate goal of selling more product benefit the consuming public?

    That’s all for now, although I’ll have more thoughts on this on my blog later. But now I must get back to building mutually beneficial relationships… whatever that means.

      1. hi david!

        as a sworn tobacco consumer (and of course -disclosure- past consultant…) I consider my daily habit as a mutually beneficial one and have no intention to quit, and I am sure that many other hundred of millions around the globe agree with me…..

        As for PRSA I actually had voted for the first definition, but the second suits me as well although I don’t like the mutually beneficial either, but because it is mutual and excludes the public interest, which instead is where you disagree with the canadian definition that I instead support as far as the public interest bid is concerned.
        As far as I am concerned we now know what we do and let’s get on with it…
        Cheers, by the way I am now in ny if you wish to have another chat…

        1. I’m reasonably happy with the PRSA definition. It’s close to my definition of “the management of communication between an organization and its publics” and much better than most other definitions. The word strategic is close enough to manage to make me happy. Relating to my earlier comments, however, I believe the definition should cover all kinds of PR, both good and bad. It’s quite clear that lots of unethical and untrained PR people don’t strive to create mutually beneficial relationships. Also, lots of relationships benefit one party more than the other so it’s difficult to always get a mutually beneficial relationship. That’s where my relationship variable of mutuality of control comes in. A relationship is a good one when each party feels it has enough control over the relationship–not necessarily equal control. So here’s the PRSA definition:

          “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

          and here is how I would edit it:

          “Public relations is a strategic communication process that, when practiced ethically and effectively, builds mutually satisfactory relationships between organizations and their publics.”

          1. I like how Jim would edit PRSA’s new defintion but that would only deal with one important value of our profession. What about transparency, two-way communication, listening etc.?
            That is why I advocated with PRSA that a values statement be developped as a preamble to the defintion. I understand they have agreed to work on such a statement. I look forward to reading it.

          2. Calling public relations a “strategic process” won’t make it strategic. Unless one is willing to do the challenging work of strategy, one might as well go with the first Grunig definition.

            The new PRSA definition fails to describe the work of the majority of PRSA members, most of whom do what they’re told to do and say what they’re told to say without the slightest regard for strategy.

          3. Jim – As always, thank you for your considered and thoughtful feedback and input. And, of course, reading that you are “reasonably happy” with the definition that was voted on by the profession is very reassuring and quite a compliment given your extensive work in this area.

            As I noted in this interview with Ragan’s PRDaily regarding industry reaction to the definition (http://bit.ly/AoDWhx), we realize that no one definition of public relations will please everyone, especially given the diversity of the profession. However, we believe that the winning definition is true to the research and accurately reflects the way in which the public relations professionals who participated in this process described what it is they do for a living.

            More importantly, though, we’re keeping an open mind, which is why we are keeping the “Public Relations Defined” website open and actively soliciting follow-up ideas from professionals. If the definition continues to evolve through this process, and we arrive at something better, we will support it.

            In that regard, the suggested copy-edits you have provided in your comment are quite helpful. We’ll certainly take those into account as we continue to further analyze the outcome of this campaign and its impact on the profession and our members.

            Keith Trivitt
            Associate Director

          4. @JeanValin – We will, indeed, be developing a values statement for the new definition. This will come following a formal adoption of the definition by PRSA’s Board of Directors, which is scheduled to take place at its March or April Board meeting.

          5. Moreover, I would argue that the words “strategic” and “mutually beneficial” (or mutually satisfactory) are, in most cases, mutually exclusive.
            Does a military commander use strategy to benefit an enemy? Or just to create the appearance of a benefit? That’s called strategic deception, and a practice that is “as old as governments and militaries” (U.S. Army War College).
            Likewise, corporations use strategy for a variety of reasons: to achieve a competitive advantage; to prevent loss of a competitive position; to stave off devastating losses or counter pernicious shifts in the business model.
            For example, BP’s recent settlement to avoid a trial is a strategic move. The $7.8 billion settlement will benefit some of the parties injured by the spill (as well as a good number of lawyers who weren’t), but by no means all.
            In return, BP gets off for less than a quarter of the $200 billion that some experts estimated the company might be forced to pay, and avoids the introduction of evidence that could result in criminal prosecutions after the civil trial was over.

          6. Bill – my take on that as ‘mutually beneficial’ is what I find most social responsibility to be (and what it probably should be), that is: enlightened self interest. Not sure that any trade body would accept such as definition which illustrates this is not an exercise in explaining what PR is or does. I’m never a big fan of describing public relations as a communication process either, as sometimes it is about saying nothing at all. Indeed, often that is preferable to the obfuscation which serves as too much communication.

  5. I have just come to this discussion, and what a fabulous dicsussion. I will weigh in with my support for Dr Grunig, whose definition I think if spot-on. I have long advocated and indeed argued that communication is a process, and that communiciations refers to the tools that we use to “manage” the process. I am also reminded of one lecturer said to me when I was just starting out in my career, and that is this:

    “Public Relations is a ‘condition’, we all have it, whether we know it or not, the key is how we manage that “condition.” That is the practice we call public relations.”

    Now that was some 25 plus years ago and I have never forgotten that definition. It is rather simplistic particularly given the gravitas of this conversation, and I am certainly not advocating it as a formal definition. Perhaps it is an approach or a concept that may help newcomers to the profession think about public relations as more than a message, as more than communications. Everything we do and say is communicating something. It is a little like breathing, you cannot stop – easily.

    The Australian definition of public relations includes the word “deliberate” in its definition, and I think that is an important word to be considered when one is defining public relations.

    1. Jane, maybe the stature of Apple (its poducts and legendary co-founder the late Steve Jobs) is living proof of public relations being a “condition”. No matter how one looks the company’s standing and financial performance one is impressed by the firm’s “condition.” Sure enough this hasn’t happened by accident — but by design (as most of its products).

  6. Jim, more is required of me to do justice to your reply.

    I acknowledge and respect that your writing is full of nuance. I also agree that in many areas on many things we agree.

    Indeed, New Moral Agenda for PR (which from your reply I suspect you have not yet read) I examine how that jigsaw, of where we differ and overlap, fits together vis-a-vis your core thinking and mine. Particularly when it comes to setting agendas, self-denigration, handling protesters, advocacy and moral responsibilities.

    I’ve never said leaders should not listen. Instead I’ve highlighted that corporate self-definition and leadership are the priorities (therein lies authenticity) and in the process criticized short-term market and social instrumentalism.

    I’m not against research. In fact I say most of it plays the useful function of generating the answers the client needs to hear. I have also raised the point that PR cannot be defined as being about research, which is something many definitions of PR try to suggest. Moreover, what I’ve mainly criticized regarding the limits of research are the very points we appear to agree about.

    I don’t reject corporate responsibility. I advocate that corporations must act responsibly. I am, however, a critic of greenwash, hype and nonsense.

    On stakeholder theory: your points are balanced. But I don’t think you have set out correctly what I’ve argued. However, many of your points about how my thinking relates to yours on this issue are dealt with in New Moral Agenda. So let’s skip that for now.

    On models: I’m saying the search for idealized models of PR, and for three-to-four sentence definitions of our trade, is a dead end pursuit (BTW: Bill Huey makes some good points on definitions in his most recent comment, as does Heather Yaxley on her personal website). The challenge has been to explain why that’s so and to put forward an alternative perspective.

  7. Jim, yours is a robust and useful response that provides much food for thought.

    For the record: it is the logic of your position – rather than you personally – that I maintain leads to the self-denigration that is all too common today in the corporate world and elsewhere; I accept that it was not your stated intention to go down that route. That was a point I explored carefully in my essay “New Moral Agenda for PR”, which I hope proves that I have indeed read your work closely.

    Yes, I think PRs need to take a close look at the role we have played for the mess our society is in.

    What we are discussing lies at the heart of what PR is about and where it should head in future and why.

  8. This is such a fascinating discussion, one that I just can’t leave alone. I have been pondering and researching it ever since PRSA started it.

    I hate to keep going back to the philosophy of the thing but I think it is necessary. I’m not one who thinks the philosophical underpinnings are always necessary but in this case I think they are, if we are to make progress.

    Philosophically speaking, I think that we would have to establish a sound methodology for how to define a term, in order for this to work. The methodology here will determine the definition, that’s why I think it may be even more important to have the meta-discussion about the methodology used to arrive at the definition – than a discussion of the definition itself.

    Here are a few options:

    1. We have DR. Flynn and Co’s methodology they outlined on the wiki. It seems to involve the most authoritative voices on the subject of PR. So, it is probably a sound methodology for defining public relations.

    2. There’s the Nietzschean method, that he uses in, say, “Beyond Good and Evil.” Nietzsche implies that the philology of a word is how we define it. So, using this methodology, we would have to trace the use of the phrase “public relations” from its inception down through all its major cultural permutations, up to the current day. Seems valid as any, to me, although it would require a tremendous amount of work to complete.

    3. Then there’s the Wittgensteinian approach I alluded to above. We look at “meaning as use” as well as the established practice of public relations to define it. I think Dr. Fylnn’s work also accomplishes this, so give it two up votes.

    4. Then we have the Authority Method – the definition of public relations would just be what the chief authorities say it is. Determining who the chief authorities are and getting them to agree – well, that’s another set of challenges.

    5. Then there’s a kind of catholic method of using Canonicity and Tradition to determine the definition. We look to the canon of public relations writings, and combine that with the tradition of established practice (Wittgenstein), to arrive at the correct definition.

    And so on and so on ad infinitum. What makes this difficult is that there may be as many methods as there are definitions. So, are we really getting anywhere here?

    But then we come to Derrida and the Deconstructionist (anti)method. And, I think, he explodes all this with the following statement:

    “… words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ. Thus, meaning is forever “deferred” or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers …” (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diff%C3%A9rance)

    If Derrida is correct – and I think he is – then Heather Yaxley is right on the money. Her post explaining why she’s not interested in trying to define public relations should be taken seriously. Perhaps we should stop engaging in what may be a futile attempt to define the indefinable and go about the business of doing something more productive with our time.

    This reflects a sort of Pragmatist mindset – for the pragmatists – of which I am one – the value of a proposition is in its workability, suitability or usefulness in accomplishing something, solving a problem, building something, making something, etc. If our definition is just words on a page that no one appropriates or understands, what good is it? If our definition is so abstract that no one can even agree on what is meant by the terms used therein, then what good is it? If our definition doesn’t really clarify what public relations is and does as compared with any other mangement function, then what good is it?

    I tend to agree with this. “Truth is what works.” Maybe it’s just my Americanized way of looking at things (and Pragmatism is a distinctly American philosophy). But to me, if I can’t apply it in some meaningful way to my day to day dealings, if it has no instrumental value to me, it’s more or less meaningless.

  9. Communication is a process? We part company here because the What (the content) should trump the How (the processes) every time when it comes to driving communication. The nature of a relationship cannot be reduced to an organisational procedural or technical issue… and once process trumps ideas, real discussion and engagement ceases.

    1. The content–i.e., what we say when we communicate–is always a part of the communication process. The content of what an organization says, however, will be more effective if a communicator thinks about the entire process–i.e., the thoughts and communication behaviors of publics as well as the messages (the content or ideas) that the organization wants to communicate. I’m not sure what you meant when you said process trumps ideas. I would say that our ideas are better when we listen to others as well as to ourselves when we develop them. Thus, ideas developed without communication with someone other than ourself generally are close-minded ideas. As a result, I would say that once ideas trump processes, real discussion and engagement cease.

      1. @Jim Grunig your answer to me is based on a non sequitur: “ideas developed without communication with someone other than ourself generally are close-minded ideas”. Socrates was condemned to death for defending his right to disagree with your point. E Kant never left his own town or hardly left his house: he applied reason. On the other hand, Tony Blair claimed to be the listening engaging stakeholder guru (do I need to spell out how he reduced engagement to a meaningless consultative process?). Your love of process is a power game that disguises your true intent, which is to deliver a preconceived messages and influence outcomes. In the case of your views, in the hands of your acolytes, that mostly involves persuading corporations to indulge in ritualistic self-denigration as a form of impression management. In contrast, real conversation is just the product of human interaction (it is that simple) and that presupposes listening and the exchange of views. So, your organisation and control of the process is really about constraining, defining and limiting conversation toward a preconceived end. Now: I’m all for influencing outcomes and focus, so my point here is nuanced. I’m saying: let’s be more honest about the business we are in.

        Moreover in response to your main point, I say: content defines form and not vice versa.

        It is the failure of approches such as yours and Tony Blair’s which has done much to erode trust in our society and to spread cynicism.

        Your failure to see things clearly strikes me as a commitment to spinning things rather than explaining them.

        Last, as for the self-denigration that springs from your core work, that has done much harm to Western society. The PR of the future needs to be more robust and self confident and honest. Otherwise we can say goodbye to innovation, new technologies, progress and renewed economic growth.

        1. Jim, please do not take Paul seriously. He is a nice guy but always has a chip on his shoulder. When an opportunity arises if anyone more reputed who is so kind to respond to something he wrote, he will give in to a destructive syndrome and hurt himself helplessly. Too bad.

        2. I was taken aback by Paul’s assertion that I had done much harm to Western society, and I do believe in the value of listening to what others have to say. So, I Googled Paul’s web site and did some reading. I read most of the essays posted there with fascination. They are well reasoned, and I like the way you poke holes in conventional wisdom. However, I was left with the impression that you sometimes make giant leaps in logic and oversimplify the thinking of people you disagree with. For example, you do tend to misinterpret my theories or use them as a straw man to support your argument.

          My theories aren’t even close to what you describe as organizational self-denigration (I suppose you mean that I believe organizations should always say they are wrong) or to your description of Tony Blair’s meaningless and empty consultation. You are describing a theory that I have called pseudo symmetrical communication–that is, going through the act of listening and concern while always having no intention other than to stick to predetermined ideas or positions. I found statements throughout your writing that support my concept of symmetrical communication–which basically means that organizations should not advocate positions or engage in behaviors without first learning how those positions affect others and of whether they are ethical and responsible.

          I’m not sure if you have ever read my original work, but if you would read it with an open mind I think you would find that we agree more than disagree. You tend to write off things that I believe in, such as stakeholder theory, corporate responsibility, the value of research, and the importance of listening. But then you back off and say, in essence, of course these things are important but the ways in which they are used often are stereotypical, misinterpreted, or overgeneralized. I agree. However, I think the solution is to define and explain concepts more carefully and not simply follow conventional wisdom and stereotypical thinking.

          Nevertheless, here are three areas in which I think we both agree and disagree:

          1. PRs should admit that they are in the business of advocacy for their employers and should not pretend to represent the interests of publics equally with the interests of their employers. My response: Of course, we are advocates for our employers, but we will advocate their interests more effectively if we help them to understand what those interests are and how they are affected by the interests of publics and of whether organizational behaviors are ethical and responsible. We are not effective advocates if we only construct messages that fit the preconceived ideas of our employers. You have said the same thing. However, I think we will be better advocates for our clients if we also are advocates for publics. This is difficult but possible. It requires an open-minded PR person who has empathy for others and tries to understand their ideas.

          2. Leaders should lead and not listen. My response: Almost every book I have read on leadership suggests that leaders lead more effectively when they listen to those they are trying to lead. Listening is an inherent part of leadership. Similarly, you said that research paralyzes decision-making and is overemphasized. That’s true, to some extent. Decision-makers can’t expect research to make decisions for them. However, research provides data that when interpreted well helps managers make better decisions.

          3. Stakeholder theory is overused and suggests that everyone is a stakeholder and should have a role in organizational governance. My response: I agree that the concept has been overgeneralized. However, if used properly stakeholder theory (and theories of publics) help us to define who truly should or does have a role in organizational governance and not spend a lot of time communicating ideas to people for whom the ideas are not relevant. I don’t believe that the interests of stakeholders always are in conflict. In fact, different stakeholders have different interests that often don’t overlap. Organizations obviously can’t communicate with everyone or try to serve the interests of everyone. However, public relations people should be able to help management identify the stakeholders who are truly important and work with them in making decisions and defining organizational behaviors.

          I would say the casual reader might look at what both of us have written and conclude that you are an advocate of asymmetrical public relations and I of symmetrical public relations–as I have defined the terms. If he or she reads our work carefully, however, that observer would find a lot of overlap. I do think a PR person is most effective when he or she brings the ideas of publics to management for consideration and you seem to think a PR is most effective when he or she brings the ideas of management to publics. However, I would conclude that neither of us advocates his core idea to the exclusion of the other one.

  10. What an impressive discussion!

    Last year, I was asked to recommend a few websites useful for PR students and practitioners. PR Conversations was among the four I nominated.

    The textbook has just appeared (PR Today by Morris and Goldsworthy), and this discussion proves my point. I describe PR Conversations as:

    ‘A group blog featuring some well-known practitioners and academics that takes a global perspective and doesn’t hide from big ideas. Some of the debates and discussions are more valuable than much of what appears in the academic journals – and this suggests one future direction for specialist blogging.’

  11. Jean,

    I understand what you are saying. However, a definition of public relations must cover both good and bad public relations. I could define playing golf, for example, as shooting a 60 or a 120. Not all public relations is done in the public interest, but it is still public relations. Some public relations is done in the public interest, but much is not. We might qualify the definition with an adjective by saying that ethical public relations or responsible public relations is done in the public interest, but those adjectives should not be included in the definition.

    1. Jim, before I think about your comment, please explain why you define (not describe) communication as a process and relationshipas an outcome. Could it not also be viceversa? And if, so why can you manage communication and not relationship? (of course, as you know, I don’t use the term manage, but orient or govern).
      thank you

      1. Toni,

        According to my Webster’s Dictionary, a process is “a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead to a particular result.” An outcome is “result” or “effect.” We might also say that a process is ongoing behavior that produces effects. I think that almost all behaviors of public relations people and their interactions with publics are ongoing communication behaviors. Those communication behaviors have effects on the long-term quality of relationships and the nature of a reputation as well as short-term effects on awareness, cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors of publics and of management.

        I think it’s quite clear that communication is a process. Many “communications”–i.e., messages–may be one time phenomena and not processual. That’s why it’s important not to use the word “communications” when the more appropriate term is “communication.” Now, the question is whether a relationship also is a process. I think that most of the processual activities that take place within a relationship actually are communication activities. At any point in time, a relationship has a particular quality or state. Thus, I should have said that the quality of a relationship is an outcome. Of course, no outcome is ever static, so the state of a relationship changes and a nature of a reputation changes. We try to influence those outcomes through the processes that we can personally manage (i.e., orient or govern). We cannot manage outcomes directly.

        1. Stimulating points and fascinating discussion. Thanks to Judy for having shared this conversation on twitter and giving me the opportunity to return to this blog and follow it.

          Just wanted to share some thoughts emerging from the reading of Prof. Grunig’s comments, who has been kind enough to share his conceptual clarity with us.

          1. Very fundamental distinction between “communications” and “communication”. My question is if by accepting it we should also accept that communication can only be partially “managed” . And probably the extent to which it can be “managed” has changed relevantly in the last years, therefore making the management of the process much more complex.

          2. Would we include “publics” in the process side (in the sense that we should consider them as elements of the communication process), or in the “outcome” side (in the sense that they are the counterpart in the relationships?) Or how would we describe the transformation of stakeholders into publics (situational variables, influenced by communication)? An outcome or a process in itself?

          3. As for the idea that “most of the processual activities that take place within a relationship actually are communication activities”, let’s assume an example felt quite strongly by European citizens these days. Austerity measures implemented by governments facing harsh economic situations are often accompanied by poor communication. Are these two different factors determining together outcome of the relationship between government and citizens? In this case, can we say that by influencing decision making AND managing communication, organizations can manage relationships?


          1. João,

            Your questions have been sitting there for almost a month without a comment–in my case because of taking a break for the holidays. You raised some interesting questions, however, that deserve a reply. Let me take each one in turn:

            1. Very fundamental distinction between “communications” and “communication”. My question is if by accepting it we should also accept that communication can only be partially “managed” . And probably the extent to which it can be “managed” has changed relevantly in the last years, therefore making the management of the process much more complex.

            JG’s response: I should be clear about what I mean when I use the term “manage.” One common synonym for manage is “control.” This seems to be what you have in mind when asking this question. The other common synonym is to “direct” or “plan.” The latter is what I have in mind. A process can be directed or planned; but, like an outcome, even a process is difficult to control. It is possible to direct our organization’s communication behaviors even with the new media. We just have to take more possibilities into account. Thus, directing the process of communication now is more complex; but, I would argue, the process is much more interesting and offers more effective ways to influence the outcomes of relationships and reputations. I say this because I believe the new media offer more interaction and symmetry than old media, Thus, we generally can use them to influence relationships and reputation more effectively.

            2. Would we include “publics” in the process side (in the sense that we should consider them as elements of the communication process), or in the “outcome” side (in the sense that they are the counterpart in the relationships?) Or how would we describe the transformation of stakeholders into publics (situational variables, influenced by communication)? An outcome or a process in itself?

            JG’s response: The process of public relations (communication) is an interaction among organizations and publics. Thus, publics are part of the process. The outcome is the relationship among organizations and publics. The last two parts of your question are interesting. Publics are not static entities; they are always in process. At any one time, however, we can stop and think of them as entities. However, we must keep in mind that publics constantly change and come and go. As you have observed, I use the situational variables of problem recognition, level of involvement, and constraint recognition to identify different publics at a particular time within general stakeholder categories. Situations create publics, and communicators must take the fluid nature of publics into account when they manage (direct) an organization’s communication process.

            3. As for the idea that “most of the processual activities that take place within a relationship actually are communication activities”, let’s assume an example felt quite strongly by European citizens these days. Austerity measures implemented by governments facing harsh economic situations are often accompanied by poor communication. Are these two different factors determining together outcome of the relationship between government and citizens? In this case, can we say that by influencing decision making AND managing communication, organizations can manage relationships?

            JG’s response: Again, the answer depends on how you define “manage.” You again seem to suggest that you mean “control” when you use the term “manage,” but you also could mean “influence.” I think that communicators “direct” the process of communication with the objective of “influencing” the relationship. I think a useful way of looking at the distinction between a process and an outcome is to ask whose behavior am I trying to manage? Mine or someone else’s? I can direct my own behavior, but I cannot direct someone else’s behavior. (In the case of public relations, “my” or “mine” means an organization rather than an individual.) A relationship always involves another person or entity, so I cannot manage it without the collaboration of the other entity. A reputation always is in the mind of someone else (a cognitive behavior), so it especially cannot be managed by someone else. Thus, we can manage (“direct”) an organization’s communication behavior. We can “anticipate” the communication behavior of a public, using a theory such as my situational theory of publics. If we choose the most effective communication behaviors for our organization and anticipate correctly the communication behaviors of our publics, we should be able to positively “influence” the relationship between an organization and a public and the reputations of organizations that are in the minds of publics.

          2. Dear Professor,

            Thank you so much for your reply and for demonstrating how mutual understanding can be impaired by using different definitions of simple concepts. I agree with you what you say.

            I would propose another question based on your point that the new media offer the possibility to “influence relationships and reputation more effectively”:
            Isn’t it possible to add that the PR process (communicative behaviour and interactions with publics) can have an effect on OTHER relationships rather than the organization-public one? In other words, how would we describe the effect that PR can have on promoting the autonomy of the publics (borrowing a concept much used by my good friend Prof. Mafalda Eiro-Gomes) by means of empowering them to develop new relationships and/or develop networks of relationships? Can this qualify as a different outcome when compared to the quality of relationship between organization and publics, or is it just a dimension of that quality? Or is this just a side effect of impacting on the communicative behaviour of publics?

            Thanks again.

  12. I would like to thank Jim for his contribution.
    I very much like the simplicity of his defintion and it is in my opinion probably the best GLOBAL defintion I have seen. We approached the Canadian exercise from a values standpoint as Terry explained .
    I also take Jim’s point that we could have benefited from more rigour in expressing our concepts and perhhaps my co-authors would agree to a revision in due course.

    If we are to suggest Jim’s defintion as a global defintion, I might be tempted to add the notion of working in the public interest to it if Jim would consider it appropriate. My reason for doing so was explained in another PRC post devoted to the notion of ‘public interest. but basicaly I believe we all do ‘ex ante’ approach the practice of PR from the public interest or public good dimension. While some of the positions we advocate or promotre may not be popular, they deserve a space in the public debate and that ,at least ex ante, gives us a license to communicate.

    I know that Jim has previously expressed his belief that public relation works in the public interest.

    Hence Jim’s modified definition could read as follows: “Public relations is the management of communication between an organization and its publics. Its purpose is to cultivate relationships among organizations and publics.and to work in the public interest”. Perhpas PRSA would consider it as an possible candidate for their defintion.

    @ Paul Seaman, I don’t accept your criticism that both our CPRS defintion and Jim’s are dishonest. Not all public relations work involve promoting a client’s interest. Some of us have worked on public relations activities that simply engage in conversations and consultations without any aspect of publicity or advocacy. Listening is a huge part of what we do and often that is all that a project involves-listening and understanding. We are not all promoters or advocates. That is why I feel very comfortable with both Jim’s defintion and the CPRS defintion.

    1. Jean Valin, with respect to you and your Canadian colleagues, I demur at the modified definition you offer, as well as with several key words in the Canadian definition.

      After reading over all of these posts carefully and looking at as much of the definitional dog’s dinner on the PRSA web site as I could stand, I realized that, like our American presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, PR cannot talk about itself for 30 seconds without bringing up baggage from the past.

      Take the word “relationship” for example. This harks back to the old “smile and a shoeshine” school of public relations, in which old George, who can’t quite hack it in sales any more but has been a good soldier for 35 years, is placed into a “public relations” role because he knows everybody in the industry and where all of the bodies are buried.

      We’ve all seen these characters and shuddered at the thought of ever becoming one of them.

      Or the oft-used term, “management function.” PRSA has been pushing this concept for decades, yet the great majority of its members are managers only of themselves and their work product, not regarded as part of top management but only as support staff or perhaps middle management.

      Finally, the word “strategic,” which the PRSA crowd throws around like “really?” or “my bad” without having the slightest idea of what it means or entails. Calling something strategic doesn’t make it so, and unless you are willing to do the hard work of strategy you shouldn’t be using the term.

      I could go on and on in Whac-A-Mole fashion, but my point about a definition of PR is this: the simpler the better.

      Thus, the first part of your modification of Grunig’s definition, “Public relations is the management of communication between an organization and its publics,” is acceptable and probably all that is needed. As you can tell, I am very much in the camp that believes public relations is defined by its practice.

  13. Wow. Dr. Grunig – da man himself – came in to comment. Now, that was a real treat. Seriously. I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never read any of his work firsthand. And even though I’m not sure about the philosophical question of how to determine authority, I know it when I see it, and Dr. Grunig is certainly about as authoritative on the subject of what PR is as anyone.

    I love how Dr. Grunig says, “It is important to distinguish between a definition and a description of public relations”. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    The only limitation I see with Dr. Grunig’s definition is, again, that it doesn’t distinguish PR from, say, a CEO who does the managing of communication.

    But other than that, it’s pretty solid I’d say, too.

    Addressing Paul’s statement concerning honesty, I think the most honest among Dr. Flynn’s wiki definitions are CIPR’s, Jacquie L’Etang’s, and Kendall’s. However, I’m not so sure “honesty” is the best word. Maybe it would be more fruitful to split up Flynn’s definitions into

    Idealistic definitions
    Realistic (or pragmatic) definitions
    Centrist (in between the two)

    As I think more about this subject, I just can’t help but feeling that there are, perhaps, 3 sets of definitions of PR. Those that focus on organizational renewal, public interest and sort of being a mediator between an org and its public, equally representing both, could be classed under “Idealistic definitions” or “what PR should be”.

    Those such as those focusing on advocating for an organization, et al, perhaps could be classed under “realistic definitions” or “what the avg PR does on a dailly basis”.

    And then those like Dr. Grunig’s, which seem to be somewhere in between, or refer more to the process itself as opposed to the outcome, are sort of the centrist definitions.

    I don’t know. I already don’t like this line of reasoning and I haven’t even finished typing this sentence yet. :-

    1. Regarding your comment that “The only limitation I see with Dr. Grunig’s definition is, again, that it doesn’t distinguish PR from, say, a CEO who does the managing of communication.”

      CEOs can, of course, manage their own communication–i.e., do public relations themselves. If fact, Marvin Olasky argued that early in its history public relations actually consisted of private relations because CEOs interacted directly with the publics in their communities and not through the intervention of a public relations person (who Olasky thinks corrupts the process).

      My definition, therefore, makes it clear that public relations doesn’t have to be done by a public relations person.

      1. I like your reference to Marvi Olsaki’s private relations. You revealed him to me some years ago and I really liked his book. Now that ‘Gingrich is back in town’ he might reemerge as well. The most radical right wing brilliant thinker I have encountered (before Paul Seaman, of course…).
        I also like that you affirm that public relations doen’s have to be done by a public relations person. This is exactly what we are working on as Ferpi in Italy in the context of the implementation of the Stockholm Accords. As you know Italy has 99 percent of its private economy based on small enterprises and we are implementing the accords (what value does public relations bring to organizatioms…not what value do pr’s bring to organizations) in talking the walk of the accords with all associations, federations, consortiums etc.. composed of mini entrepreneurs. Our basic argument is that the entrepreneur’s principal responsibility today is to develop effective relationships with stakeholders (employees, supplieras, communities, partners and customers) and that this is what public relations is all about.
        Levels of awareness and interest have dramatically risen in all our pre/post survey monkeys….

  14. Jim Grunig is basically correct. Of course he is. He’s commenting in the tradition of Plato. As Plato might say were he alive today, PR is a methodology without a specific subject or any basic data to serve as the foundation for those who practice it (it treats of discourse and process and even its methodology is far from being easily definable); whereas, in contrast, the subject matter of medicine is healing, which is accomplished by knowledge of illnesses and medicines. Moreover, Mr. Grunig is also correct to say that PR is about more than narrative, message and positioning etc. and that brings us back to what Heather Yaxley wrote on her blog: “PR is what it does”, or as I say “PR is defined by its practice”. The one word that sums up most of it is “advocacy” (but that’s not good enough either for many reasons). However, I still find Mr Grunig’s definition of PR inadequate because it falls short of the honesty test: we represent one side of a relationship however much we dress it up.

    If we want to get in to the public interest debate, we must turn to Aristotle, but that’s an issue for another day.

  15. Terry and others,

    I have come into this discussion late, but let offer a couple of observations about the Canadian definition of public relations.

    1. It is important to distinguish between a definition and a description of public relations. I believe most of the “definitions” offered are really descriptions of what people think is done in public relations–usually only positive, ethical, and strategic public relations. A good definition should subsume as many types of public relations as possible–both good and bad.

    2. Public relations is a process and should be defined as a process. Relationships and reputations are outcomes, not a process. Thus, the Canadian definition misses the mark by describing public relations as the management of relationships. You can manage a process, such as communication, but you can’t manage an outcome such as relationships or reputation. If you manage a process well, you can influence the outcome, but you can’t manage the outcome.

    Thus, I continue to come back to my definition of public relations from Managing Public Relations written in 1984. I added a sentence in a partial revision of MPR that was never published: “Public relations is the management of communication between an organization and its publics. Its purpose is to cultivate relationships among organizations and publics.”

    The key words in this definition are organizations (one party to a relationship), publics (the other party to a relationship), manage, communication, and relationships. Communication (of all forms) is the process that is managed (both well and poorly). Public relations must be managed (directed) or it is not public relations. Relationships (all different types and qualities) are the outcome of the process. Thus, one can place all forms of public relations into this definition. The greatest misunderstanding of this definition has come from those who interpret communication too narrowly (as only messaging). Remember, communication is a process. It includes one-way, two-way, symmetrical, asymmetrical, listening, telling, interacting, counseling, researching, dialoguing, and other forms of communication behavior.

    I have a personal stake in this discussion, of course, but I have yet to see a better definition.

    1. Thank you very much, Dr. Grunig, for weighing in on the important discussion surrounding the definition of public relations. It is certainly one that we at the Public Relations Society of America have enjoyed seeing unfold, and having your voice and perspective in this discussion is quite helpful and appreciated.

      I like how you frame the definition of public relations within the concept of a process and purpose. I agree with your assessment that many of the suggested definitions we have seen thus far focus either too narrowly on a single concept (e.g., messaging or publicity) rather than encompassing the totality of our work. And, of course, any good definition for a profession needs to have a purpose component. Otherwise, we are unable to properly explain why it is we do what we do.

      In that regard, it seems that your definition of public relations holds up quite nicely.

      Those of us at PRSA sincerely hope you will contribute further to this excellent discussion. If you have the time, I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you further and provide some more detailed information regarding PRSA’s work with the “Public Relations Defined” initiative and what we, along with our 12 global partners, are hoping to achieve with the project. I’m at keith.trivitt@prsa.org.

      Thank you, again, for sharing your perspective. Truly a treat for all of us who care deeply about the public relations profession.

      Keith Trivitt
      Associate Director
      Public Relations Society of America

  16. Thank you everyone for your candid and thoughtful comments. The depth of your interest and engagement is testament to your collective desire to make this profession a more ethical, transparent and beneficial contributor to the organizations that professional communicators serve.

    The purpose of my original post was to remind the global community of the deliberate approach the team of educators and practitioners took to help redefine curriculum standards in Canada — and along the way we rewrote our value statements and created a definition that we believe reflects the current state of practice in Canada.

    We didn’t set out to write a global definition — and from your discussions and others who have posted on this topic — that in and of itself would be a challenging and perhaps an impossible task. But I agree with Benita who said that a definition establishes the intent and purpose of the profession and that those that agree with the its constructs would operationalize it based on the type of practice that they engaged in — media relations, community relations, reputation management as just a few examples.

    But the practice of public relations is also, as I indicated and Judy has noted, culturally dependent — a construct that was first identified by Grunig, Grunig & Vercic (1998) in their comparison of public relations in the US, UK and Canada to Slovenia. But this concept also rings true not just to the international practice of public relations but also as it relates to the culture of communities within nation states. In Canada for example, the strategic management of relationships is culturally dependent on where you are practicing — it is different for companies engaging with diverse publics in northern and eastern Canada as it is different between English and French Canada. Furthermore, as one of the most culturally diverse global cities — public health communicators in Toronto sometimes translate their materials into more than 70 different languages.

    So imagining that we could have one definition that we could all feel comfortable with maybe a difficult task — but we could agree, I hope, on how the profession and its practitioners contribute to a more socially responsible society.

  17. Eric wrote ” You can’t say “PR is about managing relationships” because it is so broad, and is shared by so many different job functions, as to be meaningless”.

    This broadness is what we need.
    The public relations body of knowledge has developed since the mid nineties a methodology to monitor, evaluate and measure the quality of a relationship: I refer to the Hon, Grunig and Bruning approach to trust, committment, satisfaction and power balance.

    As a professional I have been using this approach consistently since then and have, again and again, been able to improve my client relationships on specific issues and with specific publics.
    Happy to describe cases…

    As a professor I have been describing this approach to students from all over the world and have, again and again, witnessed their use of the methodolofy with their clients and employers.
    Happy to describe cases…

    I frankly see no reason why we should trivialise every step forward we make simply because we, or our friends, did not author that step forward….

    Of course this is not all and it is not everything.
    Of course we should measure outputs, outtakes, outcomes and outgrowths (excellent discussion here http://www.instituteforpr.org/2011/12/setting-priorities-in-measurement/ ) and we should also measure identity, image and reputation.

    Everything is broad but some can be detailed in their broadness.
    Of course every human being is involved in relationships, but public relators assist organizations in improving relationships with their key stakeholders….

    But I don’t see the point in leaving the relationship issue to management consultants, marketers, social media gurus and all the rest.

    Nothing against them doing it, but we have relationships with publics in our dna..or not?

    1. Thanks, Toni. Yes, I would love to see your methodology for how to measure, evaluate and monitor relationships. That sounds quite useful.

      1. Eric, here is one case:
        the management board of indesit (second largest white goods manuf in the world) decided to include in it’s bonus a percentage on the quality of relationships with stakeholders for each director.
        Stakeholder groups were identified, a survey was done to monitor relationships using the four indicators (trust, satisfaction, committment and power balance in the relationship) as perceived by the stakeholder group (interviewess would rate each kpi from 1 to 10).
        Each manager agreed to set an improvement target for the following year.
        Then the survey was redone (with a sample including 50% of stakeholders interviewed the year before and 50% of new interviewees) and those who achieved or exceeded the target received that part of the bonus.
        This is currently now being done in a number of other companies and associations.
        Of course this is an extreme synthesis, but basically analysing the quality of relationships with stakeholder groups allows you to do much more than simply increase bonus points for directors.
        For example, you can compare results from different stakeholder groups according ot their material or immaterial relevance to the company; you can compare each stakeholder group results with the perceptions that the related company team has with them.
        You can compare the gaps between the results of both parties of the relationship and decide where you really need to improve and decide actions to do this.

        In one case, the association of italian public notaries (very relevant in our system) analysed the quality of the relationships between its members and their clients, came up with gaps and undertook a major professional development program for members that increased the weaker results up to 50% in one year….
        It also analysed the quality of relationships with other stakeholders such as the judiciary, the legislative, the media and did the same.

        Does this give you a rough idea of what I am talking about?

          1. And thanks, Eric. An African proverb sums up your inquisitive quest: “When the cow moos, it moos for all.” I believe we all learned from the sort exchange you’ve had with Toni towards the end of this thread. Maybe the process is more important than desired goal.

          2. What I find the most fascinating, Don (and I’m sure Terry Flynn is similarly bemused) is how so much of the comments on this post still revolve around criticisms of the established Flynn, Gregory, Valin definition (unanimously voted acceptance by the CPRS board more than two years ago), particularly from a personal (practitioner) point of view (from non-Canadians).

            That’s because much of this post by Terry focused on the rationale and the process behind the CPRS definition project, how it was one part in a whole “visioning” exercise (outputs and outcomes not only being the unique Canadian definition of PR, but the Values Statement and the new Pathways to the Profession white paper).

            When editing this to go online, the part I appreciated the most is Terry’s conclusion:

            “While we believe that our definition has the necessary theoretical grounding and provides students, researchers and professionals—and even our mothers—with the necessary normative directions and practical considerations, we understand that the practice of public relations is culturally dependent.”

            My question to Terry (which I never asked offline): at what stage in the process did you come to this conclusion about it being culturally dependent? Maybe it only crystallized when writing this post? If yes, that would actually be very cool in terms of PR Conversations being a “conversational” think-tank for ideas.

          3. Judy, I was fascinated to begin with. I diligently participated in the conversation initiated by Benita and followed by Terry until I read Heather’s post on her blog (which I assume you’ve read). On close scrutiny this may be “mission impossible.” It is a task that is doomed to failure because the whole approach is flawed. A a search for an all encompassing definition of a practice/profession that is characterized by many specialisms. A dictionary-type definition neither can or should include all possible subsets of the whole.

            Take the example of medicine. What dictionary type definition could possibly cover all the sub disciplines the practice covers?

            Benita: Thanks for your contribution to the knowledge base of this conversation. Hope the road leads us to some PR nirvana not off a cliff =:-)

          4. This is not “mission impossible”. Cutlip, Center and Broom’s definition of PR as “relationships” has been around for more than half a century. It was broad enough to stand the test of time. (For some it is still broad enough. For others it is not).

            No wonder Heather and Toni don’t see the need for definitions. They won’t. They already have it. It is those who don’t see the fundamental purpose of PR as being “relationships” or see it as more than “relationships” that is searching. (Like the CPRS, who searched and found!).

            Portraying PR as “what it is” or “what it is not” or referring to all the functions or activities that it encompasses are operational definitions. To my mind, one is best served by a CONCEPTUAL definition — namely, “what PR is ABOUT”. (The CPRS definition points out the most important PR approaches/paradigms, for THEM).

            And the definition should be short. Seitel (1992) quoted Hebrews 13:16 as one approach to PR: “To do good, and communicate, forget not”. There is a world of meaning in those 7 words. (We don’t need pages of activities on ‘how to do good’ or ‘how to communicate’ to understand what it says).

          5. Let us move outside the PR domain:
            — For many decades the business world focused on ‘shareholders’. Then Freeman and others suggested a ‘stakeholder’ approach to strategic management. I would call the latter a much broader approach to/view of the people/groups with an interest in an organisation than the former. This can be seen as an “overarching paradigm” (because it includes the constituent parts of the groups interested in an organisation such as media, communities, activists, shareholders etc). Should they rather have stuck to the ‘shareholder’ approach (and not have “reinvented the wheel”)?
            — For many decades (centuries?) companies focused on a single bottom line (profit). Now the paradigm is shifting towards a ‘Triple Bottom Line’. Should they not have “reinvented the wheel”?
            –For many decades companies have produced ‘annual reports’. Now we are seeing the faint stirrings/beginnings of a new paradigm called ‘integrated reporting’…………

            Is this progress, or should we strive to keep things the same? In the natural sciences it is more clearcut–who will keep on using candles if you have electricity (the latter still the overarching paradigm after many decades). But even here the approaches that fit under the overarching paradigm is shifting. Where should it come from — solar? nuclear?

          6. The “mission impossible” and the “reinvention of the wheel” was meant to refer to the narrow definition of PR. Apologize if this didn’t come through as clearly as I intended it.

            Your “broadened” argument is more productive and refers inter alia to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm change as the foundation of scientific revolutions. A “game changer” and not just fiddling with the rules in the old game. I think we are still reading from the same script. Aren’t we?

          7. Yes, we are Don. Please note that I made the comment in great haste before pushing off somewhere. Obviously this wasn’t such a good idea–I should have read it (and the other comments) more carefully ;( Not being on holiday yet, I think I am fast ‘defining myself out of a job’!

            I will email you an article I wrote in a South African academic journal (2004) on whether the stages of Kuhn’s paradigm theory (normal science, paradigm debates, paradigm struggle and scientific revolutions) can be applied to the public relations domain.

          8. Thanks for the paper, Benita. Will take it with me on my xmas holidays home in Kenya. Merry xmas and happy new year to all who have participated in this and previous thread. BTW: Who is the PR genius who invented xmas?

          9. Sorry for the delayed response, Don.

            When Terry Flynn approached me about writing this guest post to detail the CPRS process and long-term vision components, the first thing I did was ask my co-editor, Heather Yaxley, if she was agreeable. She indicated at that stage she was planning on writing her own post about the #PRDefined initiative, for her personal Greenbanana blog.

            Because that is what is the difference: Terry is indicating an organizational decision to construct a definition that was right for the Canadian Public Relations Society. Heather was offering her personal opinion (as always, wonderfully reasoned and beautifully written).

            A company can, of course, operate without a vision statement. And an industry (or I’ll say “professional” for Toni’s benefit) association can operate without clearly stating its definition of public relations. But is that a superior route to take?

            Let alone the fact that students and other practitioners often search various PR association websites to determine how each of them defines “public relations.”

            Regarding your dictionary analogy: when I go look up “medicine” I do find a definition. Maybe not all-encompassing, but it’s definitely there.

            Thank you for diligently participating in the conversation. After all, that’s what this blog is all about.

          10. Thanks, Judy. I am even more delayed. Been on holiday in Kenya. And while I was away, the big Jim G turned up in person. I need some time to reflect on the the contributions since December 15th.

          11. I agree with Judy that the most important part of this post is not what the definition of the Canadians is but how they found it.

          12. Eric, Maybe you are now seriously considering moving to Italy? 🙂

            Don: There is a saying in the strategic management literature: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there”!!).

  18. Paul, you are correct. Thanks for pointing out my hasty and flawed example of strategy. What I presented was in fact a tactical plan to implement a strategy. That said, messaging clearly arise from strategy. The rest is purely tactical.

  19. David, the difference between strategy and tactics has nothing to do with “conveying the right message to the right audience at the right time” or with being effective or ineffective. Too few PRs ever bother to think about definitions and the meaning of words. To remedy the lack of clarity about the difference between a strategy and a tactic I recommend reading Clausewitz (who famously said you can lose every battle and still win the war) to anybody who cares about such issues.

    1. Good point, Paul. Von Clausewitz’ writings are good for understanding the difference between strategy and tactics. Also good is Aron Nimzowitz’ great Chess book, “My System”. considered to be one of the greatest Chess strategists in history, Nimzowitz clearly and thoroughly describes strategy and tactics in the context of the game of Chess. Highly recommended.

  20. Yes and no Eric. Yes, in your illustrative role as CEO, you are engaging in public relations. And no, you are not a public relations professional unless you are skilled in the tools of the trade and are doing the kinds of things you mention — and much more — for a living day in and day out. That said, PR is most definitely something that all CEOs and senior managers should be involved in. Ideally, a PR perspective should be ingrained in the culture of an organization.

    There’s a lot of useful discussion in this thread about the wisdom of framing a definition of public relations around specific activities such as publicity or under a broad functional umbrella such as relationship/reputation building. It boils down to whether the definition should focus on ends or means. While definition built around means may be more descriptive to non-practitioners, it doesn’t really get at the heart and purpose of the profession — the proverbial can’t see the forest for the trees. Anyhow, that’s my take.

    By way of analogy, you could define a physician as someone who conducts physical exams, prescribes medicine and gives tests. Or you could define it, as Wikipedia does, as “a health care provider who practices the profession of medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining or restoring human health through the study, diagnosis, and treatment of disease, injury and other physical and mental impairments.”

    As for whether public relations is by definition strategic, I would say yes if it’s being done right. You can generate all the publicity and other communication you want, but if it doesn’t convey the right message to the right audience at the right time its effectiveness in advancing your organization’s goals and objectives will be limited.

  21. (from our Profnet Connect blog post)

    If you aren’t already aware, there is a new initiative spearheaded by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to update the definition of PR. New web technologies such as social media and digital commerce have altered the way PR is practiced. Therefore, many in the industry have felt for some time that a new definition of PR is in order. (You can also find out what PR practitioners think by following the #PRDefined hashtag on Twitter).

    What do you think of this initiative? How do you define PR?

    Our firm’s definition of PR is patterned after Morris and Goldsworthy’s work:

    “Public relations is the practice of producing publicity (excluding promotional materials and paid advertising, which typically fall under the purview of Marketing); managing media relations and communications (typically among members of the Fourth Estate); and managing reputation.”

    We chose this definition because we think it expresses what is both essential to public relations practice, as well as what distinguishes it from other management functions. Our definition also takes into account what most PRs do, most of the time, in carrying out their job duties. Additionally, our definition takes into consideration Wittgenstein’s notion of “meaning as use”; a concept’s definition is constrained by how it is used in general parlance.

    For example, many of the current definitions seem to want to focus on this idea of relationship building or relationship management. But relationship building is a necessary management function of any business, regardless of whether the business has a PR firm, or an in-house PR staff, or whether it even calls this “public relations” or not. In other words, “relationship management” does not seem to be a feature that is distinctive of public relations because it is shared, in most organizations, by many different job functions or departments. CxOs, HR people, sales managers, marketing directors – all these people are involved in relationship building with stakeholders.

    Another set of definitions emphasizes “adapting an organization to its publics”, but these don’t seem distinctive of PR, either. For instance, under these types of definitions, when the public in question is customers, then PR is more or less customer service – as customer service focuses on adapting an organization’s products and services to its customers. When the public is employees, PR would very often be reducible to Human Resources – as HR handles adapting employees to its organization in various ways.

    If we were to use the “adapting an organization to its public” idea, when the public is shareholders, PR is more or less investor relations, as shareholders are investors, first and foremost. When the public is the media (or the consumers of a particular media outlet), PR is basically media relations. When the public is the aggregate of potential consumers or audiences “out there”, PR can be talked about in terms of “publicity” or “reputation management.”

    In other words, to try to make PR a function of “adapting an organization to its publics” seems to me to be a confounding and unnecessarily confusing way of defining PR; this “adapting” is often already done by another department or business function.

    As Hegel said, “All determination implies negation.” To say what PR is requires that we say what it is not. Therefore, we choose our definition. Publicity, media relations, and reputation management: these appear to us to be the functions that are almost always done by PR people and only by PR people; this marks these functions essential to PR; without these, PR ceases to be PR. These functions are also almost never done by any other job roles or departments; this marks them as distinguishing characteristics of PR folks; you don’t find marketers or CFOs or Legal or Sales primarily focusing on these functions. Hence, we think our definition, which is a slight elaboration of Morris and Goldsworthy’s, is solid.

    1. Eric: Your analysis in the blogpost above, is what unfortunately happens when one attempts to dissect a system into its component parts. A guiding tenet of systems theory is that a system is the sum of its parts — any attempt to separate parts from the whole, destroys the system.

      Applied to PR this entails a holistic approach to the “PR system” as attempted by the Canadian effort described above. The #PRDefine effort is doomed to end in grief because it attempts as it were to define the car by analyzing all the car parts and technologies that go into a modern car.

      The IR initiative and the Canadian approach above is an attempt to remedy this fragmented babel tower of definitions. We are not there, but the journey has began.

      1. Don, I see what you’re saying about the systems approach. I guess, my take is: let’s start with what actual PRs are doing on a regular basis, and work from there in defining it or redefining it; rather than start in the Ivory tower. Doing that, you can’t divorce what a thing is from what a thing does.

        1. Eric, your argumentation in your various posts here, appears to have an embedded false dichotomy — either one has a “strategic reflective” approach to PR or one is technician who “gets his/her hands dirty.” The truth is the one doesn’t preclude the other as your own example of your PR Director attests to.

          Looked at from this angle ivory towers seem much more secure than glass towers.
          Check out this link to to guest post on Craig Pearce’s blog that discusses:

          1. You make a valid point, Don. Fulfilling deliverables is not at odds with devising strategy. And it is probably true that my PR Dir. does devise strategy but I really wouldn’t know because I turn her loose and try to stay out the way!

    2. Eric, I agree with you that relationship management “does not seem to be a feature that is distinctive of public relations because it is shared, in most organizations, by many different job functions or departments”. But is the latter not also true of “reputation management”, which is part of YOUR definition of PR?

      And, before Don points out that I am shooting myself in the foot, I will ask it first: Is the societal/reflective approach distinctive to PR?

      Is it a unique contribution to an organisation’s strategic decision making process to be focused (inter alia) on:
      • reflecting on the organisation’s position in the bigger context with the aim of balancing organisational goals with the well-being of society (the collective interest);
      • enlightening management on societal/ stakeholder values, norms and expectations for socially/environmentally responsible and sustainable behaviour?
      • using social responsibility as the lens through which to determine the boundaries of acceptable (organisational) behaviour and the collective interest;
      • being constantly on the lookout for new stakeholders or interest groups significant to the organisation’s well-being
      • solving or avoiding conflict between organisational behaviour and the public perception of how socially responsible organisations should operate;
      • being an early warning system to management before issues in the environment erupt into crises;
      • initiating dialogue with pressure groups that is limiting the organisation’s autonomy;
      • influencing management to adapt organisational goals, strategies and behaviour to societal/ stakeholder values, norms and expectations;
      • balancing the quest for the realisation of organisational goals with respect for the natural environment (the planet) and its inhabitants (the people);
      • assisting/influencing management to understand that public trust is not earned by simply changing outward communication to signify responsibility – organisational members have to behave accordingly, practice self-restriction to obtain legitimacy and a good reputation, and garner trust.

      The societal/reflective approach to PR definitely includes assisting organisational members or functions:
      — to “adapt to its [various] publics” — a managerial or functional role, a.k.a PR’s educational role, and
      — to communicate with its [various] publics — its technical or implementation role.
      (Side note: Investor relations, employee communication, issues management, stakeholder engagement, etc. often report to the CCO in best practice organisations).

      But assisting organisational functions is not PR’s distinctive contribution to strategic decision making (as you already alluded to). In its strategic role, to put it simplistically, PR influences top management to ‘adapt the whole organisation to society’. (Some of the activities of PR’s strategic role is spelled out in the first bulleted list above).

      1. No, Benita, you are not shooting yourself in the foot. The ball is squarely in Eric’s part of the court.

      2. @Benita

        I don’t see a lot of different people in an org primarily charged with the responsibility of safeguarding a company’s reputation. In my experience, this is usu. reserved for the PR dept.

      3. @Benita My point is: To define a thing is to say how it is different from other things around it. You can’t say “PR is about managing relationships” because it is so broad, and is shared by so many different job functions, as to be meaningless. To define is to delineate – to make a determination that negates things that aren’t attributes.

        For example, if I were to ask you to define “policeman”, and you were to reply, “A policeman is one who carries a gun and wears a badge”, this wouldn’t be a good definition. Why? While yes, it is true, that policemen do wear badges and carry guns, these are attributes or traits of policemen. They don’t define what a policeman is.

        In the same way, to say, “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics …” is very like the above incorrect definition of policeman. It doesn’t tell me what makes a PR a PR; it merely tells me perhaps what one critical function of the PR is.

        Do you see my point? I keep making this point over and over because I feel PR folks just aren’t getting it.

        “Strategic management of relationships …” is done by a lot of different people, wearing a lot of different hats. A military officer carries a gun and wears badges; some security guards carry guns and wear badges; hunters carry guns and wear badges; you see my point? Miltary officers, hunters, security guards – these are not police officers!

        In the same vein, one who “manages relationships strategically” isn’t, for all that, what makes a PR a PR. Therefore, in my mind, it cannot serve as a good definition of what PR is.

      4. Let’s put it another way:

        Let’s say: I, as the CEO of my firm, spend most of my days talking to shareholders, building relationships with customers. Let’s say I spend ample time each week giving speeches to potential investors. Furthermore, let’s say I spend a lot of time building relationships with audience on Twitter and FB. Let’s further say that, I’m the only one who does this at my firm, and my efforts are directly tied to increasing revenues for and building brand equity in my firm.

        Does that make me a PR person? I’m engaging in “strategic management of communication”?, aren’t I?

        Does it mean, I’m “engaging in public relations”?

        And if it does – if in fact doing all this makes me a PR practitioner or defines me as “doing PR” – what need would I have of a “real” PR person?

        This is why the CPRS class of definitions are problemmatic to me.

  22. As I’ve discussed with Judy on Twitter, I found this whole project a bit of a thrilling social object. I think the #PRDefined initiative was a success but not because the definition that comes out of it will be “the right one” but because PRSA managed to create a captivating social object.

    At any rate, I just got thru tweet-ranting early this morning (or was it yesterday?) on this issue, one of those introspective thought exercises akin to jazz great Bill Evans’ “Conversations with Myself” but on Twitter:

    1. A problem with conceiving PR in terms of publicity is: what if the product, organization, or service is [expletive]? #prdefined

    2. A problem with conceiving of PR as it ideally should be is: good point, but who’s gonna pay you for that? #prdefined

    3. In order for PR to survive in the contemporary economy, it’s gonna need some strong C-Suite advocates #prdefined

    4. Another option: PR “authorities” correctly define what PR entails, then enact a plan to re-educate those already practicing #prdefined

    5. I just hope PR profs don’t define themselves out of a job #prdefined

    6. Remember, you can theorize about PR till the cows come home, but at the end of the day, it’s the practice of PR that keeps the lights on

    I think there’s merit to Paul’s statement. I just read his 2009 blog post. I commented on it: Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes YES! And he’s right: no one’s really offered anything substantive to counter his arguments.

    Umm … in fact … I find this happening quite regularly with PR folks – not offering anything substantive to back up their theories. They do seem to have a tendency to end off with something like, “It just is what I said it is. PERIOD.” A PR professor I speak to on Twitter actually said this to me earlier this week, when I pressed him on something. So, I’m not really exaggerating.

    Anyway, Paul’s comment above, and the blog post, makes sense to me. But then again, I’m neither an authority nor really a practitioner of PR, technically speaking. But I tend to go with ideas that makes sense to me, regardless of whether they fit an ideal or standard or whatever.

    Our firm’s thinking on this subject to follow

    Eric Bryant, Director
    Gnosis Arts Media Group

    1. Re your point 2: As a concrete example, a large number of Italy’s biggest companies are already paying for it. I am saying this based on findings presented by Prof Emanuele Invernizzi at the ‘Euprera Sinergie Congress’ in Milan on the rising numbers of CCOs (Chief Communication Officers) in Italy’s biggest companies.

      A survey conducted by Emanuele amongst 318 of Italy’s largest companies in 2008 (75% response rate=240 CCOs) indicated that the PR/CC manager was a CCO in 78% of Italy’s largest companies (up from 12% in 1994 and 55% in 2004).

      Of these CCO’s, 24% were from companies with turnover up to € 300 million; 39% from companies with turnover € 300 million to 1 billion and 37% from companies with turnover more than € 1 billion. We are thus talking here of large companies who are prepared to pay their PR people executive salaries.

      Of the 240 respondents:
      • 59% played a strategic and reflective role –often defined and discussed on this blog. As a matter of fact, in the previous post e.g. this comment and this one.
      • 78% believed that the value of the strategic and reflective role will further increase in the next 3 years. (This was indeed the case, as a follow-up to this study in 2011 indicated that the incidence of CCOs in Italy’s largest companies has now risen to 86%).

      I would deduce that there must be some “strong C-Suite advocates” around in these companies (your point 3).

      Point 4: I cannot agree more. Applying this to ‘PR Profs,’ this is easy to check by means of ‘student enrolment figures’. If the market perceives an academic programme to be ‘spot on’, student numbers rise. Nothing theoretical about that.

      My colleague at Univ Pretoria, SA (Estelle de Beer) told me yesterday that they have just received 60 applications from practitioners for their Honours programme in Strategic Communication. A few years ago there were 10.

      Estelle is teaching at the Dept of Marketing and Communication Management. This department split last Friday. While the fledgling Communication Management section was latched onto the Marketing Department in 1993, its student numbers now rival (or exceed) those of Marketing—hence the split.

      This is not surprising. In a sustainability paradigm, best practice companies need PR’s strategic and reflective role (as evidenced by the Italian research mentioned). The core teaching in the Communication Management section at Univ Pretoria through the previous 16 years has been the strategic and reflective role of PR.

      Point 5. PR profs won’t ‘define themselves out of a job’ as long as they follow their own ‘visioning and values’ exercises to determine trends/needs in the public and private sector and then applying it to PR, before developing their curriculums.

      I judge the value of my curriculums not only on student numbers, but also on student promotions. I asked my master’s students/graduates to let me know when they get promotions. (They do so faithfully because they are proud of their achievements). I can give you scores of examples—to me an amazing case was a student at the Cape Peninsula Univ of Technology.
      • He enrolled for the masters (based on the strategic/reflective role of PR) while being a PR technician (publishing the CSR report).
      • He told me later that, 6 hours into the intensive course, he thought he had stumbled into the wrong classroom. But he stayed.
      • Six months into the course, he got his first promotion. During the next 2 years, he got two more promotions—and moved to an office on the top floor next to the CEO. Title? Chief Transformation Officer. Company? One of the largest in SA. Salary? I am sure you can guess.

      All I can say to you: Don’t ‘throw away’ (as we would say in Afrikaans, my home language), i.e. discount the societal role of PR.

      Point 6. Theories are often developed based on qualitative and quantitative research. I don’t know any educators/researchers (PR or otherwise) who conduct their research amongst their own colleagues. Their respondents are PR practitioners, so the academics are only the messengers of the views, opinions, experiences, behaviour of PR practitioners.

      1. Now that was impressive. Thank you, Benita.

        For point 5, when I said “PR Profs” I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t referring to PR professors, but to PR professionals. That’s just my shorthand for the phrase. Sorry about that.

        When I said, “PR Profs defining themselves out of a job”, I meant that vast aggregate of PR professionals out there, doing their jobs day to day at agencies, firms or what have you. I’m talking about the average PR professional – not the “scores of Chief Communications Officers” in Italy at the 13 largest companies, or whatever.

        My point is: If the PR “authorities” define PR in a way that only a small handful of the c-suite accept, what good is that? Who’s gonna hire them?

        I’m talking about the vast number of agencies, and companies that even hire PR people at all. I’m talking about the even larger number of ordinary companies that have no in-house PR but outsource their PR needs to an agency. I’m telling you: the maj. of these folks are not looking for a “strategic or reflective” PR. They are looking for someone to “manage our reputation” and “publicize what we got going on.”

        I mean, I’m thrilled that 59% of of 240 of 13 companies – whatever it was you cited – in a country that is barely capitalist do such and such. Maybe we should all move to Italy. But you haven’t demonstrated to me that this is a significant trend in CSR or communication nationwide.

        I mean, I’m in the trenches, every day, day in and day, out, managing a virtual PR firm. Nobody asks to interview me on my experience. No professors come knocking at my door to ask how we do things. I hire interns, mange people with higher degrees in PR and Communications than I do. I talk to media on a regular basis, talk to clients on their PR needs on a reg. basis. And I’m telling you, the vast maj. of these communications pros are not doing anything that even comes anywhere close to “strategic and reflective.”

        The PR programs where I have gotten my interns – believe me when I tell you – the majority of them aren’t teaching students anything “strategic or reflective”. Heck, they get to me barely knowing how to think strategically at all! I find myself constantly having to train them how to think strategically. Most of them, honestly, come out knowing little more than how to write a press release or post a tweet.

        So, it seems to me a huge chasm between “what the PR profession is in its vision” and “what the avg. PR pro is doing on a daily basis”. How do we bridge that gulf without just flat out confusing some, alienating others, and just plain pissing of the rest?

        That’s what I meant:you top notch or top tier or PR purists or I don’t even know what to call you: YOU guys be careful not to define the majority of PR pros out of a job!

        Your Italian study is interesting and gives me some good meat to chew on but 59% of 240 of 38% – or whatever it is – of a country that is not even considered a capitalist power, etc is still a quite miniscule number, and in my mind proves little. Do the same study on the top American or German or Japanese companies and then let’s compare notes. Because … I’m not seeing it.

        Sounds to me like the PR purists out there need to move to Italty or South Africa, cause I’m just not seeing this trend in the U.S. It may be there, but I’m not seeing it and I work in the heart of a world capital – New York City. And I’m telling you: the lofty ideals of what purists see PR as doing and being – versus what I see being practiced on a daily basis – they don’t match up.

        By “PR authorities”, I’m not sure that is or should be reserved for professors. Maybe, but I’m not sure. The philosophical question of what constitutes authority is not a very easy one to answer.

        Nevertheless, I do very much appreciate your reply. It contains *evidence”, case studies, something I can grab onto. I appreciate that. I guess I just wish that PRs would give more evidence like this, instead of just asserting things. It seems they operate under some idea or assumption that the rest of the population automatically knows what it is they’re talking about and why it is they’re saying it.

      2. To add: My PR Director at my firm is professor of public relations who has consulted for Fortune 50 companies. Not Fortune 100. Not Fortune 500. FORTUNE 50. Means: the best of the best (arguably). And let me tell you, what she does for us on a daily basis isn’t “strategic or reflective”. She manages reputation, does publicity and does media relations.

        And just so you don’t think it’s me: She did pretty much the same things at the Fortune 50s – except with about 50 more pages of reporting added on! 😉

        1. Eric, It is only that we studied different kinds of ‘shorthand’. In Afrikaans, a ‘prof’ is a professor. We don’t use (the translation of) ‘professionals’, but rather of ‘practitioners’.

          I would say that it will be hard to manage reputation without a strategic mindset (unless you spin, but that has more to do with image). Reputation has to do with the organisation’s behaviour, how its past performance is regarded. (Therefore it is actually not reputation that is managed, but organisational and individual behaviour. Reputation is the end result of that behaviour).

          The very idea of reputation in itself is ‘reflective’. If you don’t care about what your stakeholders or societal interest groups think about your organisation, why then would you be interested in managing reputation in the first place?

          You cannot manage reputation without measuring reputation or you will not know what to manage. And that lies at the core of reflective PR–finding out what the external (and internal) environment expects or thinks about your organisation and taking it into consideration when developing strategy/taking strategic decisions. If the organisation is not going to use this intelligence in their decision making (i.e. make certain changes in their own behaviour/strategies based on what they have learnt from stakeholders/interest groups), why would they measure reputation at all?

          So your PR Director probably does perform strategic or reflective activities in managing reputation. She could also be approaching media relations from a strategic perspective.

  23. Toni, by getting so personal, you evade engagement and lower the tone. My definition of PR, which was written in response to the Canadian one, is available for anybody to read – as yet nobody here has engaged with it beyond spinning a superficial dismissal.

    I don’t think it is trite to point out that the world right now is going in the opposite direction to the one often discussed on this blog my some people from South Africa:

    “Heads of government are transforming the European project into its opposite: the first democratically legalised supranational community will be transformed into an effective arrangement that results in non-transparent post-democratic domination”, Jürgen Habermas

  24. Paul,
    I’m disappointed in your “dishonest” response. Your link is to a 2009 post that you made about the new CPRS definition. In this post I have reflected on the process of arriving at the definition that our team took — one based on a values approach and grounded in theory. I would have hoped that you would have taken the time to critically reflect on my detailed analysis of our approach rather than a simplistic answer to a rather challenging question — can we arrive at a universal definition of our profession. From a re-read of your original response and a review of your website, it would appear that your definition of public relations depends on who is paying your bills.

    1. Terry,

      While I find your post very lucid and interesting, being one of the few prc readers who have actually met and spoken directly with Paul recently, I must say that he is different from what he writes in the liquid, nasty and sometime silly comments he posts here and there.

      I doubt if Paul defines pr according to who is paying his bills: a) does he have as many clients as the number of definitions he has been barking at since we have been reading him?; b) does he have such a strong tie to the commercialization of his professional job?

      Basically he is a really nice and, believe it or not, sweet (!), gentle (!) and knowldegeable chap.

      Somewhat confused and addicted to sharp counterintuitive remarks (yet predictable after the first time)? Yes, in my opinion…. But once you have absorbed this trait .. nice and dandy…

      Another proof that one-to-one relations are different from one-with-one’s.

  25. Terry,

    Your definition is similar to mine. PR is about establishing good relationships with audiences and opinion makers for employers or clients that will stand them in good stead as they pursue their mission and goals. In some sense, it is like putting money in the bank, creating a climate of good will that will pay dividends down the road.

    PR seeks to enhance visibility and reputation and engage constituencies in a productive two-way dialogue. The goal is to create an audience that understands your mission or product and thus will be receptive to sales and marketing initiatives down the road. It does not generally seek to generate immediate transactions, but this is often a welcome subsidiary result.

    Serving the public interest is a loft and admirable goal, but one that is not always and necessarily consistent with the above.

    1. Hi David,
      Thank you for your comments and your definition. I agree that serving the public interest may be times difficult for some organizations to achieve (more likely in the for-profit sector) but as I indicated in my post, the majority of communicators, worldwide, are engaged in working for governments or governmental agencies and as such, most certainly must practice public relations in the public interest.

      The question you might as is: what is and who defines public interest — I think I’ll leave that for a conference that I’m attempting to organize sometime next year.


  26. Two days ago I made a comment on my post “Integrated Reporting and Strategic PR” that is actually more relevant to your post than to mine! (It even appears as though I had a preview of your post, which of course I did not).

    I do think that your practitioner/academic team was the ultimate way of agreeing on a relevant definition. Also, that a definition should be preceded by a ‘visioning and values’ session, as you indeed did. I said in my comment: “Once this most strategic of questions has been answered (even to some extent), the easy part is to derive a definition of what PR is/should be” and also “To me a definition of PR simply summarises one’s belief of what PR brings to the organisation.” (Canada and South Africa might indeed be closer to each other than a world map would indicate!).

    The PRSA effort might flounder because of a lack of the above and also the seeming lack of theoretical input(?). From their website, it appears that they did a content analysis on practitioner inputs — it will be interesting to see with what they come up.

    Your team obviously came to the conclusion that it was necessary to include various paradigms in your definition. A theoretical question: Quoting from my comment yesterday, what would you say to “the one overarching paradigm, a unifying purpose, the umbrella under which all of these different approaches can fit” is the reflective/societal approach? (I discussed it in one of my other comments).

    1. Benita,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my post. I have been a distant supporter of your work and believe that you have made a tremendous contribution to the profession and the body of knowledge. Your post and the dialogue that you had with the respondents (Fraser and others) enhance and support the work that you have already accomplished. Ironically while you were writing your post and I was writing my, my graduate students were analyzing your article in Bob Heath’s 2010 handbook for an exam they were writing — so the stars were certainly aligned.

      While I was reflecting on the work that our research team engaged in during our writing of the definition in 2008-2009 and reading the comments and suggestions as part of the PRSA project, I am less certain that we can arrive at a overarching or unifying paradigm. While you and I may fit a reflective/societal approach, others such as Paul Seaman, would fit an individualistic/economic approach where an organization can use any communicative means to achieve its own objectives — almost in the same way that Glen Cameron and his group of researchers believe that public relations is all about managing conflict and competition.

      I hope someday that we have an opportunity to explore the similarities between South Africa and Canada and would hope that during your “gap” year you have a chance to visit us — the CPRS national conference is in Victoria BC this summer (June).


      1. Terry, your words are much appreciated! And the stars are definitely aligned, in more ways than one.

        Yesterday morning Estelle de Beer and I discussed your post, and we were in agreement that the Canadian PR star is shining brightly. We further remarked that Venus and Mars are moving closer together over Canadian skies, and that the resulting illumination benefits all!

        An admission–I did peek at the map of BC to see exactly where Victoria was located. I wish!!

        1. Thanks guys – I was aware that Judy was working with Terry on this post, but felt my own frustrations with the PRSA definition project were most appropriate for my Greenbanana blog. Hence I pre-empted the PRC post rather than even thinking about spoling the thread (hoping that I haven’t done that now!)

          1. Considering that the COMMENTS page here remains the third-most Viewed post on PRC Heather (over the past 30 days–and sandwiched in-between Terry’s guest post and Using Twitter for PR events…followed on its heels by Benita Steyn’s Integrated reporting and strategic public relations), I think it’s safe to say you didn’t “spoil” the comments thread.

            We all know much of the attention came after James Grunig stopped by–thanks so much for honouring PRC with your presence and thoughts, Jim! Happy New Year to Larissa and you (plus other commenters and readers of PRC).

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