By Terry Flynn, PhD, APR, FCPRS
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
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.
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.
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.