PR definitions – should do or do do?

A starting point for anyone seeking to understand public relations ought to be a definition.  However, the fact that there are several hundred formal definitions and myriad contradictory views to choose from means there is no easy way to know what PR is about.  

What does it say to students who see that every text book, professional body, consultancy and individual practitioner – let alone others who comment on PR (such as journalists) – explains public relations in their own way? 

Some explanations are positivist and present a description of what PR involves in terms of tactics.  This may be helpful in telling students what is involved in a career in PR.  However, there are so many aspects to the practice of PR – many of which are not exclusive to us either – that a long list of tasks doesn’t effectively do the job.  Such lists are invariably “pick and mix” too, so don’t clarify what every PR practitioner does.

We also have the problem that others’ views of what we do can be negative – such as the highly critical comments from journalists that can be found with a quick Google search. 

The contrast to these “do do” explanations of public relations comes in the form of academic or official definitions.  These tend to look at the ideal of PR practice and focus on what practitioners “should do”.  Such normative definitions may be useful as an aspirational explanation and help PR put its best foot forward in clarifying what it is about.  Normative definitions may help encourage students to practice in the most ethical manner.

Rather than simply asking students to write their own definition or consider on various viewpoints, I find a useful exercise is to map a wide range of statements on two axes – normative (should do) and positivist (do do).   This helps individual and group reflection on where views or definitions fit into four categories:

  1. What PR is and should be
  2. What PR isn’t but should be
  3. What PR is but shouldn’t be
  4. What PR isn’t and shouldn’t be

Discussion can now centre on which aspects are purely aspirational, what is considered as best practice, what viewpoints are damaging and which are misguided.  It can lead into a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) for public relations and help students see there can be value in different opinions.

From a starting point where too many definitions can seem overwhelming and contradictory, we get to a position of analysis and critical reflection.  Rather than seeking a single “best” definition, surely it is more helpful to consider what we do do and what we should do in a more intelligent way?

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8 Replies to “PR definitions – should do or do do?

  1. Thank you for your kind comments. Any discussion on this matter helps, I’m sure, and the benefit I hope isn’t only mine, but my students’ also. I always had this obssesive ethical principle that anyone should teach others only the things he or she knows best. This is why, when my university wanted to enrich the teaching programme creating a new domain, that of communication in public relations, I waanted to be part of this experience. It stroke me as a good opportunity and a challenge (I had been teaching compartive literature till that moment), to try to study and then practice in this vast domain, which I did, being for 3 years PR Coordinate of a four star hotel (Best Western chain). In that period of time (not an easy one, I have to admit, I’ve learned more than ever about my country, its people, its employers and customers) I very seriously doubted if I can ever use most of the theories I’ve read, especially at this rather local level of practicing. Most of all, I think, Romania as an economical society, or cultural space doesn’t need yet the PR as an institution, except of the big corporate firms that are very well aware of this necesity (having international development). Secondly, the employers mistake PR with advertising and marketing manager (althought I’ve been translator and guide whenever necessary, and sometimes even waiter if an event need it). And finally, the problem of communication in a country with our standards (economical, cultural) is continuously changing and facing challenges. I only hope that our presence in UE brings a concrete disposal to communicate, not as a form of renegociating one’s presence in the world (society). but as means of transmiting a true messages towards the Other, containing principles and believes that can build an individual structure. And that will be the moment when a honest PR should do a good job in this country, from all the points of view.

  2. I very much believe that the new global framework for public relations practice, based on the generic principles and specific applications paradigm, is the best way forward to approach the complex issue raised by Eva in her comment.

    Very briefly:

    1.the overall perspective is organizational and (therefore) relational (nothing against other approaches, but this is the one in my view which is most effective);

    2. the generic principles have to do with the function, the overall aims, the specific objectives and global issues like ethics, diversity, communicating with etc…

    3. the specific applications have to do with a territory’s (not necessarily a country) public relations infrastructure (institutional, political, economic, activist, socio-cultural and media systems)

    Clearly, it is highly important to have a good understanding of how public relations in a specific territory influences and is influenced by those systems and also how the profession has evolved over time in that territory.

    In a 42 hour course executive masters course I only scratch the surface of this framework and every time students and I discover something new which had not been take into due consideration.
    It is a continuos learning experience for all of us, and a fascinating one at that.

    Fortunately I also have the opportunity to practice..i.e. being a professional I actively look for ways to prove that the framework not only works but is definitely much more effective than other practices.

    I wish we could discuss more…but I hope this can help.

  3. Eva,

    Thank you for your comment and thoughts. I think that those working in countries with emerging PR professions benefit from understanding theories and viewpoints of those outside their country as well as developing their own body of knowledge.

    I have been teaching the CIPR Diploma in Bulgaria with the great Nelly Benova of Apeiron Communications. One of the students recently undertook a research project that looked at the relevance of Grunig & Hunt in respect of Bulgaria, repeating a study last undertaken a decade ago. There were some interesting findings, and of course, cultural influences to consider.

    What such research enables is reflection both on the theories (which is very helpful for established PR communities) and consideration of how PR can, will and should, develop in Bulgaria.

    There is a growing independent body of knowledge also in emerging PR communities – and some of this is totally outside the framework of existing theories. We all benefit also when that is fed back into current perspectives of PR.

    I definitely think you should be challenging practice in Romania in the light of theories from outside as well as reflecting on the relevance of such theories, and if these would benefit from development in your country.

    The aim ought to be for best practice, which I believe is often situational and so culturally affected.

  4. In spite of my name, I’m a Ph D lecturer and part of my interest concernes PR industry in a country that, 20 years ago had no idea that there can be such a profession out there. The country is Romania and I’m still wandering if the PR institution shapes itself concording to the society that will take the advantage of exploiting PR-s for its benefits. If so, teachers of communication and PR should know better the situation in their country than theories comming from abroad. This is my question: do you tihnk a good PR should remodelate the theory he or she learned according to the concrete situation into their own country?

  5. fortunately for us, over the last twenty years all other professions have entered into an identity crisis with the consequence that you can today find as many definitions of legal, accounting, architecture, engineering and medical professions as there are increasing specialties and clusters.

    this (in my view…) objective fact blurs the pressing need for a universally accepted definition(which I personally do not feel is important nor a significant reason for our awful public perception…) just as much as I find outdated and even misleading the one-company-one-voice paradigm which was also so relevant twenty years ago…but on this you will also fortunately find many different views in this here blog.

  6. It becomes very urgent that ‘public relations’ improves its perception. But from your blog I understand that after all those years there is still not certainty about its definition.

    I learned (more than 25 years ago) that it is “The planned and sustained effort to establish and improve the degree of understanding between an organisation/person and its publics”. The Belgian PR Centre added the words ‘trust’ to ‘understanding’, and ‘that have or may have an influence in achieving the goals of the organisation‘. A short American definition is: “Be good and tell it”.

    The main problem is that in practice one forgets that this definition in fact this implies a philosophy and a way of working. (Even PR) Companies seem to be only interested in giving a good image, whether that is justified or not, and only consider the ‘way of working’ part of the definition.
    This has lead to the rather negative perception of PR: the glossy looking boys and girls who try to charm journalists …

    That bad perception has also ‘helped’ to create the gap between authorities and the citizens. When an authority wants to inform people (and indeed wants to explain people and to try to convince people that it is the right way forward), this is immediately explained as PR, but in the very short sighted view of that word. And this makes it rather difficult for that authority to explain what it wants to do and why, which however is an obligation not only as they should do so, but also to gain public support and co-operation.

  7. I apologize for the grammar…instead of quote.. in order to effectively and more quickly achieve the latter… I meant in order to effectively and more quickly achieve those stated objectives….

  8. I like this approach. Thank you. I will try it in class soon and comment on the outcome.
    At the same time, I still consider valid, both in practice and in theory, that:
    ‘ public relations includes all planned and conscious efforts by organizations to create, consolidate and develop relationships with their (carefully identified according to different stated objectives) influential publics in order to effectively and more quickly achieve the latter.
    Public relations professionals support those efforts by:
    a)gathering, understanding and interpreting influential publics’ expectancies so that organizational leadership may improve the quality of the decisions it takes;
    b) creating, planning, coordinating and faciliting continuos dialogue between the organization’s management functions and their influential publics, also through specific communication channels and tools, to enhance and improve the organization’s license to operate’ (do you prefer reputation?).

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