The big question: What is PR?

In May 2008, Catherine Arrow produced a useful edited publication: What is PR? which brought together a range of posts from PR Conversation touching on the “big question” that seems to be of eternal interest to practitioners, academics and of course, students. 

Toni Muzi Falconi commenting on two recent events recommends re-reading this document.  He writes:

The Bled Symposium this year was not up to the excellent standards that I am accustomed to expect from its organizers.  But this may also be due to the fact that I am biased.

Dejan Vercic had happily accepted Ronel Rensburg’s last minute suggestion to stage a post-Stockholm session with some of the world’s leading scholars to analyse the potential implications the Accords brief could, would, should have on education and professional training programs.  An excellent idea, I thought and with Anne Gregory and Ronel, we opened the discussion.

The first question which came up was

‘but what is pr?’

and the second

‘why do we insist in calling whatever we think it is PR’?

You will surely imagine that, for the next half hour, we hardly ever mentioned the Accords or their implications on education… the discussion went back some twenty years, before the European Body of Knowledge and the Bled Manifesto, contributions which were so instrumental in elevating the quality of our profession worldwide.

We participated to a sort of cultural ‘regression’, most probably due to the fact that we were all exhausted by two days of papers and presentations….

Last week I also had the privilege of presenting the Accords in New York at a luncheon hosted by the PR League, the student association of NYU’s Masters in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.  Some 25 students, 5 faculty members and a few guests (John Paluszek, Don Bates, David Rosen and others).

Once more, the first question:

‘but what is PR?’

and, as students seemed more interested in learning about what was new in the Accords, the faculty and guests insisted on the original sins and issues of our 20th century profession.

These two events led me to remember that daring pdf published here some time ago with the title: What is PR?, so brilliantly edited by Catherine Arrow which puts together more than one year of  discussion amongst us, that brilliantly bridges and ‘creolizes’ old and new and leads readers to a better understanding of contemporary public relations.

As we well know, the long tail does not necessarily imply that any paper becomes definite.

And, of course, there is no definite answer to any question, let alone what a profession is about, in a period when all professional boundaries are crumbling.

Please follow our blog:

26 Replies to “The big question: What is PR?

  1. Thanks for the video link – interesting starting point. Of course, we could also debate the use of the term ‘audience’ which you included in your definition. That’s a term which I avoid as it reflects a one-way (traditional advertising) approach of a static group of people waiting to hear what you have to say. For me, it doesn’t reflect that those we communicate with may be active, eg already informed and engaged, or even totally disinterested or antagonistic towards our organization. Why choose ‘audience’ as a word?

  2. “Let’s get involved in some corporate charity event and feed the story to the media” …words spoken by a senior manager in a South African organisation. In business as opposed to academia can there really be a clear definition of public relations. Various terms such as public relation, public affairs, corporate affairs, corporate communication and communication management are all used interchangeably and all equally contribute to an organisations effort to communicate effectively. I understand the freedom of public relations in academia but where does one position public relations in the corporate world.

    Stakeholder relationship ideologies seem to truly exist on paper but in practice its not what it seems. Being a post graduate student and at the same time being in practice. I am yet to find or see a public relations professional sitting in the boardroom and being part of the decision making process. PR remains reactive, when problems arise then we think of PR strategies to take care of the problem (at least this remains true from what I’ve experienced in the corporate world). Could it be that the reason for organisations distant association with public relations is because the term “public relations” has been dragged on way past its time and only negative connotations still resonate within?

  3. In part I believe to have replied here

    You also address the issue of evaluation and measurement tools available for stakeholder relationship governance programs and you ask if the more traditional measurement tools are still valid.

    In my opinion there are very useful tools to track the quality of relationships both on and off line and this blog here has often described some. This does not howver imply that more mainstream communication evaluation and measurement tools are not useful. I would make an operational distinction (where possible) between communication objectives and relationship objectives. The first have to do with the perceived credibility of source and contents and the familiarity of the latter. The second have to do with trust, power distance, satisfaction and committment to the relationship. Of course in each specific case there are also other variables to consider for both evaluations.

  4. I agree with Estelle that practitioners have been practicing communication management within the same framework indicated in the Stockholm Accords, and they only needed an official document to “back them up in the boardroom”. Management is indicated as one of the elements in the Stockholm Accords. From a relationship management perspective of Public Relations (PR), balancing the interest of organisations and stakeholders is achieved through management of organisation–public relationship. This perspective is seen as the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between the organisation and the stakeholders on whom its success or failure depends on. Can one then conclude that the notion of stakeholder relationship management represents a fundamental change in the function and direction of PR as a movement away from the traditional impact measurement, such as quantity of communication messages produced in the mass media, to building, improving and maintaining relationships?

    In addition, According to King III report (Principle 8.2) the board should delegate management to proactively deal with stakeholder relationships. The board should consider whether it is appropriate to publish a list of its stakeholder grouping which it intends to deal with on a proactive basis and the method of engagement. If one looks back at the basic tenets of stakeholder theory, it is recommended that great care in recognitions and monitoring should be conducted with stakeholders holding greater power because stakeholders are not equal with their importance and, this variation is dependent on the prevailing context and organization. How does this discrimination indicate a sense of “relationship” to other stakeholders if power is the most critical dimension to stakeholder relationship management?

    Please share your views.

  5. I’d like to also point out Paul Seaman’s two recent posts, which have some interesting reflection on the concept of stakeholder relationships:

    I agree with one of the concepts within those that one issue with the idea of social relationship from a PR perspective is that they focus on the organization as the centre of the relationship. Whilst appreciating that organizations may wish to evaluate a relationship from its own perspective, the web of connections we are increasingly seeking means that others may not view this in the same way.

  6. King III report added a chapter on stakeholder relationships as a governance issue, which gives it a place on the Board agenda. Now, since PR is about providing communication and stakeholder engagement expertise to organisations with the aim of adding strategic value and contributing to the sustainability of the organisation; and since King III is one of the factors that influenced the Stockholm Accords, should stakeholder relationships not be included as part of the Accords?

    Can someone please share some thoughts as to what the rationale might be for not having stakeholder relationships as one of the Accords?

    1. Freda, I have some difficulty in responding as it seems to me that the accords, in their basic and repeated content all through the six selected areas, neatly define the fundamental transition of public relations from relationships with publics to stakeholder relationships. here is the final text of the accords

      1. Just to let everyone know that here in SA I have succesfully initiated a pilot project to test the application of 5 relationshio drivers as a tool to measure the quality and strength of stakeholder relationships. By focusing on quality, this is a deliberate move away from the prevalent functional approach to stakeholder management. At the end of the pilot, we intend to propose this model of 5 relationship drivers as the answer as to how Boards ot Directors can measure relationships with stakeholders….think of the 5 drivers along the same lines as the original 7 reputation drivers developed by Charles Fombrun

        1. interesting. I have been working on the same project for some time now and would very welcome an exchange amongst us, maybe even in this space or, if you prefer, privately. what do you say?

  7. For anybody interested in the Nestle obesity issues, here’s the conclusion to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, it shows there’s no easy definition of the problem or of its solution:

    “In the United States, a study of data from military recruits, veterans, and national surveys suggests mean BMI has increased over a long period since the Civil War up to recent times, with increases in the last several decades perhaps less steep than those observed earlier.25 Over the period 1960-1980 (covered by the earliest NHANES surveys and the National Health Examination Survey), obesity prevalence was relatively stable, but then it showed striking increases in the 1980s and 1990s. The data presented in our current study using 2007-2008 data suggest that the prevalence may have entered another period of relative stability, perhaps with small increases in obesity, although future large changes cannot be ruled out. Because relatively little is known about the causes of the trends previously observed, it is difficult to predict the future trends in obesity.”

  8. Interesting, Toni. Plato remarked in The Republic that people drink (water etc.) not to refresh themselves so much as to improve their health. My guess is that Plato was the world’s first health food advocate. However, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that they could find no increase in obesity in children and adolescents, and none – in a separate survey – in adult obesity (years 1999/2008). The only exception was with already obese boys. I’m no expert, but Nestle could well be owning up to a “crime” that never took place. But, hey, it is likely to be good for business anyway, even if it means trashing the sector’s past reputation and buying into some dodgy science and products (examples of which Clive Cookson provides in the FT – ones that were expensive, profitable and totally useless).

    The problem Nestle faces is that truth-telling sounds like a cover up (it had the same problem with its baby powder milk in Africa and more recently with palm oil sourcing in Indonesia).

  9. Yesterday, Satruday October 3, Clive Cookson, science editor of the Financial Times, arguably the nost ifluential daily business newspaper in the world, in an article describing Nestle’s decision to start up a health science organization, wrote this:

    public relations provides a powerful impetus to develop healthier products…….

    Interesting, no? Your take?

  10. This discussion about stakeholders should avoid “treat[ing] the environment as a stakeholder” or in principle my bath plug could become one too (people can be stakeholders, not things).

  11. I entirely agree with your comment and have been making small attempts to advocate this thread of thinking.
    Although I am not convinced that re-naming our profession would be of great help to out cause, surely it would not be harmful.
    Personally, I would prefer stakeholder relationship governance to stakeholder relationship management. But this is not really an issue.

    Thank you, and I am entirely on your side of the fence.
    Please be so kind as to send me ( more information about your activities. Let’s keep in touch.

  12. My view is that this generation should be bold and extend the effort that resulted in the Stockholm Accords into a total overhaul of PR. A crucial part of that overhaul is simply labels and names. From the foregoing exchanges on the definition of PR, it is clear that we are all weary of PR’s tendency to mean anything to anyone. That is exactly the problem, isn’t it? Does law mean anything to anyone? Does accounting mean anything to anyone? The answer to both questions is a definite NO. I submit that part of the envisioning of the profession through the Stockholm Accords should be what PR calls itself. This is over and above what it is. Just what it calls itself. My bold submission is that it is time we dropped public relations and allow the profession to assume a much more robust identity and label that will reflect its elevated status. Elevated status? Yes. Wasn’t PR’s status elevated before? Well may be, but it depends. Edward Bernays is credited to have given PR its name PR as an appropriate name for peace-times…as propaganda had been more appropriate for war ( WW1). Despite efforts of the so-called great grand fathers PR, it has taken too much of the propaganda connotations. In fact Bernays himself apparently began to complain about how the Germans used his material to fan the hate campaign against the Jews in the 1930s. Right through the WW2, PR and propaganda could easily be synonymous. It was the corporate sector in the post-WW2 boom period that began to assimilate PR into its fold but choose the “communications” value. Corporate sector was like ” we like this PR thing but for its communications role” This led to PR being seen as “spin”. From this time onwards….less emphasis was paid to the public and the relations. Thus PR morphed into corporate communications. Much as this should be celebrated as the legitimaization of PR’ value to business, it was also a death trap for the profession. By dropping the public ( read stakeholders) and relations ( read relationships) corporate communications was valued purely for the communication technician skills and from that time onwards, we have all witnessed how the profession had fought such a battle to be recognised as a strategic function as opposed to the tactical role most management seemed comfortable with. Do you notice how the profession missed a golden opportunity in the 1980s when Freeman published his now famed Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management based on bounded rationality logic to counter Porter’s dominant rational competitive models. This should have been the time for PR to embrace stakeholder management as a paradigm and rallying point for its quest for strategic elevation. No. PR was busy navel-gazing. In fact, PR was still trying to prove how strategic communications was. You will agree with me that as from the 1990s, we all seemed resigned to a fate in which we would never enjoy universal acceptance as a strategic function. In fact by the 1990s we began to piggy-back on any new paradigm that seemed to enjoy EXCO, CEO or Board-level support. The first one was CSI. Remember, all of a sudden, PR people, well communications people, were rallying behind CSI and claimining to responsble for CSI. In most countries, even the function was even changed from Corporate Communications to Corporate Affairs. Wait. But PR did not develop CSI. It came from somewhere. PR simply apropriated it. Well after the Bruntland Commission in 1987, sustainability was to take a different line altogther. John Elkington coined the ” triple bottom line” in the 1990s and it caught like fire in the business community. Remember sustainability originated from the environmental activism movement. None of us can claim to have originated this. But becuase it enjoyed CEO, EXCO and Board attention, did you notice how “Corporare Affairs” began to incorporate sustainability. In fact today, some people tend to define corporate communications and PR in terms of sustainability. Wait. Around the same time, a great man from New York, Charles Fombrun published his work on reputation. Did you see how a lot of PR and communications began to explain and define themselves in terms of reputation management. Well, after his Reputation Quotient with Harris Research, reputation proved to a winner with CEO. EXCO and Boards. Now PR was reputation management.
    Probably, not as a response to these developments, there were some people who still sought to bring the profession to its relationship roots. John Ledingham and Stephen published a book called PR as Relationship management in 2000. Again there were no takers. Were there? Did you see an explosion of new PR models based on relationships? I dont think so. It was just a book probably made sense to the academic world. Nobody seemed interested. First decade of 21st century was hit by two major corporate scandals occurences…so-called Enron era scandals and the 2008 meltdown. All fanned by corporate greed. The world agreed, capitalism was due for an upgrade. More controls by regulators or transperency and more ethics? The debate has been raging. However, at the core of this debate has been a thread that has gone almost unnoticed. The new capitalism had to be based on delivering value to all stakeholders. Not just the shareholders! We all agreed. Fanatic emphasis on shareholder dominance was a loop-hole and veil that needed to be pierced. We need to start creating “stake-facing” organisations instead of shareholder-facing ones. Stakeholders facing organisations will be based on relationships.

    So-called first world economies seemed paralysed. It took a bold move by South African to move this new business revolution into action. Its revision of code of corporate governance included a chapter of stakeholder relationships as a corporate governance issue. In particular, stakeholder relationships were now a Board agenda item. The Board was the sole custodion of stakeholder relationships. It has already been acknowledged by people like Toni that King 3 was one of the influencing factors behind the Stockholm Accord. But has anyone seen any reference to PR in King 3. The answer in No. There is no PR in King 3. But King 3 is about PR. How. Well because PR has always been about stakeholder relationships. So, why did PR fail to optimize Freeman’s book in 1984. Dont ask. Anyway, why do we insist on calling it PR? Why are so loyal to a label and name that has done very little for the reputation of the profession. Now go back to early 1900s….think of Ivy Lee perhaps.This is the early days of PR….Today, in 2010 its about a 100 years from Ivy’s tme. Isn’t time we took some bold steps. As we launch a new vision for the profession, isn’t time we also looked at this name and label. If it has always been about stakeholder relationships, why are not changing PR to Stakeholder Relationship Management (SRM). This is superior. Even the sustainability crowd, faced with the challenge and difficulty of embedding sustainability have accepted that the concept of relationships with stakeholders is the magic wand. If you focus on relationships you can achieve sustainability. In the same vein, if you focused on relationships, you can build reputations.

    I understand and appreciate the effort that has gone into the Stockholm Accords. Let us not make the mistake of just giving PR a cosmetic brush. Lets take the opportunity to overhaul it. Future generations will thank! This is healthy. Look at the Arthur Page Society’s ” Authentic Enterprise” Report for the evolution of other corporate functions. How did IT change from data and computing to Chief Information Officer (CIO) and how HR evolved from payroll/personnel to human resources to human capital. How marketing has been emphasizing its Brand building responsibility than its advertising skills. And you still doubt that names matter? Please do not tell me about the feeble attempt to call communications “Chief Communications Officer”. The communications connotation is what will keep PR tactical. It must be couched in language that will be appreciated by business…like stakeholder relationships.

    1. Interesting to read your argument in favour of a change of name for Public Relations to offer a clearer focus on its role in stakeholder relations management (or governance as Toni advocates).

      I’m not convinced that this would solve the problem you identify in respect of a poor reputation for PR, since arguably this may be seen simply as a cosmetic exercise and existing criticism of PR simply transferred to SRM (as happened with propaganda).

      It would be interesting to speculate what this suggestion means in respect of the relationship between PR and marketing – particularly regarding consumers as stakeholders.

      Also, it raises questions about the idea of relationship management/governance – would it be acceptable to have a transactional relationship (particularly if that is all the stakeholder wished for)? Secondly, does it shift the focus in PR education onto how to build/manage/govern relationships (which I believe would be a good thing) rather than simply how to communicate?

      One final thought though is that the term stakeholder tends to present an organisational perspective with the implication that the organisation is at the centre of all relationships – whereas the beauty of the term publics is that it relates to people forming around issues and is a useful reminder to PR practitioners that the organisation is not necessarily the centre of control of communications/relationships/reputation etc.

      1. Heather,

        I just want to address myself to your last point- about publics. This is the very reason I am suggesting we ditch PR. This obession with publics. It was James Grunig et al who coined this to distinguish it from stakeholders. Publics are stakeholders. The issues they form around always relate to a stake or interest they percieve to threatened or need to promote. And most of the time there is an organization ( for-profit, non-profit or governmental) that is either threatening this or failing to recognize this interest. Ultimately, the best way to address a lot of these issues is to revert to the organizational construct…whether for-profit or non-profit. Look at the climate change movement. Ultimately, everybody has realized in order to move it beyond rhetoric and attention-seeking demonstrations, it is organizations that are the fulcrum that can effect proper responses to climate change. What it means for organizations, is that environment and its proponents are treated as stakeholders by organizations – not some external issues. Strategies and tools are put in place not just to manage or quell their protestations but to build relationships that ensures that the organizations adapts to achieve its ends without harming the environment. That means, we change this whole thing from managing issues to value-creation. That is how the environmental movement morphed to sustainability. It was only when we began to treat the environment as a stakeholder and therefore had to develop a relationship with it that sustainability took root. You cannot harm an environment with which you have a relationship, can you? If you had kept it out there – as PR tends to see issues- I submit there would been little chance for sustainability to take hold of the world as it has.

        Therefore our value to the organization should not be to quell and controll trouble out there but to lead organization to develop relationships with their stakeholders so that such stakeholders do not have issues. That is why, I submit that the concept of stakeholder relationship managemenr/governance, as Toni suggests, is superior.
        In any case it is the only way we can take advantage of the opportunity presented by King 3 to demonstrate our strategic value-add to the organization. It is this reason King 3 has focused on building relationships with stakeholders…not managing issues with stakeholders. Had the chapter been entitled ” Managing Issues with Stakeholders”, I would agree with you, the PR moniker would have been appropriate. I am saying PR as it is practised it trapped in this “managing of issues” frame. Our value is in deploying stakeholder engagement and communications expertise to lead organizations to build relationships….when you have such relationships, you have a chance anticipate issues before they explode. Rather than sitting on the sideline – a la boundary-spanning philosophy, stakeholder relationship management moves you into the organization to be part of formulating new business models and perspectives in the 21st century.

        The question everyone is asking right now is….welll how do we define relationships in order to fulfill the requirements of King 3. I can tell you now, PR is looking out for issues whilst auditors – who had always been responsible for corporate governance issues – are busy piloting models for relationship definition. Once a auditor or another academic stream has developed, PR will start moving in to claim it.
        I am saying, by changing what we call ourselves, may be just may be we can start seeing clearer what an opporunity we have to elevate our profession to be truly strategic

  13. Estelle, I am very close to your position. The Accords are very helpful for teaching. They make students look at PR in the round and I have already injected the Accords into my undergraduate courses for this semester.

    In many ways the Accords challenge PR thinking and for some of us who are now convinced that reputation and relationships are founded on an understanding of the dynamic of values held between people and people (formally called the audience) and people and institutions it is a great help. As Bruno showed so eloquently this year and at Bled last year, these ideas are not just theoretical, they are founded on analysis of discourse of thousands of people.

    Most days, I work on analysis that keeps confirming this approach.

    Public relation is a discipline founded on an appreciation of citizen and institutional values. That is the base, the foundation, the elemental of the profession.

    When we know this, all of the debates fall into place. Some parts of PR are the work of its artisans, some is the stuff of inspired intuition, some is process and some is founded on immutable PR laws stemming from the role of PR in identifying, espousing and managing the explication of values.

    I do agree, we need to do much more research. We need the papers and we need the engagement and a more fundamental approach from academia… and perhaps that is what the GA can help to achieve.

    Thank you for your insights

  14. I share Toni’s sentiment.

    (The comments below are the result of my own reflection on the profession in general and are not made directly in reaction to Toni’s comments above. He just got me thinking about the topic again … )

    For many years I have listened to people complaining about the profession and all its challenges. Frankly, after 25 years in the profession, this debate is now becoming boring. (Worst still, is the question ‘What is the difference between marketing and PR’?.) Can we please move beyond complaining and try to find solutions to our challenges. What amazes me the most about this navel-gazing is the fact that this profession is known to attract extremely creative people. Why then do we enjoy talking about problems rather than talking about creative solutions?

    The Stockholm Accords is in more than one way a significant document. Its development and the enthusiasm with which it was received by practitioners across the world, illustrates that members of the Global Alliance are currently leading the debate on cutting edge developments in the field. Perhaps the ease with which the Stockholm Accords was accepted at the PR Forum in Stockholm earlier this year, also illustrates that its time has come; specifically because practitioners have been practising communication management within that framework for many years – they only needed an official document to “back them up in the boardroom”. The Stockholm Accords has been received extremely well in South Africa. Managers, practitioners and academics alike, have only given me positive feedback – as a matter of fact, I cannot recall one negative comment about it so far.

    I am of the opinion that we should keep up the momentum with promoting and implementing the Accords. The Global Alliance (GA), for example, provides a unique platform for dialogue between practitioners and academics, because of its composition of professional and academic associations. Perhaps this should then be the place to discuss the “potential implications of the Accords brief on education and professional training programmes”.

    The GA, as representative of the profession and acting as an umbrella body for associations across the world, could for example, also “accredit” academic courses that are in line with the Stockholm Accords. In our academic department we are currently looking for an international body that could do exactly this, and in my opinion the GA is the most suitable body. (Incidentally, we also now address the Stockholm Accords in all our graduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Pretoria and will use it as a framework for determining our own research areas. Another exciting development, is the split of our Department of Marketing and Communication Management into two separate departments – the Accords brief has served as the final motivation for this, burying once and for all the discussion about the ‘difference between marketing and communication’.)

    Another possibility is an internationally recognised accreditation exam for students and practitioners, regulated by the GA. The GA could also suggest focus areas (the Stockholm Accords is a good example) for academics to do research on (keeping in mind academic freedom). This could be one way in which practitioners and academics could co-create the future of the profession.

    One of the implications of the Stockholm Accords on the profession in South Africa is the development of a set of Generally Accepted Communication Practice (GACP) guidelines. The Council for Communication Management (CCM), representing most of the communication related professional associations in South Africa, will develop this set of guidelines, that will also assist with the professionalisation of communication management in South Africa. Once again, something that the GA could consider taking further, with the development of a global set of GACP (?)

    The Stockholm Accords will be discussed in detail at this year’s Conference of the South African Communication Association (SACOMM), representing communication academics; as well as at the AGM of the CCM in September later this year.

    Perhaps those of us who are interested in finding creative solutions to the challenges of our profession should just keep on working towards that goal, together with like-minded people, and not get sidetracked by individuals who insist on talking about the same-old same-old problems. We all know what the problems are – it’s the solutions that we should be interested in …

    PS: Thanks for the refreshing perspective of Tim Marshall (“Time for radical thinking and real PR leadership”) elsewhere on this blog. This is the kind of creative thinking we need if this profession is going to be taken seriously and survive in the future. Also because some of us are not satisfied with being labled as “spin doctors” or even worse “court jesters”…

  15. Well said, David.
    To be honest and fair, and also considering the late evening discussion at Bled a few weeks ago, I would suggest that, maybe, scholars and academics are the first not to keep up with the impressive amount and quality of research which is going on in all parts of the world.
    Of course practitioners are close seconds in this lack of attention, but the motivations are different.
    Maybe the academic is constrained in h/er curiosity by small closed chronystic circuits.
    S/he will read even the most banal reserach coming from anyone who belongs to that circle but will ignore anything that comes from someone else.
    The practitioner has a better alibi: he practices for a living and does not really have the time to keep updated with research.
    Of course this is an alibi … but in the case of the academica it is an intellectual sin.

  16. Given that we deal with the public and indoing so evoke a asocil relationship construct, it seems to me that it is not hard to understand That PR is about relationship management between groups of people.

    It is just such a shame that so few people have thought through the significance of Bruno Amaral’s paper to Bled in 2009.

    We now have a much clearer idea of what relationships are, how they form, morph and breakdown.

    If we know this,what is the problem?

    Perhaps practitioners do not take time out to keep up with the research?

Comments are closed.