It is a common debate for comms professionals, because the definition of ‘PR’ has always been rather difficult. And the social media age has only made the boundaries of the profession more vague.
Insecure PR professionals have tended to define themselves as a ‘cheaper but more effective’ alternative to advertising.
Moreover, thanks to high-profile examples of unethical media manipulation – or ‘spin’ – the very term has become tainted.
As a result we are increasingly hearing new terms used by clients to explain what was previously the territory of PR advisers – ‘earned media’, ‘word of mouth marketing’, ‘buzz marketing’.
This week America’s largest PR organisation, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), begins a drive to find a better definition of ‘public relations’ – and, quite appropriately, it is using the crowd-sourcing model to come up with this description.
The PRSA is asking visitors to its website to submit suggestions on a template, from which it will create so-called word clouds. The US trade body will then convene to generate the three best definitions from this crowd-sourcing exercise, which it will put to a public vote.
It is appropriate because the biggest single change to the PR business over the past decade has been the transition from a ‘top down’ comms process – in which PR professionals try to influence the messages transmitted from traditional media to the masses – to a ‘conversational’ approach – whereby those professionals attempt to influence the more democratic conversations taking place between an organisation, or brand, and its various stakeholders.
Finding a new definition of PR matters because the tens of thousands employed within this well-established industry need to more clearly and consistently explain what they do – and the value they add.
It also matters because, as I have said frequently here recently, there is a pressing demand to hire the best digital talent. And this recruitment process would be boosted by improved rigour in defining the role.
The PRSA aims to come up with its new definition of public relations by Christmas. I would urge the UK PR industry to take a hard look at this in the New Year. If successful, this interesting project could prompt a constructive new definition on this side of the pond, which PRWeek is happy to lead.