Written by Noemi Pollack on November 22, 2011.
At a recent dinner party, the conversation at our table of eight, centered politely on the introductory question — “what do you do” — and went slowly around the table to each guest. When it was my turn and told that I am in public relations and marketing, my dinner partner to the left, a dentist, probed further as to what that really means and exactly what do I really do. By the time dessert came around, I had given him a detailed rundown of all the tools and strategies the we, PR professionals, employ to impact marketplace perceptions and changed behaviors. It didn’t make a dent. He was still at it when dessert came around and, in total defeat and exasperation, I made a lame excuse and left the table.
That scene is familiar enough to many of my colleagues, for it has repeated itself far more than not, over decades. It’s not that we cannot define our profession clearly enough, (although maybe, that too) but rather that a large swath of the public-at-large does not have a clue about what we do past that despised buzz word description — “spin doctors.” Still, we have to recognize that this has resonated with the public — and therefore stuck.
It is way overdue to “unstick it,” and the industry’s foremost association, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is leading this charge with its new campaign aptly named, Public Relations Defined. The effort is seeking to be inclusive and will solicit suggestions from the public along with public relations professionals, academics and students on its website: prdefinition.prsa.org, using a crowd-sourcing model.
The re-definition is timely enough considering that the last “official” definition of our industry was back in 1982, when PRSA defined it as “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” A bit gray, I think, but just consider, almost 30 years ago…
Clearly, individually and collectively, PR professionals have recognized the profound changes in the dynamics of communication in the 21st Century — worlds away from communication strategies employed in the 20th Century — and have re-defined it themselves, using new descriptors for new tactics, such as buzz marketing, social media, new media,digital marketing, earned media, etc.
Stuart Elliot said it best in his NY Times column, when commenting on PRSA’s new effort to re-define Public Relations, “the Internet and social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter have transformed the relationship between the members of the public and those communicating with them. A process that for decades went one way — from the top down, usually as a monologue — now goes two ways, and is typically a conversation.”
PR professionals understand this, of course. In a world where consumers get engaged and enraged with corporate blunders (BP, prime example) sometimes even before their PR chiefs can unfurl their PR crisis plan, the rules of the game have changed, and therefore calls for a new definition.
And then again, it may not be about a definition at all.
Taken literally, PR is, and has always been, a service defined as relating to the public, whether for a corporation, an organization, an association, a charity or a government entity. The dynamic change is that now the public can relate back…
Hopefully, the outcome of the inclusive nature of the PRSA’s effort will produce a strong and resonant definition, one that will put an end to the misguided “spin” perception of PR.