14 PR Pros Have Their Say On Flawed PRSA Definition

When the PRSA announced back in November that it was going to attempt to redefine public relations, I remember going on a bit of a Twitter rant (I know, not like me right?) about what a pointless and misguided exercise it was that was unlikely to bear any relation to working on the coalface of the PR industry. I’m not right very often, but on this occasion I was sadly bang on the money. The PRSA’s recently announced definition (and I’m not even going to type it because it winds me up too much) has left many PR professionals feeling frustrated at a missed opportunity and angry at how it does little to alter our perception as spin doctors.

I’ve given it a little while to let the dust settle, but my opinion hasn’t changed: the definition sucks. It spectacularly misses the point with some of the language it uses, and it paints PR further into a corner that is already rapidly decreasing in size. It’s difficult to believe that it’s taken the guts of four months to come up with something so generic, jargon-packed and out of touch. In fact, it’s so lame that it appears the entire project was nothing more than an exercise in stroking some already large and smug egos. But listen, this is just my opinion and FutureComms is supposed to be about the wider view. So I asked some other folk for their thoughts…

They may as well have said: public relations is the gobbledegook practice of big words that make us sound smarter than you, which is why we charge the big bucks. Motto: The bigger the word, the bigger the fee”, says Danny Brown“I’m probably biased as I hate corporate speak with a vengeance. But for an organization that’s trying to decloak the mystery behind PR, they’re making it even cloudier. When I hear organizations [in the definition], I immediately think of large companies. So does that mean the PRSA doesn’t want its members helping the little guy? And come on, but calling the customers of an organization ‘their publics’ [also in the definition] is so cold it should be a team sport in Antarctica.” Indeed (and relatively restrained for Danny!).

Similarly, Meg McAllister feels thatit’s a bunch of carefully selected buzzwords strung together in a sentence that will result in anyone outside the industry asking: “What does that mean?” This whole exercise has been pointless in my opinion, and has been nothing more than PRSA grandstanding for its own self-importance.” “If I told my Nan this is what I do every day, she’d be none the wiser”, adds Louise Smith.

I suspect Louise’s Nan wouldn’t be alone.As a non-PR I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment, but from a holistic perspective as an outsider, it doesn’t exactly inspire or create wonder as to the potential of the industry to make a difference”, says Hugh Anderson. Oh dear.

The Perception Issue

For an industry whose raison d’etre is reputation management and communications, the perception of PR couldn’t be a lot worse, something not missed by Gini Dietrich:The New York Times did a piece on the new definition [in which] they referred to the industry, as a whole, as spin doctors. PR is more than publicity. For those of us who include media relations as one tactic in an overall communications program, spinning the truth is not something we do.”

The point about the scope of PR is something that Sara Hawthorn expands upon when she says: “PR is a diverse medium of communication, and encapsulating its essence – especially at the pace the sector is changing – is a difficult task. Strategic engagement provides a much more substantial qualification than simply calling it a communication process. I suspect many PR people will feel this undervalues the work they do.”

Shelley Pringle says: “I guess that’s what PR practitioners do, but it certainly wouldn’t be my pick for a 30-second ‘elevator’ explanation. It’d be far more beneficial if our industry associations spent their time identifying where we’re headed as a profession and providing us with the tools to get there. Otherwise many PR pros will soon find that their skills are obsolete (if they aren’t already).”

Contributing to Our Own Downfall?

This is something that worries me too. The importance of relevance in terms of achieving PR outcomes should not be underestimated. We are, after all, marketers, and we cannot let jargonistic and self-serving exercises like this one deter us from that.
“It seems to me that PR is ashamed to say we are trying convince people to buy something (business), join something (association), support something (government or non profit) or vote for something (political)”, says Frank Strong. “The industry gets wrapped up in this idea that we are impartial, we liken ourselves to journalists, and we focus on ‘mutually beneficial relationships’. We are not impartial. We are advocates for a particular point of view, product or idea. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that!”This is something we’re focusing increasingly on at BOTTLE. As CEO Claire Cairns says: “Surely we need to focus on outcomes, impact and behaviour change, rather than a ‘process’? This will only serve to reduce trust, not increase it. The PRSA has inadvertently made the definition far more complicated and I’m not convinced they’ve improved upon the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Why Do We Need a Definition?

The entire issue of needing to define PR in the first place has come under a lot of fire. “To be honest, [the PRSA] could have got this from Wikipedia and saved themselves the 12 country collaboration, ‘nearly a year of research’, a definition task force and 1400 odd votes”, points out Kate Hartley, while Kate Stinchcombe-Gillies says: “They (definitions)  belong in text books and essays, and very few of these serve a relevant purpose in the practical delivery of our awesome industry.” “PR is fluid in the 21st century –  it can’t be restricted to one single sentence”, states Matt Churchill, while Nick Henderson says simply “The definition doesn’t cut it, especially at a time when expressing our value as an industry is more important than ever.”The last word (somewhat inevitably if you know her) goes back to Gini Dietrich: “While I commend the PRSA for taking on this initiative and understand they can’t please everyone, the process was flawed. They had us fit our definitions into a fill in the blanks formula that didn’t allow for true crowdsourcing or independent thinking. The definition is jargon, at best, and still doesn’t explain what we do. Until the industry, as a whole, can describe what we do, in terms of business results, this exercise was futile.”