PRSA defines 21st century practice through 20th century lens


By Steve Lundin, Chief Hunter and Gatherer– BIGfrontier Communications Group

Most adults don’t ask their kids to help them figure out what they do for a living — unless, of course, they have Alzheimer’s or are named the Public Relations Society of America. The 65-year-old organization recently put out a call to its members with just that burning question through its “public relations defined initiative,” which will culminate in an international summit surrounding the creation of a single definitive sentence.

This hand-wringing, flop sweat-inducing, anxiety-ridden search for sublime succinctness promises to explain — once and for all — what it is that PR people actually get paid to do.

PR evolved from typing copy to following up with phone calls, which spawned a practice that is now attempting to identify itself as a profession. The one glaring roadblock to true professional status, however, is the nonexistent barrier to entry in PR. If you can get online you can conduct public relations. Without a test and certification requirement to practice public relations, the manicurist with a state-issued license is more of a professional than any Zenga-clad Madison Avenue flack.

The proliferation of social networks has enabled everyone to transmit public relations messages. Witness the two self-appointed Domino’s brand emissaries whose nose-picking pizza-making video caused a worldwide marketing nightmare for the company in 2009. Our cornucopia of new communications platforms has stolen the limelight from good old billable media relations.

If the “message” can be sent out by anyone, the ability to earn a press clipping by getting a business reporter drunk isn’t such a big deal anymore. Dabbling in the media sandbox has become our new national pastime. Want to contact CNN? Just tweet @andersoncooper — you’ll have the same odds for attention as a six-figure-a-year media specialist. Can you blame the poor old PRSA for wanting to lay down some lion pee and reclaim turf?

In the quest for the Holy Definition, the PRSA turned up over 200 responses, from which they have selected three finalists. These were put through the idea mill of a second summit, out of which came yet more modified definitions, which were in turn be put to a vote. It’s pretty clear they turned to the most straightforward and thorough model for this approach: The Iowa Caucuses.

The angst concerns rewriting this 1982 definition: Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

Interpretation:  Since we’re stuck with each other let’s try to get along.

Here’s the carefully selected redefinition: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Interpretation: If we have to talk to each other, what do I get out of it?

Clearly, 30 years hasn’t diluted the spiritless thinking behind this exercise in stilted prose. Public relations is a haven for journalists who want to make more money and English majors who couldn’t write well enough to be journalists.  How about a definition that captures what these groups really do:  “Public relations is the practice of attempting to make even the most boring story interesting.”

What the PRSA and its shell-shocked membership have overlooked are the qualities that bring people to the practice in the first place: creativity, imagination, curiosity and an ability to tell stories. How many contracts will be signed because an agency is going to deliver “mutually beneficial relationships?” It’s just this kind of thinking that will hinder PR’s evolution from a tadpole to a certified toady.

The essence of public relations is dissemination of controlled creativity, because at the end of the day that’s what a client is willing to pay for. The PRSA should be spending more of its time delineating quantifiable skill sets and talents, and less on honing the art of business-babble. Creating some kind of barrier to entry is the only path to formalized licensure. Imagine the pride PR pros will enjoy when they’ve finally attained equality with manicurists, plumbers, truck drivers and all the other card-carrying members of real professions.  Those folks didn’t need an Iowa Caucus to figure out what they do for a living – because any real profession can be defined with a  quick look into the toolbox.




  1. Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound on April 2, 2012 at 9:08 am

    How incredibly boring. If I were a client who had hired PRSA member to write a press release for me, and it sounded like that one-sentence mission statement, they’d be gone in a minute. Sentences like that make my eyes glaze over.

  2. Susan Tellem on April 2, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    As long as I have been a member of PRSA (30 years), PRSA has been hand wringing, taking our dues and then hand wringing some more. If you look up the word “tiresome” in the dictionary, PRSA’s logo will be there. I have debated licensure at a number of meetings and in a few articles. I am opposed to it. Getting accredited by PRSA is the next best thing, yet only a small number of members take the test. This is clearly one way of separating the goats from the sheep when one is looking for someone to hire who is not a manicurist or a plumber doing PR on the side.

  3. Sam Waltz on April 2, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I’m not sure who PRSA is, or at least who the blogger and the commentators think it is. With 25,000-plus paying members, and a handful of paid staff, my impression is that PRSA is us — that is, people like you and me working every day in the field. In that sense, PRSA is not same faceless, impersonal automaton, but rather it’s us. And PRSA invited each of us, you, me, and all the rest, to participate in this process, which was covered from the NYT to all the trade pubs. I didn’t, so I kind of forfeited my right to complain about the definition — which of course is not what I would have written. I’m assuming the others here did participate in the process — which of course then empowers them to criticize the result. If they didn’t participate, shame on them as well as shame on me. PRSA is led by volunteers, hundreds of them at any one time. I was one of its active national volunteers for about 10-15 years, from the early ’90s to the mid 2000s. I volunteered because I wanted to be part of the change process at PRSA, and I was. Many others have done so, too, and that process is an open process — actually well within the spirit of the commentary here because it focuses on PR pros who have committed to the APR process. PRSA, like most organizations, has a lot of room for improvement, so I’d just encourage those here who identify that to realize that their criticisms of PRSA really are criticisms of their peers, and, if they’re not satisfied with what they see and find, they really ought to step up and get involved.

  4. Andy Russell on April 3, 2012 at 4:28 am

    Congrats to Steve on a very funny blog post! I actually participated in PRSA’s crowd-sourcing “contest” to redefine PR. My preferred offering would have been two sentences, like this:

    “Public relations is a communications practice dedicated to helping individuals or organizations establish constructive relationships with their many stakeholders, enhance visibility and understanding of their key messages, and build and maintain good reputations. It does this by using communication strategically and by encouraging actions that promote goodwill.”

    Unfortunately, PRSA restricted me and other entrants to just a single sentence, a singularly bad idea. My entry dropped into the ether — sifted, massaged and spit out by a giant crowd-sourced Hal of a computer — the proverbial thousand-monkey solution. Better would have been a request from PRSA for selected practitioners to submit short-paragraph definitions, and then to have a blue-ribbon committee sift through those for the top 3 to 5 paragraphs that made the most sense, then have people crowd-source a reaction to those thoughtful selections. After all, isn’t that a more-or-less typical editing process anyway? When I submitted my entry in the “contest,” I had to follow a too-rigid entry-structure –- entering phrases in pre-selected fields that could only end up being a single sentence. I was very frustrated by that constriction, but I submitted an entry anyway. I would have preferred a free-flowing ability to enter what I wanted to enter, in more than one sentence, rather than a fill-in-the-blank exercise.

    PRSA’s redefinition methodology was flawed and a wheel-spinning waste of time, with the end result not truly meaningful and beneficial to all stakeholders.

  5. stevel on April 3, 2012 at 10:58 am

    @ Andy: Love the thousand monkeys reference – give them each an old Selectric to bang on and maybe the org would get somewhere!

  6. Ron Antonette on April 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    I have read comments similar to Sam Waltz’s elsewhere and I’ll post the same reply here as I did there: The criticism is not of the peers, it’s of the paid professional staff (considering our $200+ dues payments, there’s considerable money floating around) to not provide solid, strategic counsel to the volunteer committee and pull the e-brakes on this trainwreck of a definition. As Andy Russell correctly notes, the process for developing this was flawed from the outset, and judging by from professionals the comments on PRSA’s own site, there is considerable dissatisfaction with this.

    My take: This definition will not help any PR person earn an extra dollar — who could ever “sell” this to a client?! The best it will do is provide some HR executive with some words for their job descriptions.

  7. stevel on April 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    From what I can tell the organization lacks a lightening rod – someone with a vision to rally around. It’s about as exciting as pudding – and I don’t mean bread pudding (that’s exciting). What we are seeing are examples of fear – fear that anyone with a clever idea can get press – or attention. The smoke and mirrors contrivance of secret media lists and connections is gone. What’s left? An open playing field for nimble thinkers. And that scares the hell out of people who have been skating through their careers based on past performance. Someone should get JACK O’DWYER in on this gabfest.

  8. Jack O'Dwyer on April 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    With all this talk about what PR is, PR people and others should look at what is happening in PR–the almost 100% shift of PR (meaning creativity, press and social media contact) to the agencies just like advertising left corporations about 50 years ago. Creative people need to knock heads with each other.
    PR firms have built up great expertise in the dozen areas we track such as healthcare, tech and finance. We have just finished talking to the 125 PR firms in our ranking and they’re all having a lot of fun and making money. They help their clients cope with the public, government, security analysts, etc. They don’t “build” anything. They try to do that as best they can. It’s a struggle.
    The biggest PR firm (and most open and cooperative with the press) is Edelman whose $604 million in fees is five times as big as the next firm, APCO at $120M.
    Here’s a link to detailed coverage of this story in the free part of our website:
    Forget definitions of PR and see what is going on in the agencies. As for corporate and institutional PR, it doesn’t exist. Companies not only got rid of the name PR but the function decades ago. Corporate PR is the Dept. of “No” (assuming they even pick up the phone). A clue is that PR Seminar, the 60-year-old annual meeting of 150 blue chip “ccmmunications” heads, dropped the PR from their name three years ago.

  9. stevel on April 3, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    And speak of the devil! Ladies and gentlemen – the one and only Jack OD is in the house! Now I know Commpro has arrived!!!

  10. What is Public Relations? on May 4, 2012 at 7:29 am

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