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.