If you aren't already aware, there is a new initiative spearheaded by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to update the definition of PR. New web technologies such as social media and digital commerce have altered the way PR is practiced. Therefore, many in the industry have felt for some time that a new definition of PR is in order. (You can also find out what PR practitioners think by following the #PRDefined hashtag on Twitter).
What do you think of this initiative? How do you define PR?
"Public relations is the practice of producing publicity (excluding promotional materials and paid advertising, which typically fall under the purview of Marketing); managing media relations and communications (typically among members of the Fourth Estate); and managing reputation."
We chose this definition because we think it expresses what is both essential to public relations practice, as well as what distinguishes it from other management functions. Our definition also takes into account what most PRs do, most of the time, in carrying out their job duties. Additionally, our definition takes into consideration Wittgenstein's notion of "meaning as use"; a concept's definition is constrained by how it is used in general parlance.
For example, many of the current definitions seem to want to focus on this idea of relationship building or relationship management. But relationship building is a necessary management function of any business, regardless of whether the business has a PR firm, or an in-house PR staff, or whether it even calls this "public relations" or not. In other words, "relationship management" does not seem to be a feature that is distinctive of public relations because it is shared, in most organizations, by many different job functions or departments. CxOs, HR people, sales managers, marketing directors - all these people are involved in relationship building with stakeholders.
Another set of definitions emphasizes "adapting an organization to its publics", but these don't seem distinctive of PR, either. For instance, under these types of definitions, when the public in question is customers, then PR is more or less customer service - as customer service focuses on adapting an organization's products and services to its customers. When the public is employees, PR would very often be reducible to Human Resources - as HR handles adapting employees to its organization in various ways.
If we were to use the "adapting an organization to its public" idea, when the public is shareholders, PR is more or less investor relations, as shareholders are investors, first and foremost. When the public is the media (or the consumers of a particular media outlet), PR is basically media relations. When the public is the aggregate of potential consumers or audiences "out there", PR can be talked about in terms of "publicity" or "reputation management."
In other words, to try to make PR a function of "adapting an organization to its publics" seems to me to be a confounding and unnecessarily confusing way of defining PR; this "adapting" is often already done by another department or business function.
As Hegel said, "All determination implies negation." To say what PR is requires that we say what it is not. Therefore, we choose our definition. Publicity, media relations, and reputation management: these appear to us to be the functions that are almost always done by PR people and only by PR people; this marks these functions essential to PR; without these, PR ceases to be PR. These functions are also almost never done by any other job roles or departments; this marks them as distinguishing characteristics of PR folks; you don't find marketers or CFOs or Legal or Sales primarily focusing on these functions. Hence, we think our definition, which is a slight elaboration of Morris and Goldsworthy's, is solid.