The Chartered Institute of Public Relations definition of public relations:
Public relations is about reputation - the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.
Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.
The definition debate
Early 2012 saw renewed interest in trying to define public relations to reflect recent changes in practice, brought on by developments such as the increasing use of social media and new ways of engaging with publics. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) set out in late 2011 to consult with practitioners and others to arrive at a new definition, which it has published:
Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations supported the initiative, but remains committed to its own definition of the practice (see top of page).
The PRSA's initiative and discussions prompted by CIPR's PR2020 research on the future of public relations practice stimulated efforts to reconsider definitions of the practice. Philip Sheldrake, author of the recently published book, The Business of Influence, and a commentator on recent developments in the practice, set out a possible definition of public relations with a helpful explanation of key elements of his proposed definition.
Of course, efforts to define or redefine public relations are not new. An often-quoted example is Rex Harlow's from 1972. He examined 472 definitions of public relations to try to arrive at a definitive version (Rex F. Harlow, "Building a Public Relations Definition," Public Relations Review 2 (1976), p. 36. 16.)
More recently, in 2008, the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) developed a new definition for the practice at the end of a thorough exercise to arrive at a new definition:
Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals and serve the public interest.
Public relations in practice
In practice, it's useful to be familiar with the efforts to define the practice, and with current views of the practice and its scope.
Public relations is conceived of in a number of ways:
- As a marketing discipline (part of the marketing mix) – a view often expressed in PRWeek in the UK.
- As the management of communication between an organisation and its publics (a view attributed in the past to US academics such as James Grunig).
- As the management of reputation (a view developed in the mid-1990s as the then Institute of Public Relations in the UK tried to redefine public relations).
- As the management of relationships between an organisation and its publics (a view arrived at by academics and practitioners associated with the US Institute for Public Relations).
- As a practice with a significant contribution to make to the performance and success of organisations (currently discussed by, among others, Philip Sheldrake in 'The Business of Influence').
Harold Burson quotes Edwards Bernays in his blog post on his view of public relations as an applied social science. He is supported in this by Ward White, a strategy officer with Edelman, who recently suggested that "Public relations, properly practised, is a disciplined, fact-based, research-based application of the social sciences to human behaviour" (in a message, 5 May 2012, to friends of the Institute for Public Relations).
For an evolving practice such as public relations, definitions of public relations will inevitably lag behind or fail to capture all aspects of the practice. It is useful for practitioners to be familiar with the debate about definitions, to draw on their knowledge of the debate when asked to explain the practice and to contribute their own thoughts.