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Modern Definition of PR — The More Things Change, The More Thigs Stay the Same

cartoonOne of the first things I learned when I entered the public relations industry 25 years ago is that few people truly understand what PR actually is. I’ve never heard a great “elevator speech” that adequately describes it. When people ask me what I do for a living and I don’t have the time, interest or energy to properly explain it, I’ve resort to saying I’m a marketing consultant or corporate publicist. When I interview a candidate for an entry level position, I always ask them to define PR. This question never fails to illicit an interesting response. A number of candidates – including some with college degrees in public relations – have been completely unable to provide a coherent answer. The reason PR is difficult to describe concisely is that there are so many different types of PR. Helping clients clarify their message, writing news releases and talking to the press are the most widely understood functions of a typical PR person. However, publicists, crisis managers, political campaign strategists, lobbyists and other specialty “spin doctors” have also been counted among our ranks. The best definition of PR that I’ve ever come across was from a PR textbook called Effective Public Relations that I still have from college. It says “Public relations is the management function that identifies, establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics on whom its success or failure depends.” While the definition would require elaboration to accurately explain someone’s specific PR job, it does provide enough meat to differentiate PR from other types of marketing. It is also broad enough to encompass the multiple facets of the industry. And it has stood the test of time. In practice, PR is an extremely different animal than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. However, its fundamental purpose remains unchanged. To be sure, the emergence of the Internet as one of the best ways to spread information and influence opinion has turned traditional public relations on its head. It has given rise to a whole new group specialties and specialists and a new set of thought leaders including Brian Solis, Steve Rubel, Mike Manuel and Jeremy Pepper to name just a few. The impact of the Internet has changed the whole communications landscape dramatically enough that it has lead many self-appointed new media pundits to declare that PR is dead. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, for those who embrace change and new challenges, there has never been a more exciting time to be in PR. Of course, there have been some growing pains. One of the most high profile was a program that Edelman conducted for Wal-Mart. It is important to note, however, that Edelman was among the first PR agencies to pioneer Internet PR. When you are exploring uncharted territories, you have to be willing to take an arrow in the back. The reward is often worth the risk. Today, it is hard to find a PR agency that doesn’t claim to be an expert in Internet PR, social media, blogger relations, etc. Unfortunately ours is an industry where perception often precedes reality. In truth, many practitioners are just now beginning to adapt and figure out for themselves what will and won’t work. The bad news is that when they make mistakes, it leads to harsh criticism that impacts us all. The good news is that many mistakes are totally avoidable. Most of the industry’s true thought leaders are sharing every detail of the secrets to their success. Their collective wisdom is available via a whole array of social media outlets to anyone who bothers to search for it (thanks to all of you for that by the way). There is no question that the methods of communication, tools and techniques used to “maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics on whom its success or failure depends” will continue to change rapidly. However, the fundamentals and foundation for success haven’t changed. The same principles that worked in 1950 will still be in play in 2050. These include:
  • Understanding your clients, their products and their industry
  • Understanding the key audiences (a.k.a. “publics”)
  • Developing clear, concise messaging geared toward those audiences
  • Determining what forms of communication are most effective in reaching them
  • Providing them with interesting, accurate and timely information that they will find valuable
Without these fundamentals in place, you can be successful whenever, wherever and however you choose to practice PR. pr