There's nothing more predictable than the PR industry's constant urge to 'define itself'. So today, true to form, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has announced that it is to develop a new 'modern definition' of PR (again). 

Following attempts in 2003 and 2007, this time there's a microsite, a piece in the New York Times and even a crowd-sourcing initiative.

Why do we need to define PR? It's a great question. The last time the PRSA tried to find a new definition was four years ago. PRSA CEO Rosanna Fiske laments that it is hard for her to explain to her mum what she does. Will a definition really help here? This is the current one:

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

If you can't explain to your mum what a PR does, then the issue seems to me to be wider than merely an industry definition.

The fundamentals of this run far deeper. Our constant need to redefine what it is we do could be seen as an indication of the fast-moving digital world we find ourselves in. And it would be hard to argue against this. But is it really necessary? Does it happen in other industries? In other marketing sectors?

Running scared?

I think there is something else at work here: fear. There is immense fear in the PR industry about what it actually means to do PR these days. The reason I was drawn to PR in the first place was because of the interesting position the industry finds itself in. There are so many drivers that make this an incredibly rich sector to be working in, from the democratisation of media to the socalisation of the web. But fear still pervades. And I am constantly frustrated by how slow sections of the industry are to reinvent themselves.

Maybe that is the problem with trying to find a definition because, apart from a few good agencies and practitioners doing great, pioneering work, there is too much burying of heads in the sand and hoping that the 'same old' will continue to be enough.

It won't.

The ironic thing is that the fundamentals of PR haven't really changed - building relationships with publics is as relevant now as it has always been. Yes, some of the tactics may have changed and strategies may have shifted, but the fundamentals are the same. So changing the definition just feels like papering over the cracks.

In light of the recent furore about the role of professional bodies in the industry, maybe we should welcome this development as a chance to raise the debate around what it is that PR is all about.

I'm just not sure whether sitting around debating high level definitions is the thing that is going to transform the industry and its reputation. Action speaks louder than words and, after all, we should know that better than most...

picture credit


Published 22 November, 2011 by Danny Whatmough

Danny Whatmough is Head of Digital, EMEA Consumer at Weber Shandwick. He can be found on TwitterGoogle+  and blogs at

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Comments (4)


Keith Trivitt

Danny - Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Public Relations Defined initiative. However, I'm not sure I agree with you that this campaign represents a "crisis of confidence." If that were the case, how would we have gotten 10 professional organizations and trade associations within the industry, many of whom compete against one another for members, to support the effort? Furthermore, since when is an effort to update and modernize the common concept and perception of the PR industry, or any industry for that matter, considered to be done so out of "fear" as you state?

I'm not buying it.

Rather, this effort is one that has taken nearly a year to put in place, after hundreds of discussions with the business community, the PR, advertising, marketing and media industries and many others, not to mention the research and other due dilligence that went into this. I think a "crisis of confidence" would have been to hastily launch this initiative without any proper support from the general industry. Clearly, we have that.

I would hope that most view this as a much-needed effort to better inform the business community and other interested parties of PR's modern role and value. Sometimes, a definition just needs updating. Simple as that. And in this case, that is what we are attempting to do, along with our 10 global partners and thousands of PR pros around the world.

Hopefully, you will be a part of this effort. Please feel free to contribute your definition of public relations here: and feel free to add any detailed perspective you may have in the comments.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director
Public Relations Society of America

over 6 years ago


Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Hi Keith,

I'm not saying that the campaign represents a crisis of confidence. I'm saying I think there is a crisis of confidence in the industry in general and I wonder if attempts to constantly redefine what it is we are supposedly doing just underlines this. It makes us look as though we don't collectively really know what we are doing (maybe this is true).

To me personally, it is very clear what PR is about and I don't think this has fundamentally changed. What has changed are the tactics and situations we as PRs (and brands) come up against and the techniques we now have to use to counteract these challenges. I'm not sure if this changes the definition of what PR is all about though.

It's an interesting debate and I genuinely hope that you prove me wrong and that the new definition manages to encapsulate all that it means to be a PR and be involved in the industry.

But I just don't think a new definition will be enough to equip many in the industry with the confidence they need to get out there and show why PR is still relevant and timely in this day and age.


over 6 years ago


Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Thanks for the comment William

over 6 years ago

Stephen Waddington

Stephen Waddington, Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum

Agree - with bigger issues to worry about as an industry.

over 6 years ago

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