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…

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