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The Folly of Redefining PR: The BOTTLE Perspective

Blog post   •   Mar 19, 2012 10:48 GMT

In November last year, the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) announced that it was launching a mission to redefine what public relations is all about in our hyper-connected, always-on, socially-driven modern world. Last week it announced the results of that four month investigationPublic relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.’

Right then. So everyone clear about that? Feel like you understand it now or that you can do your job better? No, neither does anyone else who’s read it.

Next week on BOTTLE Uncorked, a team of our most senior, knowledgeable and insightful personnel is going to start blogging regularly for you. So I thought it was a great opportunity to introduce them by offering their own unique take on the new PRSA definition.

Defining the Wrong Thing?

Kicking things off is Claire Cairns, BOTTLE’s CEO, who feels that the new definition of PR won’t help people outside the industry understand what it is we do. “Surely we need to focus on outcomes, impact and behaviour change, rather than a ‘process’?”, she says. “Few people will understand what ‘mutually beneficial relationships’ means, and I think the majority of people in Britain would be suspicious of the phrase. It will only serve to reduce trust, not increase it. The PRSA has inadvertently made the definition far more complicated and I’m not convinced they’ve improved upon the Oxford English Dictionary.”
It’s a point taken further by Director CaroleScott, already a regular contributor to the blog“The Oxford English Dictionary definition isn’t particularly sophisticated but (to abuse the Ronseal strapline) it does what it says on the tin. This latest ‘definition’ achieves precisely the opposite of what a definition should do and creates murkiness where there should only be clarity.”

“Simplicity in communications is underrated, but I’m not convinced this captures the breadth of what PR can achieve for organisations in the recommendation age”, adds Antonia Taylor, AssociateDirector.

Poor Phrasing

Like Claire, there are two phrases in the new definition that Carole takes real offense to: ‘strategic communications process’ and ‘mutually beneficial relationships’. On the former, she says: “PR is still PR when it’s tactical, and a process (no matter how strategic) really isn’t PR. Outcomes define what we do – developing and maintaining a good reputation and positive engagement.” And on the latter, she’s even more demonstrative: “Consumers (whether procuring services for the public sector, buying the weekly shop or managing a tight budget for a small business) are savvy, smart and absolutely detest BS. The phrase ‘mutually beneficial relationships’ reeks of BS and I think will do more harm than good.”
“The primary purpose of PR is to create a positive reputation”, she adds. “So why mess with what we already have? Shut your eyes, picture your favourite client and ask yourself whether you professionally maintain a favourable public image for them. I bet you do!”

Why Redefine PR?

ClaireDunford, Social Media Consultant and, like Carole, already a regular on theblog, also questions the value of redefining PR in the first place. “There has been a lot of attention around this apparent ‘re-branding’, but the concept of doing so for a digitally focused world seems a little unnecessary to me”, she says. “Yes, social media now plays a big role and we now build Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn into our strategies. But it’s not what we do as PR professionals that has changed, only how we do it. Relationships can now be built through a variety of new ways, but really the role and importance of accountable PR has not changed.”

This is an opinion echoed by Associate Director Victoria McGovern, who feels that as ‘experts in communication’ you’d have thought that someone, by now, would have cracked this”. It’s a fair point. The fact that the new PRSA definition has caused such a kerfuffle is, in itself, not the best reflection of the industry. “My view is that we can define PR in any way we like, but what really matters is why a company is doing PR and how PR can make a difference to an organisation”, Victoria  continues. Rather bravely, however, she’s had a crack at her own definition: The management of relationships among key influencers to create measurable outcomes that make a real difference to an organisation. “Great PR is done by getting under the skin of the organisation, understanding its goals and audiences, identifying how to reach the defined targets and knowing what channels to use to communicate with them”, she explains.

Poor PR for Public Relations

As for my opinion? The project was always destined to fail and was a pretty puerile exercise. Process? Mutually beneficial? Organisations? Publics? All words that completely and utterly miss the point and paint PR further into a corner that is already rapidly decreasing in size. As Carole says, this definition reeks of bullshit and this is demonstrated no better than in an article that the New York Times ran to announce the news: it referred to the industry, both within the article introduction and within the meta-description on the website, as spin doctors. Not only does the PRSA definition  fail to capture what those of us working in PR actually do for a living and the huge benefits it has for those we work with, but it’s also a mile behind how the industry wants and needs to be perceived. In modern parlance: #EpicFail.

by Paul Sutton, Head of Social Communications

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