I retired as executive vice president of public relations for AT&T in 2003. For the 32 years I was there, my dear mother knew I worked for “the phone company” but she could never seem to grasp just what I did, beyond a vague sense that I wasn’t connecting calls or installing phones.
More recently, the Public Relations Society of America (of which I have never been a member) launched a contest to “modernize” the definition of public relations. I’m not sure modernization – much less definition – by popular vote is wise, but I thought they would have to do better than the New York Times’ media columnist, David Carr, who characterized PR as so much “slop.”
The consensus of the 1,447 people who voted was that “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” That's a definition in search of a dictionary -- what is a "strategic communication process," and who are these "publics" (plural)?
Still, it’s a marginal improvement over the previous definition that “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” Adapt mutually?
I personally prefer the definition my old boss, Marilyn Laurie, came up with when she first got the job as AT&T's head of PR: "The purpose of PR,” she told us, “is to bring the policies and practices of an institution into harmony with the needs and expectations of the public."
There's a faint resonance of her definition in the PRSA's obeisance to "mutuality." But I think her take on PR's purpose is more straightforward and puts the emphasis in the right place -- on affecting what an institution does, rather than on what it says.
Of course, since that is seldom what PR people do anymore, it probably isn't a realistic goal for the members of the PRSA.