Public Relations Defined

Developing a modern definition for a new era of PR
October 30, 2011

About the ‘Public Relations Defined’ Initiative


As part of its mission to advance the public relations profession and professional, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has introduced a new initiative to modernize the definition of public relations and increase its value. As the digital age has caused significant shifts in how organizations communicate internally and externally, a question frequently asked by the public, media and practitioners is, “What is public relations?”

PRSA has set out to answer this question.

PRSA’s “Public Relations Defined” initiative will utilize a collaborative, industry-wide effort to develop a modern definition for the new era of public relations.

At PRSA’s new blog, “Public Relations Defined,” public relations professionals are invited to share their insights and perspective on what defines the modern practice of public relations.

As part of a special “Definition of Public Relations Summit” held in September in New York, PRSA partnered with the following organizations to provide input and support:

Why Update The Current Definition

Recent discussions, blog posts, tweets and mainstream articles have suggested that (1) public relations professionals (and, thus, the audiences we serve) continue to struggle with the question: “What is PR?”; (2) many industry professionals are unhappy with the current definitions; and (3) no one definition is considered “the” de facto industry definition.

PRSA’s definition of public relations was last updated in 1982. In the past 10 years, PRSA has convened two special committees to explore modernizing the definition of public relations. The 2003 PRSA Committee to Define Public Relations agreed to a new definition (see below), though it was never formally adopted by the Society.

Recommended definition from the 2003 PRSA Committee to Define Public Relations:

Public Relations is the professional discipline that ethically fosters mutually beneficial relationships among social entities.

There is a modern dynamic at work, as well. Changes in technology have created a new set of expectations with regard to who should “own” the definition. Professionals from all corners of the public relations industry seem to want greater involvement and ownership with how their work is defined. They don’t want to live by someone else’s definition; they want something they can own.

Representative Sample of Current Definitions

A Google search on “definition of PR” yields more than 64,000 results; some of the more prominent definitions include:

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

  • Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS): “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.” (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

  • Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR): “Public relations is about reputation — the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

  • “Effective Public Relations” (Cutlip, Center and Broom): “Public relations is a management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.”

  • Paul Holmes/Holmes Report: “Public relations is the business of helping organizations create policies, craft messages, and engage in conversations that enhance the relationships between the organization and its key stakeholders in order to maximize the benefits of those relationships to both parties.”

  • Dictionary.com: “The actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc.”
  • Merriam-Webster: “The business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.”

Sample Industry and Mainstream Media Commentary

  • From Jayme Soulati’s “Help PRSA Define Public Relations”: “Sadly, the current Public Relations Society of America website adopted a definition of PR in 1982, and it has never changed! (Do you realize this definition below pre-dates the fax machine?) In my post, I called upon PRSA to update the definition (others agreed), and here’s what the highly confusing explanation states: ‘Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.’”

  • From HeidiCohen.com’s “31 Definitions of Public Relations”: “Say PR, as in public relations, particularly during a conversation about marketing and/or social media, and participants are liable to have vastly different perspectives on the topic.”
  • From The Economist (“Rise of the Image Men,” Dec. 16, 2010): “After a century of spinning, PR Man remains uncertain of his proper role. Is he a master manipulator? Is he the devil’s advocate (as long as Satan pays his fees)? Or is he a benign bridge-builder between the corporate world and the public?”
  • From Jack Shafer at Slate.com (May 13, 2011): “Most PR campaigns are ‘smear campaigns.’ … “Every reporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PR people were being paid to push the truth, they’d be called reporters.”

What the Future Holds

Topics such as the definition of public relations tend to be cyclical, though there may be cause to believe that industry interest in this topic is continuing unabated. One reason is that the discussion has moved beyond public relations professionals to include professionals from other communications disciplines, as well as media, bloggers and other industry influencers.

Questions to Consider

  • What is public relations?
  • How has public relations changed in the past 20-30 years, and how have these changes affected its overall scope and value?
  • How has public relations remained the same since that time?
  • How would you define public relations?
  • How would your clients, employers or employees define public relations?

How can I participate?

Add your voice to the discussion of the modern definition of public relations by submitting a comment to the “Public Relations Defined” blog.

How Will A New Definition Be Developed?

Once submissions have closed, a PRSA Definition Task Force will evaluate the final word-cloud results and craft three possible definitions, based on the results. Those definitions then will be presented to the profession for a vote on PRSA.org, and PRSA (and, we hope, others) will formally adopt the “winning” definition and use it in all communications moving forward.

Need Help?