Public Relations Defined

Developing a modern definition for a new era of PR
March 1, 2012

A Modern Definition of Public Relations


Following 1,447 votes, hundreds of submissions, abundant commentary and nearly a year of research, we are pleased to announce the winning modern definition of public relations. Based on a public vote, held Feb. 13–26, of three candidate definitions, the profession’s choice for the modern definition of PR is:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Listed as Definition No. 2 in the public vote, it received 671 votes, or 46.4 percent, of 1,447 total votes.

Simple and straightforward, this definition focuses on the basic concept of public relations — as a communication process, one that is strategic in nature and emphasizing “mutually beneficial relationships.” “Process” is preferable to “management function,” which can evoke ideas of control and top-down, one-way communications. “Relationships” relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders. “Publics” is preferable to “stakeholders,” as the former relates to the very “public” nature of public relations, whereas “stakeholders” has connotations of publicly-traded companies.

You can read more about this exciting announcement in Friday’s New York Times advertising column.

As promised, PRSA will adopt the winning reference definition to replace the 1982 definition of public relations.

An analysis of the public vote provides some interesting detail. The data can be found here.

Voters were unequivocal in their belief that any modern definition of public relations should not include the word “ethics.” When asked whether the word “ethics” should be included in the winning definition, 60.3 percent of those who voted said No. Furthermore, an aggregate of 57.3 percent of voters indicated “No” to including the word “ethics” in any modern definition of public relations.

While PRSA firmly believes in the value of ethical public relations practices, as espoused in our Code of Ethics and numerous advocacy initiatives, we respect the profession’s wishes that ethics not be explicitly included in a modern definition. In all likelihood, though, we will eventually include ethics in a values statement about the definition of public relations, as it relates to PRSA and our members’ values.

A review of the final word cloud from 927 definitions submitted during the initial crowdsourcing phase shows that the winning definition closely reflects the profession’s perspective of what should comprise a modern concept of public relations. Several key words found in that word cloud are included in the winning definition:

  • “Public”
  • “Organization”
  • “Communication”
  • “Relationship”
  • “Builds”
  • “Mutual”

But don’t take our word for it. We’ve created a Resources page where you can review the data, along with meeting notes from each of the Definition of PR Summits that PRSA hosted and other relevant materials.

What #PRDefined Has Achieved

The “Public Relations Defined” initiative has not only modernized what many considered to be a medley of dated concepts of public relations. It has shaped an important conversation about the future of the profession and its value in the 21st-century business landscape.

The initiative motivated public relations professionals to think about their profession, talk about their profession and debate how it is they want to define their profession. That allowed us to arrive at a definition with some currency.

The definition that resulted from this effort is inclusive, in that it captures the core essence of what it is all public relations professionals do. We believe that the winning definition is true to the research, and accurately reflects the way in which the public relations professionals who participated in this process described what it is they do for a living.

For that, we thank the thousands of professionals who voted on the candidate definitions, as well as those who voiced their opinions and provided valuable feedback about the process and candidate definitions. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the 12 organizations that partnered with PRSA to make this effort a success. We appreciate the role of our collaborators in generating a comprehensive, modern definition of public relations.

The Path Forward

This is really a beginning, not an ending. The discussion is a work in progress, and we’ve laid the groundwork for future debate. Learn how you can continue the discussion here.

It’s clear to us that the process should not stop with this announcement. For that reason, we will keep this blog up and continue to facilitate the discussion. We’ll publish and promote guest posts from anyone who has something to say on the subject; from those who have conducted their own research to those who have process suggestions to those who simply feel they have a better definition to offer.

In a perfect world, this blog will become a virtual water cooler, where we can continue to engage professionals on the definition of public relations. We’re keeping an open mind. If the definition continues to evolve through this process, and we arrive at something better, we will support it.

Like art and beauty, perhaps the definition of public relations really is in the eye of the beholder.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

  • Mwansamuleba

    i would define PR as a planed and sustained effort to establish and matain good will between an organisation and its publics.

  • Pingback: Public Relations redefined | NevilleHobson.com

  • Pingback: Resource Roundup | Talking About Talking

  • Pingback: What PR Is and 5 Things It's NOT | Xstatic PR | The Static Public Relations

  • Pingback: Public relations (PR) | nezaralsamraee

  • Pingback: Public Relations Redefined (Literally) | BroadBased Communications | Jacksonville, FL | Marketing, Public Relations, Website Design, Branding | Broadcast

  • Pingback: The Cline Group » Blog Archive » Every Tweet That You Send is a Form of PR

  • Pingback: PR’s Perception Problem: Redefining Public Relations | Sparksheet

  • Pingback: Is anyone using the new definition of PR? | In a Nutshell

  • Pingback: What’s in a Definition? Public Relations—Past, Present and Future « Reputation Issues

  • Pingback: PR Defined. « newbieinpr

  • Pingback: PR zum gegenseitigen Nutzen? | bernetblog.ch

  • Sammywood19

    i wanna believe strongly that this definition will not satisfy so many practitioners in the field as it lacks so many concepts that PR encompasses 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/G5GAMBDQ7C4YVHMYNQJYCN3RBI Sabahat-us-saba

    you have to also explain the elements of public relations because those who wants complete research on P.R needs complete package

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/G5GAMBDQ7C4YVHMYNQJYCN3RBI Sabahat-us-saba

    i cant under stand the P.R defination really

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000023732824 Halle Rose

    I must say that I am slightly disturbed by the fact that 60% of those who voted on the definition for the term “public relations” voted AGAINST having any mention of the word, “ethics,” in the definition. Why are we, as public relations practitioners, avoiding an assertive reference to the ethical approach we embrace in our vocation?  We are all aware of the “scarlet letter” PR professionals wear which says: “I’m a spinner.” Now, I KNOW that is not a factual or fair title to be given to this profession. However, if we are not boldly stepping out and making it known that we do NOT “spin truth,” and indeed practice ethics in the workplace, how are we supposed to change the stigma society has placed on our practice? 

    Just a thought. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000023732824 Halle Rose

    I must say that I am slightly disturbed by the fact that 60% of those who voted on the definition for the term “public relations” voted AGAINST having any mention of the word, “ethics,” in the definition. Why are we, as public relations practitioners, avoiding an assertive reference to the ethical approach we embrace in our vocation?  We are all aware of the “scarlet letter” PR professionals wear which says: “I’m a spinner.” Now, I KNOW that is not a factual or fair title to be given to this profession. However, if we are not boldly stepping out and making it known that we do NOT “spin truth,” and indeed practice ethics in the workplace, how are we supposed to change the stigma society has placed on our practice?
    Just a thought. 

  • Pingback: What is PR? | Prof Co Chatter

  • Pingback: Three Ways a PR Firm Can Help You

  • Andrew Haney

    Understanding the fact that a simple definition is not all inclusive. I think that there are other key aspects which need to be present within this definition. Especially the fact that Public Relations practitioners do not only represent corporate foundations or organizations. From my understanding there are also a large amount of practitioners who represent specific people. The article mentions how there are negative connotations to the usage of stake holders, thus the reason why they chose public, but why not choose a word which more wholly encompasses both organizations and peoples. For the same reason they chose not to use stake holders, a lack of personal relation with audience, I believe that there may be a lacking in the emphasis in personal aspects of the organization or individual. Which I though as a Public Relations practitioner it was our job to help the public understand and feel more connected with a company or individual.