Last month the Public Relations Society of America updated its definition of public relations for the first time in three decades, arriving at the following statement after months of lively discussion and input:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
In addition to sparking plenty of healthy debate, the new definition provides an opportunity to reflect upon how the field has evolved from its early 20th century origins, which The Economist examined in a fascinating 2010 article. So, what has and hasn’t changed about public relations over the last century?
The importance of honesty, transparency and mutually beneficial relationships certainly hasn’t. In 1906, Ivy Lee, one of public relations’ founders, issued a “Declaration of Principles,” in which he wrote that “our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.” He also viewed public relations as a “two-way street” between clients and the public. Though Lee did stray from them, those principles resonate today, perhaps even more so with the advent of the Internet and social media.
The speed and complexity of public relations, on the other hand, have changed drastically, resulting in the free flow of information through an ever-expanding array of channels. PRSA’s updated definition aims to address such changes, but language like the phrase “strategic communications process” also reflects the prominent role that reputation management has assumed in the industry. As we mentioned last year, Elliot Schreiber, PhD, wrote a must-read PRSA blog post stressing the importance of “a formal, strategic process” for reputation management. The United Kingdom’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations also emphasizes reputation in its own definition of public relations.
We’ll never reach a consensus on such a definition, but the debate is a valuable touchstone. It reminds us of public relations’ founding principles while also encouraging us to prepare for what its future holds.
Tags: Anne Gregory, Chartered Institute of Public Relations, Edward Bernays, Elliot Schreiber, Fleishmann-Hillard, Hill & Knowlton, Ivy Lee, Jonathan Wootliff, Mother Jones, PRSA, Public Relations Society of America, Reputation Partners, Shannon Wilkinson, The Economist, Tim Bell