Defining the undefinable

My hat’s off to the Public Relations Society of America for attempting the Herculean task of  redefining the term public relations. Actually, the assignment is perhaps better suited for Sisyphus than his heavily-muscled peer.

Here’s why. No one, and I mean no one, can agree on a single definition for public relations (just like no one can provide a single way in which to measure PR. Ah, but that’s another blog for another day).Edd-1

The PRSA last attempted to define public relations in 1982. At that pre-Millennial point in time, the PRSA said ‘PR helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.’ That sounds more like a marriage counselor than a profession. But, Rosanna Fiske, president of the PRSA, along with her peers in 10, count ‘em 10, other PR trade groups, have banded together to crowdsource a new definition.

In fact, the PRSA has even created a special blog on its home page ( and is inviting anyone and everyone to submit a definition. I’ve already done so. And, so should you. Why the heck not? Misery loves company.

I say misery because public relation is more fractured than the Balkan States (or the Beltway. Take your pick). There are so many ways to look at PR that one could liken it to the fog of war. To wit:
-    Is public relations media relations? The purists would certainly say so.
-    Is it helping an organization do well by doing good? The cause marketing types would nod in the affirmative.
-    Is it advocating on behalf of an organization, no matter how heinous the platform might be (think alcohol, tobacco and firearms here).
-    Is it insisting PR be the lead marketing discipline in any strategic marketing campaign because, well, we’ve always understood the conversation and advertising folks haven’t?
-    Is it being the conscience of the organization as the fine folks at the Arthur W. Page Society would argue?
-    Is it planning parties and attracting B-level celebrities to the hottest, new restaurant as most of the American population believes?
-    Or, is it keeping an organization’s name OUT of the media limelight when an especially egregious client calamity strikes (after all, as any crisis expert will tell you, success is measured in silence, not in column inches).

It’s a sticky wicket, as we Anglophiles are wont to say.

I’ve submitted my definition. But, I’m less than sanguine it will be one of the three finalists the groups will post on the PRSA website between December 6th and 15th. I mean, what are the odds? And, besides I’ve never won anything in my life. Speaking of which, what does the winner get? An all-expense weekend for two at the home of the late Edward Bernays? A life-sized replica of the Silver Anvil bearing the winner’s likeness? What size-obsessed, holding company agency CEO wouldn’t kill to have a six-foot anvil in his reception area?

So, do yourself, the industry and me a favor: submit your definition of PR. If you like, post it here first and I’ll react to it. Maybe I’ll even share my submission with you. In fact, I think I’ll create my own, alternative Repman’s Definition of PR Contest! The winner will receive a solid gold loving cup etched with a portrait of Peppercom co-founder and managing partner Edward A. Moed. Now, that’s what I’d want in my reception area.

5 thoughts on “Defining the undefinable

  1. Public Relations is an general term used to describe the strategic effort to manage the reputation of a person, product, company or service using myriad tactics including (but not limited to) media relations, marketing communications, and events.
    How’s that, RepMan? Do I win an Ed Moed golden cup?

  2. I applaud the effort, Keith. I really do. It’ll be interesting to read the new definition. That said, I’d still award the winner with an all-expense paid trip for two to the home of Edward Bernays.

  3. Steve – Thanks for this tongue-in-cheek yet surprisingly adroit perspective on the “Public Relations Defined” initiative. You are quite right that the task of defining public relations is not easy. It’s a very nuanced problem, one that like effectively measuring public relations, requires far more thought and consideration that simply saying “PR is this _______” and leaving it at that.
    It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not necessarily trying to outright define public relations but to modernize the existing definition (whatever that may be). Now, that is more than a small challenge, because as you rightly note, there are dozens, if not hundreds of definitions of public relations, each unique in its own way.
    What we are aiming to do, however, is take the collective wisdom of the profession, along with the insight and perspective of our global partners (up to 11, now that the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations has officially joined) and use that to develop a modern dictionary-like definition of public relations.
    Combine that with the existing definitions that we have outlined on the PR Defined website ( and I’m confident we’ll get to a point where a unique, dictionary-like definition rises to the top, one that is universal in its applicability yet adaptable enough for various audiences and different needs of those in the profession and beyond.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for submitting your definition of public relations. Very much appreciated.
    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director
    Public Relation Society of America