Definition fatigue

Definition fatigue

Attempts to redefine public relations are as old as the business itself. A recently published paper from Romania revisits the issue.


Redefining public relations in the 21st century by Mariana Cernicova-Buca has been published in the Professional Communication and Translation Studies.

Cernicova-Buca discusses notable initiatives that have attempted to redefine public relations in the last 100 years. The CIPR, CPRS and PRSA have all created new definitions in the past decade.

The erosion of geographic borders and the rapid evolution of media, as a result of the internet, telecommunications and travel, means public relations is in constant flux.

It’s the theme for the Global Alliance’s World Public Relations Forum in Toronto, Canada over the next few days.

Need for formal definitions

Professions need formal definitions to inform competency models, foundation knowledge and continuous professional development.

Cernicova-Buca concludes that definitions need constant revisiting, revising and reconsideration.

My view is that the constant calls to redefine public relations help no one. They fuel confusion and show public relations to be an insecure and anxious profession.

Catherine Arrow has recently written about the issue on her blog. Heather Yaxley wrote about the PRSA effort to crowdsource a definition in 2011. Both blogs are a must read.

People that don’t work in public relations seldom have a grasp of the purpose of public relations relations as a management discipline helping an organisation achieve its objectives.

People that work in public relations are seldom much better, confusing public relations with media relations, and marketing.

A discussion as old as the profession itself

The definition of public relations is a perennial issue, like the relationship between academia and practice, or traditional media and practice.

It’s a discussion that is almost as old as the business itself. A study by Rex Harlow in 1976 identified more 476 definitions of public relations.

It’s almost inevitable that a one-size-fits-all definition won’t work for everyone when practice differs so much from country to country. Behaviour, culture, language, media, and technology are all factors.

Practitioners such Andy Green suggest that public relations theory is poor. This too is unhelpful and does nothing to improve to the relationship between theory and practice.

A theory is a theory until someone debunks it or comes up with a better one.

If you don’t like the theory come up with a better one. But do it properly through a literature review, original research, and critical analysis.

Practice is being defined by academic research and professional practice. It’s being defined by thinkers and doers who are confident about the value that we add to an organisation.

Learning and development through reflective practice

Yes, public relations is a dynamic practice that is evolving rapidly, but in my view the broad definitions stand up.

We need new models to explain, and support our work in developing areas.

We need to draw on academic theory and expertise from related disciplines such as anthropology, behavioural economics, linguistics, mathematics, and psychology.

We need to reflect and learn from the work of thinkers such as Catherine Arrow, Dr Terry Flynn, Prof Anne Gregory, Prof Dejan Vercic, and Dr Jon White to make sense of what’s happening.

But please let’s cease constantly seeking to define what we do, and just crack on with doing it.

Image by @thomasleuthard via Flickr with thanks.

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