As an undergraduate, I majored in communication arts with an emphasis in public relations. Even before graduating from college I began working in the field. Then in 1997 I got my first, full-time job in public relations. Since then, I have worked in and/or studied the field. Since 2005 I have been teaching public relations.
For decades, practitioners and scholars have grappled with how to define the field of public relations. As James G. Hutton (1999) pointed out, even the first professional practitioners lacked a clear definition of what they did:
Public relations pioneer Ivy Lee was never quite sure what to call himself, but focused on honesty, understanding, and compromise to ensure a ‘proper adjustment of the interrelations’ of public and business. He often thought of himself as an information provider, but also as a kind of ‘lawyer’ representing his clients in the court of public opinion. Edward Bernays’ definition, interestingly, also included the notion of adjustment: ‘Public relations is the attempt, by information, persuasion and adjustment, to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement or institution.’ (Hutton, 1999, p. 200)
The discussions (even debates) continue among academics and practitioners. Most recently, the world’s largest organization of public relations professionals launched an initiative to modernize its definition which has remained unchanged since 1982:
Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other. (PRSA)
No doubt, PRSA’s definition could benefit from some revision to clarify the scope of the field. To fulfill that charge, PRSA partnered with several other organizations to launch the definition initiative. After a period of crowd-sourcing last November followed by analysis of the input, PRSA’s new CEO and Chair Gerard Corbett vetted three “candidate definitions” for public feedback yesterday.
After a review of academic and professional literature as well as studying, practicing and teaching in the field for nearly two decades, I will continue to profess my definition of what I do and what I teach:
Public relations is the communication management function through which organizations build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with the publics on whom an organization’s success or failure depends.
While quite similar to the definition expressed by Cutlip, Center and Broom (2006) in their classic public relations textbook, this conceptual definition of public relations seek to emphasize the relationships building and maintenance interactions that occur between an organization and its publics for mutually beneficial purposes. At the core of public relations are relationships. It is both the product and the state of connection between an organization and its publics. Alternatively, Hutton (1999) proposed a succinct definition, “Managing strategic relationships,” which I admire for its brevity and focus. It captures the heart of public relations as relationship management.
To explain the multidimensional nature of public relations and its process, I developed this illustration and use it regularly in my classes.
For further review and examination, you can download a PDF version of this illustration. And, please feel free to leave comments with questions, suggestions or general recommendations.
Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H., & Broom, G. M. (2006). Effective public relations (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Hutton, J. G. (1999). The definition, dimensions, and domain of public relations. Public Relations Review, 25(2), 199-214.