(Corrections made on January 10, 2012)

Add this to your “yawner list,” the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is redefining “public relations.” Not surprisingly, a “revised timeline” was announced on December 20, 2011 due to the “overwhelming response.” The website says the intitiative will : “utilize a collaborative, industry-wide effort to develop a modern definition for the new era of public relations.”

That’s PRspeak for “we totally didn’t research this or plan very well so we need more time.”

By the way, one of the first lessons of effective writing is to never use a word like “utilize.” PR writing classes have been teaching this since the 1980’s. And who uses the word “modern” any more? I have a bad feeling about this…

Canada to the rescue!

Ever helpful and polite (we are Canadian, after all), Terence (Terry) Flynn, a faculty member at McMaster University and a past president of the Canadian Public Relations Society  suggested in a blog post in early December 2011 that the PRSA look North and “incorporate the results of a redefinition project that was initiated by the Canadian Public Relations Society in 2009.”

I’m sure this will go over about as well as the latest YouTube sensation about the Canada Party (warning: colourful language):

The definition offered up by CPRS was about as exciting and enlightening as, well, any Republican presidential candidate (sorry!):

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communications, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.

Where do I begin to list my disappointment with this lacklustre definition presented on behalf of Canuck communicators?

  • the placement of the word “strategic” is redundant given the inclusion of the phrase “realize organizational goals” (isn’t that the definition of “strategic?”)
  • why is the “diverse” adjective even there, since the first rule of writing is to eliminate unnecessary words–this “frou frou” inclusion of politically correct words adds nothing to improve PR credibility (of course, they are diverse, what’s your point?)
  • “through the use of communications” — no kidding, I thought this would be done “through the use of hypnosis.”
  • then, there is the ubiquitous phrase “to achieve mutual understanding” which is meaningless (the organization and the public each agree that the other side is out to “screw them”–wouldn’t this be achieving mutual understanding?)
  • and to top the whole thing off, there is the wonderful conclusion that the whole exercise is to  “realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.”
Might I suggest that this definition leaves a lot to be desired? For example, what is to be done if the organizational goals are deemed to NOT be in the public interest? What then?
The difficulty with this definition is that it skirts around the major issue of public relations. It fails to recognize a conundrum that has befuddled PR folks for decades–is the role of PR that of advocate or mediator? This the question that has divided the profession for two decades or longer.
Leave the advocacy to the lawyers and advertisers
I have always believed the profession to be more of mediation than advocacy. There are other professions that offer advocacy. Public relations can add value by helping the organization and its stakeholders understand each other and “achieve mutual goals.” Besides, with the proliferation of social media it is no longer possible, nor is it useful to “shout down” opposition with messaging advocating for one position over another (Prime Minister Harper, please take note). The voices are simply getting louder and more powerful. A shouting match benefits no one.
I look forward to hearing what PRSA comes up with this month. Let’s hope it recognizes reality and finally puts a longstanding dispute to rest. What are the chances?
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