Can we please stop asking, ‘What is PR?’

A plea to end the wearisome 100-year dialogue of how to define the profession. Is it really that complicated?


I started my career as a public relations professional 30 years ago. Since then my career has morphed into new areas like sales, marketing, business development, consulting and teaching, but there is a piece of my heart that will always belong to PR.

I’m disheartened that people today still ask the same tired question that swirled around the profession when I started three decades ago: “What is PR?”

The first definition of public relations surfaced nearly 100 years ago, and its practitioners have been in a state of chronic paranoia and self-psychoanalysis ever since. Public relations is the Woody Allen of business professions.

Here are three questions that people should stop asking:

1. Is PR a profession?

Of course it is a profession. The only people who wonder whether it’s a profession are the people actually in the profession. Calm down. Yes, people take you seriously—except when you ask this question!

2. What is PR?

Edward Bernays, a colorful bloke we generally accept as the founder of public relations, defined PR in the early 1900s as:

“… a management function that tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures, and interests of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”

Since Bernays made that statement 100 years ago, the PR business has continued to struggle with its chronic identity crisis. The agenda of the first World Assembly of Public Relations Association in 1978 was to figure out the industry. The delegates issued a definition of their craft:

“the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action, which will serve both the organization and the public interest.”

That’s pretty close to the Bernays definition, isn’t it?

Late in 2011, PRSA launched the “Public Relations Defined” initiative, “a collaborative, industry-wide advocacy campaign to modernize the definition of public relations.” PRSA received more than 1,000 submissions, and recently announced that it needs more time to come up with a definition.

Are you kidding me? We still don’t have an answer after 100 years?

3. Should there be a PR discipline at universities?

And if there should be one, should it be in the business school or journalism school? Again, let’s just go back to what Bernays said 100 years ago. He envisioned PR as a blend of personal communication, mass communication, psychology, research, business and journalism.

PR is a unique educational profile, so of course there should be a unique curriculum to go with it.

But should it be in the journalism school or the business school? Most jobs are in business, so PR students should be in the business school where they can make the connections they need to find employment and thrive.

I’m sure I’ll get lots of comments from PR professionals who say I don’t understand, but is PR really so complicated that we need to debate these questions for 100 years?

Technology changes and best practices shift in every profession, but that shouldn’t prompt an identity crisis. Doctors are still doctors and engineers are still engineers. Despite the advent of social media—which makes PR more valuable than ever—PR is still PR. PR hasn’t changed much since Bernays defined it 100 years ago.

The profession needs to get off the psychoanalyst’s couch, end this wearisome dialogue, and stand confidently as a vital part of a modern organization’s management team.

Mark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He blogs at grow, where a version of this article originally ran.

Topics: PR

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