Is a fuzzy definition of PR a case of lousy PR?

The industry needs to brand itself beyond lipstick on the proverbial pig.

Lipstick. Until we collectively do something about it, it’ll be there staring us in the face.

“I reject the characterization of public relations in this book,” wrote Richard Edelman on his blog 6 A.M. “It is degrading and deeply flawed.”

Edelman was referring to a new book by Philip Kotler, “Marketing 3.0,” and he cites several examples from the book including:

“We have observed that many companies undertake socially responsible actions as public relations gestures. Marketing 3.0 is not about companies doing public relations. It is about companies weaving values into their corporate cultures.”

Some employees are ignorant of their corporate values or see them designed only for public relations.”

“In Marketing 3.0, addressing social challenges should not be viewed only as a tool of public relations…on the contrary companies should act as good corporate citizens and address social problems deeply within their business models.”

I have not read the book (yet), but I have read some of Kotler’s earlier books, notably his textbooks, as well as “Kotler on Marketing,” which I found helpful, even enlightening. He is, after all, a tenured professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, which has a very reputable MBA program.

So how could a studied, widely published scholar like Kotler mischaracterize public relations? Why are the terms “public relations” and “PR” used as synonyms for the lipstick on the proverbial pig? I’d suggest it’s because as an industry, we haven’t done well to define the term.

If you ask 10 PR professionals to define PR, you’ll get 10 different responses. For example, Heidi Cohen identified 31 common definitions of PR, which caused Beth Harte to write in this post, “31 Definitions. Really! 31. Does anyone else see anything wrong with that?”
Yes. I do.

I also have a hard time swallowing PRSA’s definition too: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

Really, what does that mean?

Contrast the definition of PR with the very clear and neat definitions of sales and advertising according to the American Marketing Association:

Sales. Any of a number of activities designed to promote customer purchase of a product or service. Sales can be done in person or over the phone, through e-mail or other communication media. The process generally includes stages such as assessing customer needs, presenting product features and benefits to address those needs, and negotiation on price, delivery and other elements.

Advertising. The placement of announcements and persuasive messages in time or space purchased in any of the mass media by business firms, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and individuals who seek to inform and/or persuade members of a particular target market or audience about their products, services, organizations, or ideas.

Though I’m critical of PRSA’s definition, it’s admittedly not an easy problem to solve, though I do believe as the largest professional organization for PR in the United States, it can and should make a good-faith effort. However, I’d also admit that gaining consensus and buy-in across the industry that struggles to define the difference between PR and publicity and yet is so quick to invest time and resources in pointing out each other’s faults is no small undertaking.

My argument is that while I agree with Edelman and dislike Kotler’s characterization of PR, it’s going to continue happening until we collectively address the problem. Correcting it starts with properly defining the term.

More important, if we properly define the discipline, it will make our lives easier in a number of ways—notably justifying expenditures on sound, honest and transparent relations with the public.

Until we do, PR will be used as a callous characterization—the lipstick that gets applied to the proverbial pig.

P.S. How do I define PR? Third-party validation.

Frank Strong is director of PR for Vocus and maintains a personal blog at Sword and the Script. Contact him on Twitter @Vocus.

Topics: PR

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