*** Long post alert!
For PR students, and particularly those studying the CIPR Diploma, I thought it might be useful to share my answers for the Critical Reasoning Test paper that I completed in September 2007.
Overall I received a “merit” across both papers. The answer shown below received a “merit” mark.
The question for this paper was:
Why do you think Public Relations is so difficult to define? Is this a problem for the field? Which of the existing definitions seems most useful to you?
My essay text is below:
Since its first emergence in the early twentieth century public relations (PR) practitioners have struggled to identify and agree what the discipline they practice actually comprises. There have been many attempts at definitions, many of which are examined later in this essay, yet none have become universally adopted by the profession worldwide.
The lack of a universally acknowledged definition for public relations proves that the profession is, by nature, difficult to define. As Hagley (1999) notes, most people working within public relations cannot define what they do. Hagley also argues that the profession has been harmed by this inability among practitioners to identify clearly the activities they undertake has harmed the profession as it is not possible to accurately measure or quantify success when it is not clear what activity is being undertaken.
As a profession public relations is relatively young. With its roots in post-war private sector America and local government in Great Britain, the discipline has evolved rapidly. The youth of the profession, combined with its rapid evolution into the profession we see today has mitigated against the creation and universal acceptance of a single definition of the profession.
The background of the author of a definition is a further reason why PR is hard to define. There are two distinct groups that approach the definition in different ways. The first group are those who practice academic public relations; the teaching and research into the profession as a social science. The alternative source for definitions of public relations is professional practitioners.
While there is transfer of knowledge and people between these two groups, they typically approach the definition of PR in different ways. Tench and Yeomans (2006) note that definitions from practitioners tend to focus on activity; the tasks undertaken on a day-to-day basis by public relations practitioners. In contrast definitions coming from academic practice are more varied, but tend to place increased emphasis on the strategic nature of the profession, the goals it seeks to achieve and the ideal practices it would comprise, rather than the practices that form the reality of the profession for most practitioners.
Public relations is one of a number of professions, including those such as accountancy and law, that are almost universally practiced. Such professions are not limited to any particular industry sector or group. Public relations is used in virtually every business and organisational sector that exists, including private, public and third sectors.
This breadth of application means that the profession comprises a wide range of activities, that at their most extremes would be barely recognisable as being parts of the same profession. For example a publicist for a London West End theatre company may find little in common in their day-to-day business with a local authority consultation manager in Scotland, yet both would probably still claim they practice public relations. This breadth makes it very difficult for the profession to be defined clearly and succinctly.
Many professions are regulated by official bodies in the United Kingdom. For example the medical profession is regulated by the British Medical Association and parts of the legal profession are regulated by the Bar Council. This statutory regulation of practitioners in a particular profession gives clarity in definition to the profession.
The nature of regulation requires the regulator to be very clear about what activities fall within the scope of its regulatory powers and which do not. This requirement leads to a de facto definition of what the profession comprises, and is therefore usually well-adopted within the profession and outside it. Leaving aside several countries where public relations is regulated for primarily political control reasons (Falconi, 2007), public relations is not generally regulated. This lack of compulsory regulation has meant that professional associations have seen their definitions of PR become universally accepted in the way that regulated professions have.
One of the shortest and simplest definitions of public relations was produced by Grunig and Hunt (1984). They defined PR as being “the management of communication between an organisation and its publics”. The three main elements of this definition are that it implies PR is undertaken by an organisation, that is involves the process of communication and that it is, to a degree, targetted to specific audience groups.
While the focus on organisational communications is probably appropriate for the majority of public relations practitioners, some PR practitioners work to communicate on behalf of individuals, such as celebrities or politicians. For these practitioners, Grunig and Hunt’s definition would not apply. However Grunig (1992) acknowledged this shortcoming in the earlier definition, noting that while the definition allowed for differences in practice while still including elements such as communication and external relationship management.
This definition’s suggestion that public relations involves a degree of targetting or tailoring of communication for specific publics would appear to be at odds with Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) models of public relations as publicity and, to a lesser extent, public information, as these two models do not seem to include a strong notion of targetting specific publics for an organisation, relying instead on a model of impersonal mass communication (McQuail, 1994).
L’Etang (2004) offers an alternative definition for public relations, suggesting it is “The practice of presenting the public face of an organisation….the articulation of its aims and objectives and the official organisational view on issues of
relevance to it”.
Her notion of public relations being the externally-facing appearance of an organisation seems applicable, although within similar organisational confines to Grunig and Hunt’s definition. She focuses on public relations as an articulator or communicator of organisational viewpoints. However this would seem limited as it does not suggest importance attached to the persuasive nature of much organisational communication.
Wilcox et al (2005) identify three characteristics of persuasive public relations which emphasise the central nature of persuasive rather than neutral organisational communications within public relations. L’Etang’s definition appears weaker for its lack of recognition of this facet of the profession.
L’Etang (1994) draws a distinction from being able to articulate ideals and techniques in a definition of PR and being able to justify the discipline’s core purpose. She suggests this is due to “a lack of intellectual rigour in the field and also by practitioners’ desire to separate their practice from propaganda”. Moreover she considers this to be a problem for the profession because it makes it difficult to identify the profession from competing interests such as marketing.
Moloney (2000) suggests that the disparate nature of the public relations profession means a single definition is impossible to achieve. However its influence, particularly when advocating organisational interests to the detriment of other organisational or societal interests, means that focus should be placed on the influence that public relations exerts. He suggests that three approaches to defining public r
ations are valid: as a concept, echoing the Grunig and Hunt (1984) definition, as a practice, echoing many of the definitions originating from practitioners, and as an influential force within society.
Moloney’s latter approach to definition leads to broad definitions of public relations. Moloney himself notes that the influence could be achieved through mass media, such as in the field of media relations, or through private lobbying, such as in the practice of public affairs. This lack of clear distinction between public relations and perceived similar disciplines can harm public perception of the role and value of the profession in society.
As Galloway (2004) notes, “when a profession with such a wide charter has no clear brand identity, the public provides its own.” As such public relations has historically been (Olasky, 1987, Baskin and Aronoff, 1988), and is still often referred to in conversations and in media coverage in a negative context or used as a synonym for cynical media manipulation (“a PR stunt”, “spin doctors”). In a similar vein, Martinson (1981) bemoans the definition of public relations as being about “buying the public” through the use of “gimmicks and catchy ideas”.
Having a clear, universal and communicated definition for public relations would help to address these negative associations. Such a definition would in the longer term increase credibility for profession and could potentially increase its effectiveness as there would be a greater understanding among publics of what activities practitioners undertake and the ethical principles to which they adhere.
In the longer term it would be reasonable to assume such negative misperception would have a detrimental effect on the attractiveness of the discipline to new entrants. This supposition is based on the assertion that the profession’s dominant public face is an influential driver of career choice among school leavers and university graduates. However consistent recent evidence does not support this assumption (City and Guilds, 2007). However there is little data on the proportion of school leavers and graduates that remains within the profession after an extended length of time. An abnormally high rate of these people leaving the profession would suggest a mismatch between expectations and practitioner reality for public relations.
Continuing practitioners should however be concerned by the profession’s inability to define itself. Gordon (2006) notes that there only 14 marketing directors on the boards of the UK’s FTSE100 companies. He identifies this perceived lack of representation as being due to the undervaluing of the marketing profession among senior officers of these companies. He asserts this situation arises from the lack of a clear and widely-known definition of what marketing is. It is likely that the same argument can be applied to public relations – without a clear definition understood by practitioners and non-practitioners alike, the profession will continue to struggle to achieve recognition and roles at the highest levels in organisations.
Spicer (1993) notes that public relations practitioners have increasingly practiced under alternative job titles to avoid a degree of stigmatisation that arises from the term public relations. Such alternative titles include “corporate communications” and “investor relations”. However Edelman (1996) encourages public relations practitioners to practice under the nomenclature “public relations” as it is the only term that adequately recognises the breadth of activities that comprise the profession: “Public relations encompasses the broadest range of all activities which by definition involve relationships of the company and all its publics.”
The lack of clear naming of certain practice areas of the profession arises because of the lack of a clear definition for the profession. As Burson (2007) notes, such ambiguity can only serve to lessen the impact of public relations as a body on the practice of business and government.
One of the most often cited definitions of public relations is known as the “Mexican Statement”. It was agreed by the first World Assembly of Public Relations Associations in 1978:
“Public relations is the art and social science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organisational leaders and implementing programmes of action which will serve both the organisation’s and the public interest.”
A strength of this definition is its breadth. It encompasses both the creative/artistic side of the profession, as well as the more scientific areas of the discipline. The focus on evaluation and analysis is also important, as it gives greater depth to the profession than a focus on the practice of communication alone. The role of counselling that this definition identifies would seem to accurately identify on of the main roles undertaken by some public relations practitioners.
However despite the strengths identified in the previous paragraph, this definition has not gained universal adoption in the past 29 years. This is testament to the difficulties in defining the profession generally, but also likely to be because of the definition’s assertion that public relations acts in the organisation’s interest and the public interest. This dual role addressing two sets of interests at the same time seems somewhat idealistic, given the number of public relations practitioners on the payrolls of private companies whose primary and over-riding interests that must be addresses by employees are their own.
The evidence identified so far in this paper strongly supports the view that the lack of an adopted definition for the public relations profession is a clear problem for the profession. It limits the ability of the profession to increase its credibility, among audience publics, internal stakeholders and peer professions.
Many of the definitions identified thus far in this paper focus on the activities that are undertaken within public relations and the strategies that the profession employs. These definitions are activity or process led, which can be a limiting factor in their application.
Given the importance of any corporate activity in contributing towards corporate goals, be they financial in the case of private sector organisations, social or reputational, perhaps a better definition of public relations can be achieved through looking at its outcomes – what it achieves rather than what it does.
This is not a new theme. Bernays (1927) includes an element of outcome in his early definition of public relations by identifying the outcome of public relations as being public understanding and acceptance:
“Public relations is a management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interest of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
Two of the largest professional bodies for public relations also include outcomes in their definitions of public relations. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (2007)) defines public relations as:
“The discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”
This definition, while it does include elements of activity and process, does identify the outcomes from the discipline of public relations as being “maintaining goodwill and mutual understanding”. Cutlip, Center and Broom (1985) identify a similar outcome for public relations which “establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships”.
While these outcomes are valid, I would suggest that the organisational value of public relations is understated. The discipline contributes much more than maintaining goodwill and mutual understanding – if this were not the case I suggest that public relations would be a much smaller and less inf
luential discipline than it is today.
Green (2006) identifies a broader outcome for public relations in his proposed definition: “Public relations is about creating sustainable added value for an organisation’s reputation by managing its brand, actions, memes and networking”. The concept of reputational added value is strong as it can be applied equally well in the private and public sectors where public relations often is used differently. Some observers may view this same part of the definition as its weakness, arguing it does not identify clearly enough the outcomes from public relations.
I suggest that the most useful definitions of public relations are definitions, such as those identified above, that clearly articulate outcomes for public relations, rather than focus on process or activities. There is clear value in the articulation of such outcomes as it assists the profession to argue its value in the corporate structure and relate its outputs to broader corporate goals.
Over the longer term definitions that clearly state the outcomes of the profession will also prove more resistant to change over time. The activities that comprise public relations have evolved continuously and will continue to do so. The rapid pace of adoption of new technologies, such as the internet and social media, will continue change the activities of the profession. The outcomes of the profession are likely to change relatively little, while the activities may well change significantly. An outcome-based definition for public relations will be sustainable through the ever-shifting nature of day-to-day public relations.
The nature of these outcomes will be constantly debated by practitioners and academics alike. A core theme for most definitions that identify outcomes is the management of relations between organisations and publics to improve such relationships. It is implicit in most definitions that this relationship management aims to improve relationships for both parties, although in reality I would suggest that organisational public relations aims to primarily benefit the organisation and its goals.
Valin (2004) provides a useful summary of the outcomes that bind together the many different strands of public relations: “I would like to emphasize the part of the definition that deals with managing relationships- as I see this as the cornerstone of everything we do in public relation. It is without a doubt the common denominator in our profession and this is true throughout the world. You may not realise it completely, but whether you are working in London, Djakarta or Sao Paulo, you are managing relationships.”
In conclusion the lack of a universally adopted definition for public relations does present several problems for the discipline and no identifiable benefits. Like many of its peer professions the struggle for definition leads to confusion among those outside the profession and a lack of recognition of the value which it can add to organisational achievements. In seeking a workable definition, the breadth of the profession means that general principles rather than detailed specifications need to be the backbone of a good definition. The inclusion of outcomes for the profession, focussed mainly around the positive management of relationships, is the final facet of achieving a better definition for public relations.
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