In the 1997 satire Wag the Dog, government officials hire a Hollywood producer to help cover up a scandal. Image via imdb.com

If you’re not in the public relations industry, it’s likely your perception of PR professionals is that we plan parties, coerce journalists, and lie for a living.

And, really, there is no reason you’d think any differently. From Wag the Dog and Phone Booth to Lizzie Gruman and Kim Kardashian, popular culture’s portrayal of PR pros is all of the above.

That’s part of the reason the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently took on the initiative to redefine the industry.

But when the New York Times reported the new definition, they described the initiative like this: “People submitted 927 proposals in an effort to update the definition of public relations for an age of social media and spin doctors.”

All that effort to still be called spin doctors.

The old definition of PR

The last time the PR industry defined itself was in 1982:

Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

While it doesn’t say much, it’s what the industry used for 30 years. PR was all about organizations and their audiences working together.

Then Al Gore invented the Internet and social media turned everything on its head. The industry was left trying to figure out how it was going to help organizations work with their audiences through paid, owned, and earned media.

The industry suddenly went from “publics adapting mutually to each other” to trying to figure out where social media, owned media and other forms of digital storytelling fit into the model.

As an industry we’re accustomed to telling stories. Now we do it online as well. And the old definition of PR no longer fits.

PR’s new definition

This past November PRSA took on the gigantic task of changing the definition. Embracing the new digital tools that had changed everything for the industry, the organization decided to crowdsource the new definition using a social platform to gain insight, feedback, and votes.

But the process they came up with was like Mad Libs for the PR profession. Rather than inviting people to submit their own definitions, they asked people to fill in the blanks:

Public relations [DOES WHAT] with/for [WHOM] to [DO WHAT] for [WHAT PURPOSE.]

I can imagine sorting through hundreds of unique definitions, agreeing on the top 5 or 10, and putting those to a vote would have been an impossible task.

So I understand why they did it that way. But the system was flawed. Instead of fostering a discussion about what public relations does for an organization, it led to a definition that was easy to assemble from hundreds of responses.

The new definition was announced in the same New York Times article that called us spin doctors:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Say what? Can we possibly have any more corporate lingo bingo in one sentence? Does this help you understand what the industry does? Does it remove the perception that we’re party planners or spin doctors?

The cast from Kim Kardashian

Where does PR go from here?

The PR industry has a perception issue. The “modern” definition doesn’t help the cause. Where are the results?

Becoming a PR professional has an extremely low barrier to entry. There isn’t an industry-wide discussion about how to measure our efforts. There isn’t a regulatory body that ensures the practice is done ethically and soundly. Even large, well-known PR firms are skirting the ethics edge to include big brand names on their roster.

The fight for where social media belongs is still on (perhaps it belongs to all of us, and not one industry). The perception of the PR industry still is one of liars and snake oil salesmen. Spin continues to suck.

But we have a new definition.

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