Online media and social media have transformed PR, so what has public relations become?

New technologies in the last five years, let alone the past decade, have revolutionised how we communicate (anyone remember Telex?), so it’s not surprising that the work that PROs do has altered dramatically.

The US has led the way in using online channels, so it is interesting to hear how PR is defined on the other side of the pond. Rosanna Fiske, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), says that PR is seen as less about disseminating and more about starting a conversation: “What was once considered a form of ‘push’ communications has now evolved into a more prosperous and valuable two-way communication platform in which brands, organisations, governments, non-profits, NGOs, etc, are able to communicate and engage directly with key audiences in a mutually beneficial manner.”

Although Fiske believes that the traditional definition of PR still stands, it is always good to consider new ways of describing it. She says “At its core, public relations helps an organisation and its publics adapt mutually to each other. That is the foundation of the definition that PRSA unveiled in 1982, and it is what fundamentally guides the US profession some 30 years later. But the PRSA is keen to explore evolving this definition and has been actively commenting on industry blogs on this topic.”

Technologies may be having a profound effect on PRO work, but does this mean we have to rethink what PR stands for? Nick Murray-Leslie, CEO of PR agency Chatsworth Communications, believes not. He says: “The channels have changed, but the ethos and objective remains the same. The bottom line is that reputation is everything. PR remains a strategic and tactical job to enhance, protect and defend the reputation of the client.”

Murray-Leslie believes that whatever media is used, the best PROs will advise when to show thought leadership and when to hold back and can identify the best channels to use. That is as likely to be by phone as through an online posting.

To find an academic definition of PR, we turn to Richard Bailey, senior lecturer in PR at Leeds Metropolitan University. He claims that today’s definitions of PR are usually descriptions of the changing ways that PROs work. Bailey says a true definition needs to be broad, to cover all practice areas. He adds: “Academics are also interested in 'paradigms', which are still broader. For example, the relationship management or the reputation management paradigms.”

Bailey concludes his preferred definition is the longstanding one from Cutlip, Center and Broom in their book Effective Public Relations: “Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the various publics on whom its success or failure depends”, adding: “This includes a paradigm (relationships) and embeds a purpose for public relations (organisational survival).” However, Bailey admits this is rather long, so he uses this much shorter one with first-year public relations students: “public relations is 'ideas management'. I use this to make a contrast with 'event management'.”

Soundbites - How do you define PR?

Amanda Wheeler, PR and communications manager at market research firm GfK NOP:
“Public relations is better termed ‘communications management’: encouraging and generating content from within your company and then selecting the best channels through which to create and drive the maximum amount of public conversations around that content – as well as getting involved in externally-created conversations that affect your brand.”

Keren Burney, founder of PR consultancy Compege:
“A two-way dialogue achieving understanding and maintaining reputation via man channels.”

Joshua Van Raalte, managing director of London PR agency Brazil:
“To put my neck on the line, I’d say the term ‘public relations’ will be redundant in five years time, and a whole host of new specialisms will emerge from the fragmentation of marketing as we know it. A host of new descriptions will inevitably emerge, it’ll be interesting to see which wins out.”

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