“The distinct discipline of PR no longer exists” … Really?

Todd Defren

Todd Defren of PR-Squared offered an interesting blog entry yesterday in which he shared this observation: “The distinct discipline of PR no longer exists.” He goes on to say: “With extraordinarily rare exceptions, the definition of PR was conflated with ‘Media Relations.’  And while Media Relations will ALWAYS be a critical component, its standing as a standalone practice is driving towards extinction.” Later, he says: “The problem is that it’s ever harder to bucket this stuff.  PR is no longer JUST Media Relations.  Advertising is no longer JUST advertising.  Social Media Marketing is no longer JUST about Social Media.  Email and Direct Marketing don’t exist in a silo anymore, either.”

Todd’s a rock star in the PR blogging world, and I really like his blog, but I was surprised by this post. PR has never been JUST media relations. Those of us who do public relations for a living have spent decades fighting the notion that PR and media relations are one and the same. Media relations is one strategic weapon in the PR arsenal, but the discipline of public relations is much broader.

Here’s the official Public Relations Society of America definition: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” That’s adequate,  I suppose, but PRSA is capturing the essence of PR more closely in its recently launched “Business Case for Public Relations” effort:

“Public relations is more than managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics. It is a communications discipline that engages and informs key audiences, builds important relationships and brings vital information back into an organization for analysis and action. It has real, measurable impact on the achievement of strategic organizational goals.”

I agree with Todd that all the communications disciplines can be sliced and diced many different ways, and that we all use many of the same tools. The distinguishing characteristic of PR, though, is that it systematically works to engage all the audiences important to an organization’s long-term viability. Depending on the nature of the organization, those audiences could include shareholders, customers, government officials, community leaders, employees, volunteers, donors or plant site neighbors. Anyone who has a stake in your organization, anyone who has a say in the course of your organization, is a potential audience for a public relations program.

Publicity and media relations are certainly tools of PR, but so are community relations, government relations, employee relations and shareholder relations. In all cases, if done well, public relations initiatives don’t just talk to their audience but engage and talk with them. Also, good PR initiatives are only secondarily about the talk and the words. They are primarily about being responsive and doing the right thing.

The trick usually is that not everyone agrees what the right action should be in every situation. That’s when PR has the most to offer and the most to lose. If it can forge consensus and help an organization move forward productively, it has done its job well.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this field, and I’m not willing to let it fade into oblivion just yet. What are your thoughts?

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