Ask 10 PR professionals to define their industry, and you may get 10 different answers. In some ways, that’s a cool perk – it gives professionals the freedom to tailor their communications strategies to fit each client or goal. On the other hand, there’s a balance point at which consensus is needed to give the public relations field guiding principles. Plus, practitioners need to be able to answer the inevitable question, “What is PR?”
If you ask Merriam-Webster, public relations is “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.” Goodwill seems like a tricky word because it’s tough to truly measure someone’s “goodwill” towards a firm or client, and not all cases revolve around that feeling. Also, “inducing” might be a bit harsh. Public relations shouldn’t force so much as encourage audiences to accept an institution or client’s message by presenting clear, concise and honest communications.
According to the PRSA, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” This is a much simpler and direct summation of what PR does: build relationships.
The PRSA definition also handles the issue of “goodwill.” Some PR situations will never be able to foster that mutual feeling: institutions like prisons and nuclear plants generally don’t garner warm and fuzzy feelings from their communities (though that would be an admirable PR goal). They can and should, however, maintain open and trusting relationships with their constituents.
Strong relationships, by nature, aren’t built around one party inducing another to do everything. Give and take must be fairly equal for a relationship to be successful and lasting, and this is where good PR professionals shine. Not only do they craft and deliver targeted communications, but they listen, learn, evaluate and begin the process anew.
This is especially important in the area of crisis communications. When disaster strikes – whether it’s a burst pipeline, a faulty product or a candidate’s gaffe – the public relations team must consider both the problem and the public’s reaction. Issues are rarely fixed by blindly following the standard operating procedures (though there should always be a crisis plan in place that can be readily adapted to the nuances of each situation). Any communications plan should be based upon both existing knowledge and evaluation of the public’s voice.
Once PR is boiled down to creating, evaluating and maintaining healthy relationships, practitioners may find that they still have the liberty to bend the field to their circumstances while upholding the industry’s ethics and standards. How do you define PR?