A little while ago I attempted to create a “21st century definition of public relations,” an attempt motivated in part by a recent debate about the relative merits of the terms “public relations” and “communications.” My definition:

“Public relations is the business of helping organizations create policies, craft messages, and engage in conversations that enhance the relationships between the organization and its key stakeholders in order to maximize the benefits of those relationships to both parties.”

The definition triggered some discussion both in the comments section of this blog and in the wider blogosphere, but you will be surprised to learn that very little of it changed my mind. But some of it is certainly worth a response.

First, I wanted to emphasize the two words in the definition that I considered the most important: “create policies.” Input into policy and decision-making is to my mind what defines public relations in contrast to communications. If you are simply crafting messages to communicate policies, you are a communicator. If you are providing counsel that helps craft policy, you are a public relations counselor. Second, I wanted to address the push-back I got against the idea that PR should “maximize the benefits of those relationships to both parties.” Some respondents clearly felt that this mutuality was a tad idealistic, that in the real world clients only care about gaining competitive advantage—and that therefore the focus should be on maximizing the benefit of the relationship to the employer or client. I’m sticking with my commitment to mutual benefit for several reasons. First, I believe that good public relations is a non-zero sum game, and that the best public relations is win-win. Second, I believe that any approach to relationship management that seeks to benefit only one party to the relationship is almost certainly exploitative and unsustainable, particularly in the social media age. And third, I believe that there are other terms that describe the non-mutual approach: spin, for example, or propaganda—and I think it’s important to position public relations as the opposite of (or at least different from) those things. Finally, at a fun meeting with Weber Shandwick last week, I was presented with a definition that (in addition to challenging my emphasis on mutuality) placed an explicit emphasis on idea generation. I thought that was implicit in my definition, but the Weber folk felt it was important to put this front and center, lest public relations be relegated (as it often has been in the past) to implementing other people’s creative ideas. As a result of all this, I’ve made a couple of tweaks to my definition, which now reads:

“Public relations is the business of delivering insights and generating ideas that help organizations create policies, craft messages, create content, and engage in conversations in order to change attitudes and behaviors and ultimately enhance the relationships between organizations and their key stakeholders, maximizing the benefits of those relationships to both parties.”