PR practice and theory: it’s time for unification

I am now writing my dissertation on use of social media to launch new technology products to the market. I find it difficult to write a proper academic paper, as my theoretical framework on symmetrical communication and relationship management is more often than not poses a barrier for my writing.

I think public relations is in a desperate need for a new theory. It’s one of the biggest reasons why we are not being taken seriously as a profession after hundreds (if not thousands) years of practice.

I think its an issue that there are over 500 definitions on PR all over the world. Maybe I’m thinking as an academic now, but I think while practice might and even should vary from culture to culture, the main concept of public relations should be unanimously agreed on.

After taking part in EuroBlog 2008 conference and listening to smart people talking, I made a conclusion, which was my personal conviction from before. Public Relations is solely about building and sustaining excellent relationships with publics. We don’t need more definitions than this one (with clear precision on WHY we do it) . It says it all, and it perfectly separates PR from any confusion with other disciplines.

This concept is the most important aspect of public relations as a profession, and yet it has been undermined in practice all along. Why? Because on the other hand (well, in fact, on the same one), the most important function of PR (note the difference between function and aspect, that’s where the problem lies) is a selling function.

Without it’s selling function, whether we sell a product, an idea, a cause or a brand, public relations will stop existing as an industry altogether. There simply won’t be a need for it. This practical aspect of public relations is often undermined by the academics, who are more interested in finding an ethically correct theory for PR. It often results in PR being squeezed into the theory, which is too small (obviously not in size, but in conceptualisation) and inadequate for it. And then we complain why everybody is laughing at us. Its because we look ridiculous.

So, a new definition of PR could sound something like that: Public Relations is (forget about the management function btw, I never understood why we should underline it, isn’t it up to the individual companies to decide?) a maintained effort to SELL a product or a cause BY establishing and sustaining excellent relationships with stakeholders through a two-way (drop symmetrical, it’s a myth) communication.

I think it might be time to be truly transperent and say it out load what we do and why we do it. I think PR will get much more respect for being truthful rather than being accurate (that we are so good at).

Have anyone seen the definition of PR on Wikipedia? I don’t know how about you, but I feel embarrassed.



2 Responses to “PR practice and theory: it’s time for unification”

  1. 1 Tor Martin Nilsen April 7, 2008 at 10:21 pm


    Why so negative?
    You need to cheer up!

    One of the problems for the PR industry is that we don’t do good PR about our own industry. We complain all the time, about not being taken serious, but when are we going to stop talking about it and rather be proactive?

    Your definition might be on to something but I’m not sure if I totally agree with all of it.

    But I do agree with you about the Wikipedia definition. The best part is the end, “and many other activities”;)

    Btw congrats with your blog!

  2. 2 helenanm April 8, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Tor Martin

    I would say that I am being quite proactive by suggesting a new universal definition of PR. I expect people not to agree, but that’s the beauty with social media two-way communications tool, like this one – everybody can express their opinion and join the conversation. Yet, I’m in the total controll of the content. This example illustrates why I don’t longer believe in the symmetrical ideal, yet in a virtue of a respectable and fruitful dialogue.

    I don’t agree though that PR has a bad a reputation because we don’t do a good PR for it. No matter how excellent the PR campaign is, if the idea is bad, no publicity, stunts or WoM are going to help to raise its ranking.

    I wouldn’t want to be perceived as another “nagger”, indeed I’m trying to point out that there is no point to complain when we don’t do anything to change the situation.

    I took a look at your blog, Tor Martin
    Well done!

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