Challenges of defining PR

This weekend I got engaged in the discussion on PR Conversations, started by the controversial article by Heather Yaxley: A Radical view of PR. Discussion unveiled to assess the Excellence theory, and Dr. J.Grunig gave us an honor by participating in the conversation. This is a great discussion to take place due to EUPRERA conference coming up in Milano in October on institutionalising of PR.

One of the biggest challenges for PR as a discipline is finding a common definition of PR and its role and functions in an organisation. The discussion clearly reveals a gap between academic position on defining PR, and the social reality of its practice today.

As I realise that there will always be tensions between practice and theory in any field, I find a couple of trends in this conflict disturbing. It is academic determination to move PR further away from marketing ignoring the web 2.0 trends altogether. The more I study social media, and business trends to employ web 2.0 tools in their communication efforts, both internal and external, I see the need for these two departments, or sciences for that matter, to work closely together in order to produce best results for both companies and their publics. Integrated communications today is the most optimal model for organisations to successfully operate in the society which is both highly fragmented, media savvy and technologically advanced. Isolating PR from this development will result in marketing taking over the tasks public relations traditionally has been doing for decades, and is very good at. 

Another thing which disturbed me in the course of the debate is learning something brand new about PR’s role in an organisation. While studying Masters in PR in Leeds Metropolitan University, I have never heard that PR’s function in an organisation was to provide “publics a voice in the decisions of organisations that affect them”, as Dr. Grunig and his advocates claim. I have learned that PR’s role was to help an organisation to navigate in dynamic environment by advising on the communication strategy which will in the long term strengthen the organisational reputation. While organisational reputation and societal welfare are closely interrelated it’s no longer a question whether company should behave ethically, and address the needs and expectations of its stakeholders. But being the voice of the society in an organisation, and serving the interests of the society as a whole (addressing stakeholders from the societal perspective, not only organisational, Grunig claims), rather than serving the interests of the employer – this is a new thing for me.

I have a feeling that from one extreme, often being the devil advocates, we are now moving to the next extreme, being pro-bono angels, neither of which reflects the reality of practice of public relations today. What about finding the golden middle, by trying to learn from the mistakes of the past, and continue doing what we do best: add value to both the organisation and our publics through informative, transparent and two-ways communications. Let’s admit it; we have neither competences nor aspirations to speak on the behalf of the society in its divergence and complexity.

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11 Responses to “Challenges of defining PR”


  1. 1 Bob Batchelor September 22, 2008 at 12:54 am

    Hi Helena,

    You’ve provided very astutue comments on a difficult set of issues. As one participant in the PR Conversations discussion pointed out to me via e-mail, much of the challenge in critiquing the so-called Excellence Theory is that it is so broad. So, while I do not see its relevance in an increasingly integrated communications world, one could argue that its mandates fit into the Web 2.0 world.

    One of my primary compaints about the theory is that it puts too much emphasis on defining PR as a “management function,” when that really is not a prerequisite to an organization doing great communications work. One does not find leadership in other professions obsessing about where they sit in relation to the CEO. They simply go out and do their work to the best of their ability, then show ROI. PR, on the other hand, is still trying to figure this out.

    What we should all be doing is proving ROI, which would enable executives to see/feel the value of communications.

    –Bob

  2. 2 Heather Yaxley September 22, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Bob – The debate about where a function sits in a hierarchy is not solely found in relation to PR, just check out the HR and marketing or similar literature where there are arguments made for other disciplines as a board function. Given the hash-up we’re seeing from a finance-only focus in many large organisations (and governments) at present, there has to be room for wider expertise on boards.

    Indeed, I think it is a prerequisite for an organisation to have communications expertise at the top table if it is to do great communications work. If the CEO or other non-PR board members understand its value, then that is an advantage and in such cases, a specialist PR director may not be required at that level (although ironically, his/her expertise may well be recognised in such organisations).

    But if the CEO/CFO etc are not interested or capable communicators, the organisation may well experience more problems than it should do. If the PR function is simply seen as a technical one with the role of crafting press releases to communicate messages directed from above, the organisation is likely to miss the opportunity to pre-empt issues, avoid conflict and gain a better reputation, etc.

    I think this also relates to Helena’s points about my original post (which never set out to be controversial). First, I don’t think there should be a gap between the academic view of PR and its practice. The gap should be between good and poor PR practice, as I believe it increasingly is. Those who undertake unethical practices should, and are, criticised not just by academics, but by those who increasingly distance themselves from the spinners and spammers.

    In relation to the PR-marketing argument, it is clearly appropriate for PR to work closely with marketing colleagues (as with those in HR, operations, finance, etc etc). That does not mean that PR has to be seen as a subset of marketing, since its wider remit and expertise is then lost. Indeed, if you look at the history of both PR and marketing in the 20th century, you’ll see that both started out in many organisations as a single publicity function, and then diverged as expertise was required for emerging aspects such as television advertising and employee engagement.

    Where the convergence is occurring today seems to be in relation to the fact that “marketing” functions are increasingly only responsible for marketing communications, with sales, operations and other departments taking responsibility for product development, pricing, etc.

    In such cases, the arguments for integrated communications are clearer and “marketing” has moved into the areas of internal marketing, cause related marketing, etc etc. I am not too worried about whether or not integrated comms resides in the form of a single person (as in many small organisations), in a comms function (whatever it may be called) or with a team of managers of specialist departments working together (as is often the case in large concerns).

    Yes, online has brought greater opportunity for convergence, but stating there is an “optimal model” for organisations ignores the fact that there is unlikely to be a single best approach for all organisations. The most important thing I have found is that people within organisations are communication-literate and work together rather than in silos. So I agree, PR should not be isolated, but that also doesn’t mean it is subjugated to marketing.

    I think it is more important to recognise that the traditional marketing approach of “exchange relationships” is not enough these days. Organisations no longer operate only on the basis of giving something in exchange for something they want (in marketing terms, that’s normally selling a product for money).

    This is where the concept of providing “publics a voice in the decisions of organisations that affect them” comes in. I don’t think this is necessarily that new or shocking.

    In advising an organisation in respect of its communications strategy, PR has frequently played devil’s advocate by taking the side of those with whom it wishes to communicate. For example, our media expertise involves understanding how journalists will interpret or report something. So we may well advise that messages or strategies take this into account.

    Similarly, in avoiding or managing a crisis, engaging employees or other publics, PR practitioners will use research (or at least, their own experience), to understand other parties and should advise management on how operations may need to be addressed, not simply how to communicate a message.

    I argue very strongly for PR to act as the voice of society in an organisation and cannot see why this might be so controversial. The market research department will put across the viewpoint of consumers and potential consumers (HR may do likewise for employees), so why shouldn’t PR do likewise for other publics/stakeholders?

    Of course, the organisation may decide (with or without the PR’s counsel) to ignore the benefits of communal relationships, which may be less tangible, especially in the short term. But isn’t the very fact that organisations are more prepared now to consider their environmental and other social impacts, evidence that they have recognised the need to address the wider concerns of society other than just whether the organisation is making a profit?

    Organisations need someone to step outside the organisational-perspective and give an independent view. Some might argue this is why they employ consultants rather than have in-house staff, although both are necessarily partisan.

    I don’t see being devil’s advocate is an extreme – it is pragmatic to understand the position of others with whom we wish to communicate. After all, successful communications involve a pro-active not a passive receiver (increasingly so with new media).

    A pro-bono angel isn’t an alternative extreme to the devil’s advocate either (as nice as the heaven-hell hook might be).

    We each have the potential to look at doing the right thing or doing the thing that gives us the best outcome (depending on the ethical framework we may follow). Or, we can, as you say, consider the situation and whether the right thing and the best outcome can be more aligned, or recognise the consequences of one or the other stance.

    I certainly agree with you that we need to learn from the past and add value to organisations and publics. I don’t think that the academic and practitioner are far apart in that respect.

    My understanding is that this is what those supporting Jim Grunig at PR Conversations are also advocating – that we can “add value to both the organisation and our publics through informative, transparent and two-ways communications”.

    The disagreement is with the reality of much practice of PR that is focused on the superficiality of generating media coverage for its own sake, lying and obfuscating, etc.

    And, if we don’t have (or seek to achieve) the competencies or the aspirations to reflect within the organisation the view of a divergent and complex society, I’m not sure how much value any PR function would be.

    The organisation that simply uses PR as a tactical, one-way function and isn’t in any way hearing the voices of the wider society, will be acting in transmit-only mode in its communications, and we all have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

  3. 3 Richard Bailey September 22, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    The most glaring problem with the ‘insitutionalisation’ discussion is the ugly word. Who (or what) wants to be institutioinalised (or even institutionalized)?

    Perhaps the champions of Radical PR should be truly radical and embrace some anti-institutionalisation. (They could read Clay Shirky for starters.) Somehow I don’t think this is likely.

  4. 4 Helena Makhotlova September 22, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Bob, I completely share your skepticism about insisting on PR being a management function. That is not to say that I don’t see how PR can be much more effective in an organisation being placed on top rather than bottom. I just think that this issue is handled from the wrong end: the changes have to start from the adjustments in the education. I read that in many universities PR doesn’t even belong to business department. Another issue is absence of clear definition of PR’s role in an organisation: as long as there are disagreements both within and outside our field, it’s pointless to insist where in the organisational charter we should belong.

    Heather, I agree with almost everything you say. In fact, I think we’re thinking alike, just using different angles. I by no means imply that PR should be viewed as a subset of marketing. You’re right, the two disciplines have similar origins, and they drifted apart in the course of the 20th century, but now they are coming close to each other again. It’s just to see how the definition of marketing has been changing in the recent years to embrace concepts like relationship management, participation and conversational engagement.

    Certainly, every organisation needs to be approached differently, but I believe that holistic approach to communications, which IMC represents, including a mix of both offline and online media outlets, is likely to prove more successful than any single particular approach.

    I agree, that today organizations need to stretch further before they can expect return of investment. For example, employing digital media tools to connect with stakeholders and gradually build relationships with them is a long term strategy, where an organization should be prepared “to give” for a long time without demanding anything in return. I think that engaging in two-way conversations with publics, and provide them with value should be looked upon as good practice of corporate communications, not a merely marketing strategy.

    However, I don’t think we should promise more than we’re able to keep up. Providing publics a voice in the decision making process of an organisation is a big promise, and I just expressed my concerns about how realistic this promise is. Of course, we should listen to our stakeholders, and try to allign organizational interests with those of our publics to achieve mutual understanding and their trust. But this is not to say that our function in an organisation is to serve the society. I think it is in bringing societal interests and concerns to the management, and guiding it how to best combine both.

    I have learned to think that the job of PR is to assist an organisation in reaching its goals and objectives. By behaving ethically, and giving something back to the community an organisation earns itself both license to operate, and competitive advantage. But it’s not the same as addressing the needs of all the publics (which are global now, thanks to the internet). For me, being a voice of the society in an organization sounds like our job is to lobby societal interest (in all its diversity and complexity) to the management. Maybe I misunderstood this phrase.

    Richard, as you see we already have enough disagreements within PR-theory. Just think what including Shirky’s arguments would do to these discussions! Would be fun though 🙂

  5. 5 Benita Steyn September 22, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    Helena, I cannot agree that IMC represents a holistic approach to communication. It focuses on communication with stakeholders in the task/operating environment (those in the value chain e.g. consumers, distributors, suppliers, etc). It thus focuses on stakeholders with an economic stake. What about those stakeholders with a political stake? Those with an equity stake (shareholders)?

    The thing is, under IMC, how much employee communication is done? Investor communication? Crisis or risk communication? Community communication (which in my country–South Africa–includes development communication)? Lobbying?

    IMC is profit centred. That used to be fine in a previous business era, but in today’s world there is a Triple Bottom Line to be achieved. Small companies might still get away by focusing on Profit only, but the big companies (especially those operating in high risk environments/products) can’t.

    If you want a representative approach, then look at Integrated Communication (IC), which integrates all the subsets of communication. In such an approach, all the functions/units that deal with stakeholder communication work together. This is not normative. There are many big companies that function this way.

    Bob: I agree that PR can do some ‘great communications work’ even when it is not a management function. But there is no question of proving ROI when PR is a technical function. As a matter of fact, I don’t think you can prove ROI even when PR is a management function. It will have to be a strategic management function before you can even think of achieving that goal.

  6. 6 Helena Makhotlova September 23, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Hi Benita,

    Certainly, you’re right – IMC consist only of market communications, so I did mean integrated communications, if we are to talk about the hollistic approach. However, it is often the case that integrated communications depatment is co-ordinated from the marketing rather than public relations perspective, making it IMC. More often than not, PR is subsumed into the marketing department. Now I hope this will gradually change, as PR has a much broader stakeholder perspective, and thus represent a much more appropriate mindset to approach an overall communication strategy of an organisation.

  7. 7 Caroline wilson September 23, 2008 at 9:35 am

    This post, and its parent starter post at PR Conversations have been really illuminating, so thank you to all of the participants.
    I don’t think the Heather camp, and the Bob camp, are far apart – you’re just looking at ROI over a longer time period.
    Bob wants his sooner. Heather is looking at building longer term relationships which will bear fruit over a longer time period, not necessarily in profit but in continued licence to operate.

    I’m really pleased Heather pointed up that the role of PR really depends on the CEO. Sometimes I think PR people aspire to do a CEO’s job for them. IF the CEO isn’t interested then the job sits at technician level. If the CEO is interested then they’re likely to think that a lot of the concerns of the PR person are theirs and what they need is eyes ears and a full-timer on the job to help them keep on top of the task while they juggle lots of other concerns.

    My radical view for PR is for it to honestly re-visit its roots. I find it interesting that in this discussion, and others, persuasion is rarely used. It’s a dirty word close to propaganda. But is it? Isn’t all PR really about persuading people – persuading activists that you’re not as bad as they think you are, persuading employees that planned changes will have their good points as well as bad, persuading people that their established habits might be dangerous to their health so they need to change… (e.g. smoking, exercise).

    We talk a lot about relationships, but those relationships are built on conversations – and they usually involve persuasion. I don’t know why persuasion and techniques to achieve this aren’t a firmer part of the syllabus. Is it because they seem to be manipulative?

  8. 8 Heather Yaxley September 23, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Caroline, I certainly will take short-term gains as I’ve supported enough car launches to be committed to generating sales. But I suppose I don’t see the benefit in the quick fix at the expense of the ongoing licence to operate.

    I also agree with you about revisting persuasion – although I do think in practice most PR campaigns set out with a goal that fits within persuasion (attitude, behaviour change etc). I don’t feel there is always enough understanding of the psychological principles underlying successful persuasion though. Or is that when people get uneasy ethically if they feel students are being taught to be better persuaders?

    I feel we need a better understanding of the theory and skills of building relationships. I’ve been pondering diplomacy recently as the essential skills involved in negotiation and dialogue seem to be missing in the PR arena. Persuasion will come into this, but so too should listening skills, accommodation, game theory, and so on.

  9. 9 toni muzi falconi September 23, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    In revisiting our roots, may I suggest the term con-vincing rather than persuading? Con-vincing stems from the latin vincere cum which implies win-win.
    Is that not more in line with our ideas rather then persuading?

  10. 10 Helena Makhotlova September 23, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    I think “influence” is the word PR academics should use rather than persuasion. It has too many associations with Berney’s propaganda and legacies of spin. Influence, on the other hand, is intrinsically linked with relationship building, because the result of the relationship is a permission to influence the other party.

  11. 11 Bob Batchelor September 24, 2008 at 4:08 am

    Hello everyone. Yes! I’m all for examining the roots of PR. There is a rich history out there waiting to be mined. I hope that someone takes on Bernays, eventually excising him from “Father of PR” status to “Father of Publicity,” which is a big difference in my mind.

    I think Benita rightly points out an ongoing challenge when discussing integrated communications. When do we add the “M” in IMC? I suppose I use the term IMC when I should actually be saying IC. I advocate IC because all communications functions should act in concert toward achieving the organization’s goals and objectives.

    To me it’s a pretty straight shot. The Board/CEO lay out a set of plans, then each division in the org. builds its plan based off that original. In my professional days, I think we referred to this as Hoshin planning.

    Now, the challenge in this system, from Dr. Grunig’s viewpoint is that if I merely act on behalf of my organization, then I am a lowly tactician, not, in his words, an “elite practitioner” and strategist.

    This is where we disagree. I see value in a communicator playing that vital tactician role with integrity, ethics, and honesty, which will result in the organization moving toward its objectives. I do not need to be at the CEO’s table to carry this out, as long as my plan has been built off the main plan.

    Obviously, as a former professional and now as a teacher, I love communications. I know that it would be a better world for us if every CEO realized the value of communications and acted accordingly. But, I also live in the real world, one in which most CMOs and communications execs have little or no PR training. We’ve got to figure out a way to prove the value of the profession right now…today.

    In addition, look at some of the backlash in the US media about men no longer studying PR as undergraduates. The field has some major issues to confront. We’re spinning our wheels under the Grunig/Excellence weight. Imagine, if one attempts to publish a journal article about PR tomorrow, that person must take several hundred words defining PR with the same citations we’ve all seen a million times. We need a radical departure from this so-called theory that has had us stuck in the mud since the mid-1980s.


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