‘Public relations can’t be defined.’
I read this often in student essays. It’s a consequence of teaching that offers multiple perspectives and encourages independent thought on the practice and profession.
But if public relations can’t be defined, then how do you explain the existence of so many different definitions? The evidence suggests that it’s too easy to define public relations, not too hard. It’s so easy you can have a go yourself (many students, practitioners and lecturers do).
Rather than discussing the definitions of PR, let’s consider its purpose. Let’s try to answer the question ‘why?’ rather than the question ‘what?’
If the purpose of PR is to generate publicity, then this simplifies matters. We can scrap the professional bodies, end most PR qualifications and merge the PR and advertising industries.
Professor Tom Watson argues here that there are two industries living unhappily together: a publicity business and a strategic communication business.
So what’s the purpose of strategic communication? Many would argue it’s legitimacy (and I agree): it’s about organisations retaining their ‘licence to operate’ in a complex world in which competitors, customers, politicians, activists and the media can all turn on an organisation in full public view.
This legitimacy business (it goes beyond reputation) sounds important; it should be professional.
This leads us to the intriguing prospect of a high calibre contest for the CIPR presidency between a practitioner who writes (Stephen Waddington) and an academic who talks to practitioners (Dr Jon White). Their discussion, sparked by another blog post by Tom Watson asking if the CIPR isn’t past its sell-by date, already has 80 comments on LinkedIn.
It’s an important debate, and it’s good to see engaged academics mixing it with intelligent practitioners.