Defending the indefinable

25 Apr

‘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.

3 Responses to “Defending the indefinable”

  1. Jon White 25/04/2013 at 11:41 am #


    Thanks for continuing this important debate.

    There’s one thing I need to correct in the blog. You describe me as an academic who talks to practitioners. I haven’t been an academic since I left my last full-time academic position at Cranfield University School of Management in 1991. I have been self-employed since then — a sole trader, having to go out and find business, establish and sustain client relationships, and deliver results for clients. I do have links with a number of universities, and have written on many aspects of practice, but I am not an academic, rather a practitioner who moves between practice, writing, research, teaching and training. My practice has included work with companies such as Shell and governmental/ public sector organisations such as the European Commission and its agencies.

    Thanks again

    Best wishes


  2. Richard Bailey 25/04/2013 at 11:49 am #

    I’m glad you’ve made this clarification, Jon, and I apologise for my oversimplification. (I don’t retract it, however, since your doctorate and track record of research and publication put you in the top rank of UK public relations scholars. I still cite Grunig & White and White & Mazur even though these refer back to publications from the 1990s).

    Your claification makes my point even stronger: there is no academic-practitioner divide in our dynamic business/industry/profession.

    What we need are intelligent people capable of understanding our place in the world to help us navigate to the future.

    • Jon White 25/04/2013 at 12:02 pm #

      No need for apologies, Richard. Your point is a very important one, about the requirements for a lack of division between academics and practitioners involved in the development of public relations practice towards greater professionalism..

      Thanks again for your contribution and comments.

      Best wishes


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