What’s in a Word? Adding Definition to Public Relations

By Vanessa Boynton

I like words. I like them as communicative devices. I like them as sounds. I like them as symbols. Words can represent a great deal more than the message they’ve been strung together to express, and you’ll find that most people in marketing and design agree – hence the massive level of attention we heap onto strategic things like keyword research, brand messaging and content development.

This morning my fondness for words led me to wonder how our profession of “public relations” is being defined in the modern age. It’s changed quite a bit since the beginning of the 20th century. Surely it must be a difficult thing to capture in 10 seconds or less, given the range of activities we’ve been known to manage. So I did a little poking around, and here’s what I found from the PRSA:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Strategic, communication, process, mutually beneficial, relationships, publics… Yep. Those are some nice words. But they don’t seem like all of the words, do they?

The PRSA, of course, is intending to give us a broad and easy-to-understand definition – maybe even one that deliberately feels a little more science than art – but it left me thinking there were many ideas missing. All I have to do is ponder the work that goes into our day-to-day, or the qualities I’ve witnessed in my colleagues, or the moments of inspiration that seem to excite clients and PR teams alike. So:

What about Vision? Or Integrity? Creativity, or Empathy?
These are the words that represent our place among fellow promotional professionals, and the value we see in our relationships. These are the words that demonstrate how we think, and how we treat our clients, our media partners and each other. These are the words that speak to what we want to achieve.

Now, I’m not suggesting the official definition needs a re-write. It’s clear, it’s concise, and its straightforwardness means I’m one step closer to finally being able to explain to my parents what I do for a living. But as a member of a group that is enthusiastically sounding the call to adapt quicker, innovate better and think BIGGER, maybe it’s worth our while to occasionally put the “PR version” of our profession aside and focus instead on what makes us matter as people.

We create. We plan. We investigate. We interpret. We reach out. We always trade sending emails for shaking hands, and we use emotions, images and languages to bring people and ideas together.

We’re in PR, and we like words.

(Photo: The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster)