Redefining Public Relations in the Age of Social Media

By Stuart Elliott, The New York Times

THE public relations industry has decided that it may be a good time for, well, a public relations initiative.

The Public Relations Society of America will create a word cloud out of suggestions for how to define public relations.

The industry’s largest organization, the Public Relations Society of America, is embarking on an effort to develop a better definition of “public relations,” one more appropriate for the 21st century. The effort, to begin on Monday, will solicit suggestions from the public along with public relations professionals, academics and students.

The effort, of course, has a catchy name, Public Relations Defined, and a logo, too, that proclaims its goal: “A modern definition for the new era of public relations.” The effort is being spurred by the profound changes in public relations since the last time the organization updated its definition, in 1982.

Attempts to write new definitions in 2003 and 2007 did not move forward, leaving in place this vague definition: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

Perhaps the most significant changes have occurred most recently, as the Internet and social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter have transformed the relationship between the members of the public and those communicating with them. A process that for decades went one way — from the top down, usually as a monologue — now goes two ways, and is typically a conversation.

That has generated a spate of new terms that are used with, or even in place of, public relations, among them earned media, word of mouth marketing and buzz marketing.

The search for a new definition also follows several embarrassments for the industry as new media make it easier for consumers to learn about the mix-ups and blunders committed in the name of trying to influence what they buy and believe.

Among the more notorious examples are BP’s mishandling of the aftermath of its accident in the Gulf of Mexico; Facebook’s hiring of a public relations agency to try generating articles that would criticize the privacy practices of its rival, Google; how ChapStick increased complaints about a new campaign, which asked consumers to “Be heard,” by repeatedly deleting negative comments about the ads from the Facebook page; and how Netflix lost hundreds of thousands of members with a plan, later rescinded, to divide into separate businesses.

Finding a new definition for public relations is “a process we know is overdue,” said Rosanna Fiske, the chairwoman and chief executive of the public relations society who is also associate professor and global strategic communications program director at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. “We felt we could no longer let it go.”

Read the full article at The New York Times


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