Marking the 100th anniversary of the PR profession’s identity crisis

I started my business career as a public relations professional 30 years ago.  Since then I have morphed into new careers like sales, marketing, business development, consulting, and teaching, but there is a little piece of my heart that will always belong to PR.

So I’m disheartened that the same tired questions about “what is PR?” that swirled around the profession when I started three decades ago are still taking up space today.  In fact, nearly 100 years ago the first definition of public relations was issued and its practitioners have been in a state of chronic paranoia and self-psychoanalysis ever since.

Public Relations is the Woody Allen of business professions.

Here are three questions that need to be given a rest!

1) Is PR really a profession?

Of course it is a profession. The only people who wonder if it is a profession are the people actually IN the profession. Calm down. Yes. People take you seriously … except when you keep asking these questions!

2) What is PR?

Edward Bernays, a colorful bloke generally accepted to be the founder of public relations as a profession, defined PR in the early 1900s as a

 “management function that tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures, and interests of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”

Edward Bernays

Since that statement 100 years ago, the PR business has continued to struggle with their chronic identity crisis.  At the first World Assembly of Public Relations Association in 1978 the agenda was figuring themselves out. The delegates issued a definition of their craft: “the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action, which will serve both the organization and the public interest.”

Honestly, that is pretty close to the Bernays definition, isn’t it?

And it continues. Late in 2011, PRSA launched the “Public Relations Defined” initiative, “a collaborative, industry-wide advocacy campaign to modernize the definition of public relations.” They received more than 1,000 submissions. This week, PRSA announced it needed more time to come up with the definition.

Are you kidding me? We still don’t have an answer after 100 years?

3) Should there be a PR discipline at universities?

… and should it be in the business school or journalism school?  Again, let’s just go back to what Bernays had to say about this 100 years ago.  He envisioned PR to be a blend of personal communication, mass communication, psychology, research, business, and journalism.

This is a unique educational profile so yes, of course, there should be a unique curriculum to go with it.

Should it be in the J school or the B school? Well, where are the most jobs? Business. Then put students in the business school so they can be immersed in this world and make the connections they will need to find employment and thrive.

Now I’m sure I’ll get lots of comments from PR professionals who say I just don’t understand, but really folks … is PR so complicated that we need to debate these questions for 100 years?

Technology changes and best practices shift in EVERY profession but that should not prompt an on-going identity crisis.  Doctors are still doctors. Engineers are still engineers. And despite the advent of social media (which makes PR more valuable than ever by the way), PR is still PR … pretty much the way Bernays defined it 100 years ago.

The profession needs to get off the psychoanalyst’s couch, end this wearisome dialogue, and stand confidently as a vital part of a modern organization’s management team.  Right?

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