In 1982, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) adopted the following definition of “public relations” that had remained in place until this month: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” (For even-earlier definitions, you can see Wikipedia.)
On March 1, PRSA announced a new definition after a lengthy debate and vote by public-relations professionals: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” The organization describes the new definition thusly:
The definition that resulted from this effort is inclusive, in that it captures the core essence of what it is all public relations professionals do. We believe that the winning definition is true to the research, and accurately reflects the way in which the public relations professionals who participated in this process described what it is they do for a living.
We like the new definition because it now includes two phrases that are especially relevant to a modern, high-tech world that is increasingly driven by social media: “strategic communication process” and “mutually beneficial relationships.”
Decades (or even just a few years) ago, public relations was largely a one-way street. Spokespersons would speak with journalists, and the reporters would communicate with the public. There was usually a middleman (or middleperson). To manage the branding and perception of your company held by the public, you had to manage the writers who would be discussing it.
Today, however, there are fewer middlemen (more marketers and fewer journalists), and it is easier than ever to communicate directly with your target audience, customers, or demographics through social media. To manage the branding and perception of your company, you increasingly need to manage the public itself. This new paradigm presents its own unique opportunities and challenges: social media is a form of public relations.
Think about it like this: Every update on your company’s Facebook page and every tweet on your company’s Twitter are messages that are branding and positioning your firm in a given way. How you act on social media – for better or worse – now has the potential to affect how the public will relate to and perceive you.
Here is one benefit. How many times has a reporter stated an inaccurate fact about your company in a page-one story and then the correction was noted in a small box on page 62 the following day? With both fewer gatekeepers and the ability to communicate with the public yourself, you can control the message and ensure that everything is accurate and written however you may want. Imagine the kids’ game of Telephone but without all of the children in the middle – it is far more likely thorough social media to ensure that the exact message you send is the message that is received.
However, there is a drawback. Say that you are a Boston company that operates solely in that city. Just a few years ago, you would merely have a staffer print or cut clips from the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Boston Business Journal, and perhaps some weekly neighborhood newspapers to see how your public-relations strategies are working.
Today, however, you need to know every time that one of the millions of Bostonians says anything about your company on Facebook, Twitter, countless websites, and many other mediums. To operate effectively in this new paradigm, you will need to be well-versed in mining social media to spread your company’s messaging and respond to online mentions as quickly and efficiently as possible.
And this brings us back to the two new phrases in the modern definition of PR that we like: “strategic communication process” and “mutually beneficial relationships.” Public relations is no longer about wining and dining journalists. It is about developing a “strategic communication process” via social media and elsewhere that will allow you to engage with your target audience directly and control the initial message at the same time. (We say “initial” because you can control what you put on social media, but you cannot control what people say on the networks in response.)
The “mutually beneficial relationships” today need to be between both spokespersons and reporters and your company and target audience on social media directly. The question to answer in your PR strategy: How can you interact with the public on social-networking websites in ways that will both help your audience and promote you?
Public relations, just like any other industry, always changes. At a time with ever-evolving technology, it is crucial to understand how new mediums and tools may potentially be used to position your company and achieve your marketing goals. The definition and practice of PR may have changed, but the overall need for public relations never does — and now, social media has become another channel for public relations.