Redefine PR? No, just learn to Listen.

November 21, 2011 · 2 comments in Public Relations,Social Media

[Dell SM Listening Command Center. Dell File Photo]

I just read a New York Times item announcing that the Public Relations Society of America [PRSA] is launching a campaign to redefine the term “public relations” to make it more current in the 21st century.

I pointed to the article on Twitter and immediately got new jokes about the “spinners spinning their spin.” I see the humor, but it makes me sad. PR has so many true values to a company. One way or another every organization practices PR and it shapes who they are and how they fare in the marketplace.

The definition has remained the same for centuries. “Public Relations” is a self-defining term. It is the relationship between organizations of any size and people who make a difference to them.”

This has not changed, it is also highly unlikely to change moving forward.

What has changed are the tools of communications and the venues. The tools are now social and the venue is increasingly online. These two facts have upended virtually every profession and institution. They have forced the enterprise and corner store, governments and those who wish to overthrow them. It has changed advertising, news, religions, white-collar crime and just about all things–including public relations.

I can tell you the essential difference for the PR industry. People can now talk back at you and about you. They can do it with great speed and what they say can spread like wildfire faster than you can call a conference room meeting t discuss messaging or damage control.

I commend PRSA for understanding that something is broken. But I think they are trying to fix the wrong thing.

PR, for the past 60 years, has focused on broadcasting. They send messages out. When one approach doesn’t work, they try a new way to send the same messages in different forms. When talking doesn’t work, they shout.

In fact, what PRSA needs to teach its members is that they must learn to listen. They can now talk with customers, prospects, investors, potential employees and bring back the wisdom of vital crowds to organizational decision makers.

This is not touchy-feely thinking. This is serious business strategy. Dell Computer spent many millions of dollars to build a listening center. A staff listen to what is said about the company online every day. They monitor about 150,000 comments a week.

This listening engine fixes product flaws faster and less expensively than was previously possible. It turns ranting customers into ravers. It reduces time to market for new products and vastly lessens the burdens of customer support.

At Ford Motors, Scott Monty, the company’s top social media officer answers directly to the CEO. Ford has no desire to appear cool. But it understands that social media is where you spot problems and trends first and how you get the word out fastest.

If you don’t think these two cases are connected to public relations, then I just don’t know what to tell you.

My advice to public relations practitioners is that we live in a new, still-forming Conversational Age. It has replaced the Age of Broadcast. You need to join the conversation. It is where your customers are going and it is also where you should really shine.

After all, professional PR people are outstanding communicators, right?

PRSA is right that something is broken. The PR industry sees itself as being in he image business, yet they collectively have a truly awful image.


Scott Hepburn December 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I’m actually a fan of the definition project, Shel. Before you can listen, you need to understand who you are. If you’re not confident in who you are, you’ll end up listening to anyone and everyone.

Still, I’m not sure the project’s outputs will measure up to potential. PRSA is crowing about how much input the campaign has gotten. But the results, while preliminary, offer little clarity or originality.

As in most things, what you do says more about you than what you say. If a better definition of “public relations” helps the industry conduct itself with greater purpose, great. We shall see.

David Reich November 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

Shel, I agree that much more is needed from PRSA than a new definition.

Teaching folks in PR to listen is key, but the organization that supposedly represents us should be working to improve our image (basic PR), and also work to better train newcomers in the field, with efforts to bring an understanding of PR into the business classroom in college and on the job in agencies. PRSA should also be working to establish and enforce ethics within our field. Unfortunately, based on what I read in Jack O’Dwyer’s newsletter, PRSA does not appear to be setting a very good example.

I wrote about this yesterday at

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