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?

All posts

  • The problem is that PR is not tangible. You know when you have bad PR and you know when you have good PR, but it’s not applicable to the balance sheet or P&L. The only thing about the profession that is tangible is media relations – or publicity. People can read, hold, and feel a story so that’s what they assume we do. When, in reality, it’s less than one percent of what a communication professional does. 

    The other issue is that everyone communicates so everyone thinks they’re a PR professional. It’s pretty disheartening when clients and prospects think they can do your job better than you can because it seems easy.

    As you know, I’m pretty vocal about what it is we do and, until we learn how to measure our efforts to the balance sheet and P&L, we’ll always have these issues. That takes BUSINESS sense. Not journalism. Not creative writing. Not English. Business. 

  • Anonymous

    I think PR has a similar identity crisis to social media in the modern day. Especially with the blending of different business disciplines/media happening constantly, we’re obsessed with trying to make everything fit into a clear category so everything makes sense in our minds. We constantly ask, does social media belong to marketing? Customer service? Sales? 

    Both PR & social media support any number of different business functions, and therefore are a bit fuzzier than sales, advertising, and other more direct forms of moving products. Like you say, that doesn’t mean it isn’t legit & shouldn’t be taught as its own discipline. 

    Great post as usual, Mark!

  • I absolutely agree on the business orientation. i struggle with the same thing when people who like to make Facebook pages consider themselves marketers. If you like animals it does not make you a veterinarian.

    But the identity issues you mention here are the same for advertising, marketing, even journalism. How do you define a journalist today?  Is a blogger a journalist? Are you a journalist? Am I?  Heck, anybody with a computer can jump in.

    So I think there are gray areas in many professions yet we don’t see the paranoia and teeth-gnashing in other areas like we do in PR.  I would be surprised to see a professional journalism society devote years of effort to coming up with a definition of a journalist yet the identity issues are just as great or greater.  I’m at a loss as to why this debate rages on with PR folks.

    Thanks for the balanced perspective Gini! 

  • Really brilliant analogy. A great contribution to the dialogue!  Thanks!

  • It’s kind of like what search went through 10 years ago – anyone with a keyboard was an SEO expert. I always joke that anyone with a Twitter account and a keyboard is a social media expert. They’re EVERYWHERE. But the fact remains, until you’ve practiced it from a business perspective, you’re not an expert. You’re just a guy with a Twitter account and keyboard.

  • Delightful post, Mark.  But be careful all the comments you receive don’t drag you back onto the Shrink’s Couch :-).  I wrote on this last month on our blog Taking Aim ( and have to laugh every time a PR person wants to engage in discussiion of whether we are a profession.  The debate over licensure aside, who cares?

  • I’ve been a passive reader long enough, I think it’s about time I start contributing. 😉

  • Happy to have you aboard. I never know who is out there unless they comment! 

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one out here tired of this debate! Thanks for coming to my aid Roger! : ) 

  • Anthony_Rodriguez

    Do you think this constant evaluation of what PR is comes from the evolution of technology and the new arms it gives to the industry? I’d love to hear your theories.

  • As I said in the post, technology is changing EVERY business yet PR seems to have cornered the market on angst.  I really have no theory as to why. 

  • Anonymous

    The industry whose job it is to explain complex ideas to the public continues to struggle to explain what it is to the public.

  • Hmmm.  Good observation.  

  • You’ve really opened a can of worms with this one. While reading your article, it occurred to me how similar the challenges of defining PR are with explaining social media. Both are best when driven by compelling content and both can be important to political positioning, crisis management, story telling, news distribution, relationship management, branding and (gasp!) sales. Both will always be evolving and (as referenced in your previous blog) both are best when the strategy behind them is not obvious.

  • Anonymous

    Eh, lots of things aren’t tangible. Management consulting, mental
    health, property and causality insurance, exchange-traded securities,
    computer programs and so on.

    The difference is that these fields don’t claim to be experts in crafting messaging and helping to inform the public. PR pros are supposed to be great at relating to the public—except when it comes to describing what they do.

    Gini also notes that “it’s pretty disheartening when clients and prospects think they can do your job better than you can because it seems easy.” That sounds like another tremendous PR failure. Same with the incorrect assumption that PR is 100% publicity when it’s actually “less than one percent.”

    So what is PR? It seems pretty easy to me: PR is the management of the enormous gray area between perception and reality. It’s taking stock of all of the facts and presenting them to various populations in ways that reflect positively on the client.

    That definition certainly doesn’t paint PR in the same saintly light as journalism. But it also tries to distance PR from the other communication profession: advertising.

    The longer this discussion goes on, the longer it will take for PR to get any respect. But you knew that, right? PR 101: Any group engaged in an active, public debate appears unstable.

  • I don’t really mind, because while they are all hemming and hawing I am out there getting results! Keep them distracted, I will take the business they are too busy with definitions to notice 🙂

  • I wonder where that phrase came from?  Who keeps a can of worms any way?  I suppose fishermen (fisherpeople?) do, but I think an actual CAN of worms would probably asphyxiate the little critters. I prefer my worms in buckets and they’re not too hard to manage. I mean, we really have and advantage here. Even if you drop a few they can’t get very far. I’ve tried this a lot. I always win. Builds my confidence. I was even using that as a slogan for awhile. Mark Schaefer: Better Than Most Worms.  Kind of catchy, no?  I’ll let you use it if you want to Billy.

  • I actually love PR people. They are about my favorite type of folks to hang around with. They just need some lovin’ now and then. : ) 

  • I like this description . . .

    “blend of personal communication, mass communication, psychology, research, business, and journalism.”

    My favorite part of it is the “personal communication” part. The reason being that we each experience communication, personally. We go inside and tell ourselves what its’ supposed to mean and what to do with it. And this is why it’s so vital to narrow down who your perfect prospect is so that whatever you’re saying get’s their head nodding, to the exclusion of anyone else who isn’t giving you money or attention.

    And if everyone would observe Jay Abraham’s advice of “Communicate with impact or don’t communicate at all,” I think there’d be much less clutter in the ad space.

  • Well said, thank you! 

  • My confusion arises from the pertinent question thrown at me about the difference between Corporate Communications and PR. I also get prodded to clarify whether PR is a subset of Corporate Communications or vice versa. I haven’t managed to crack the questions so far and would certainly appreciate some help on this. 

  • It’s all comunication.

  • A great sauce, Bernays.

  • Thanks Gini, and Mark for this opportunity to join in the discussion. 

    According to Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D. — one of the resources I’ve used for “Marketing in the 21st Century Building Relationships with Less Distress – Make it Simple by Positioning Yourself As An Expert” — “…an expert is someone who is knowledgeable in his/her discipline, and communicates this fact aggressively, and effectively.  Those with knowledge who are unknown are not experts.”

    So let the games people play continue in/on social media, and flourish for everyone,  The results tell their story!

    Happy holidays everyone…

  • You crack me up.

  • Alison Koop

    Thank you, Dr. Rae, for sharing that wonderful quote from Stanley! That in itself is a good definition of the value of PR.


  • Here is how I would honestly respond to somebody pressing me on that question: We should organize in the best interest of the company and not get caught up in definitions. Yes, we should have role clarity but also the flexibility to do what it takes to serve the needs of the enterprise and that is going to be different for every single business.

    I get frustrated with this same type of argument about “who owns social media?” Who cares?  The answer might be different for different organizations for lots of reasons, and all the alternatives might function well. All of this debate is wasteful and counter-productive in dynamic organizations. Start with strategy. The rest will flow form there.  Thanks for your question Ashish.

  • Alison Koop

    Mark, I’m a new voice jumping in here:

    I think one reason for angst over social media is this: it’s merging PR and marketing back together. I see this in current job descriptions. Functions and tools are overlapping now that it’s easy and inexpensive to reach the customer directly.  It’s not just about adding social media tools to your PR repertoire. I think many employers are now asking PR pros to be marketers with a dollop of PR on top, Then there’s the tussel between marketing and PR over who “owns” social media channels.    

    It’s now so easy and inexpensive to reach the customer directly with, well, direct marketing techniques. So, with PR opportunities in traditional media continuing to shrink (declining newspaper circulations, less locally-produced TV and radio programming), employers are beginning to expect the PR pro to have a marketing background as well. 

    And then there’s the internal tussle at larger companies over who “controls” social media, whether it’s PR or marketing.         

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  • Mark

    Thanks Allison. I’m glad you’re here.

  • An understanding of journalism is certainly key to successful PR.

    But they are at the core essentially different functions with vastly different end goals. PR definitely sits in the business arm.

  • No one knows what PR is because no one in PR ever gets credit for what they do outside of the PR world. And by credit I mean, the news releases we write, the crisis’ we avert, the strategies we devise and the coverage we get. Why would anyone know what PR is outside of PR? 

    My parents did PR for 30+ years and until I started to work in PR, I had no idea what they did. Do you really know what most other jobs do, aside from the actual title, do you know what your friends actually do on a day to day basis?PR’s identify crisis doesn’t stem from the fact that no one really knows what we do but from the fact that we do so much and increasing every day. Most people think PR is making an announcement and hounding writers to cover us – this is a negative connotation that will hound us until PR actually becomes public knowledge.

    My prediction for 2012 is that PR will start getting more PR for the PR we do. We will step out from behind the shadows, get bylines and credit for the work we do. Consumer facing content creation will move into our job description and more of us will become widely known experts. It’s going to be a big year!

  • I agree that it’s the tangibility aspect that really hurts PR, no matter how we try to define it. And the worst part of PR is when your client thinks they can do it better than you because they got one mention of coverage all by themselves. That’s not PR!

  • Thanks for the passionate discourse Trace! Two comments:

    1) If PR starts getting the limelight, it is probably not doing its job. PR per se is not supposed to be in the limelight.

    2) I think the “not getting credit” days are over. The old days of press releases, yes. But in the digital age, almost everything can be measured, accounted for, and tied to shareholder value. There is no reason PR contributions can’t be measured and reported in a management dashboard.

    Great comment! Thanks!

  • Agree. I definitely benefited from my journalism degree … and my MBA!

  • What about journalism? I’d say there’s a lot of angst in newsrooms, wouldn’t you?

  • Great post, Mark. This continued navel-gazing hurts one group and one group only. And that ain’t our clients, bosses or colleagues in other professions.

    Best definition I’ve ever come across for public relations is this from Larry Long and Vince Hazelton: “Public relations is a communications function of management through which organizations adapt to, alter or maintain their environments for the purpose of achieving organizational goals.”

    Would welcome others’ input on this. 

    Happy Holidaze, all!


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  • I would consider this more of a thought provoking discussion, less discourse ?

    To both of your points:

    1) Your use of the words “probably” and “not supposed to ” lead me to the conclusion that you aren’t 100% sure, which is fine. My question to you is, who says we can’t be in the “limelight?” And to be clear, my definition of limelight isn’t garnering press for yourself while also representing a client, rather garnering credibility for the outstanding work performed in the process. There are many influential PR professionals who currently do this and it wins them more business because their reputation precedes them. I see this as a growing trend for 2012 and beyond as the PR industry continues to grow.

    2)The press release is definitely on it’s last leg but not dead yet as much as most would like it to be. You raise an interesting point though with the ability to measure the activities of anyone in the digital age – it just seems that no one has built a platform for the PR professional to be measured… yet.

  • There are few absolutes in business. It’s dangerous to conclude that there are hard and fast rules to everything.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I do think there is an unspoken rule that if the company PR person is in the limelight they probably have their priorities mixed up. That is not to say that people should not get credit for their work or that an agency should not promote themselves. But if the PR person becomes the story, there is probably something askew.

    I am of the school that we should measure everything. Otherwise, how do we know we are making progress? How do we know we are creating value? How do we show that our budget should be approved?

    Historically, measuring something like “reach,” or “impressions,” or “sentiment” — the bread and butter of PR — has been difficult and costly. There is really no excuse not to measure any more though now that indicators of these success factors are so easily within reach.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comments Trace!

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  • Mike McDougall, APR

    Mark – Bravo! I just posted to the same ( within the last hour, and by happenstance stumbled across your piece. We need to get out of our own way — would any other profession ask the public at large to define it?

  • Yeah, kind of a weird dynamic.

  • Anonymous

    IF we’re talking Bernays (who should be made some kind of saint in my view), it’s worth mentioning bacon & eggs and pianos.  

    Two radically different concepts – but concepts which I believe are more marketing than PR.

    In fact, as someone who has worked in PR and Marketing, I’d be happy to put my head over the parapet and suggest that PR is a function of marketing.

    But, before anyone leaps on me, Marketing is a function over an overall communications set.

    PR is a particular discipline that aims to link people and product (be that toothpaste, concept, idea etc) in the fewest steps possible, and in the most factual way possible (when possible – occasionally lying is a good thing.  But only if someone’s life is at stake).  

    It’s about gauging mood and method, and delivering communications on those lines.

    Marketing’s more about segmentation, psychographics, advertising and so on.  As such, Marketing is allowed to make the customer work for their revelation (gaming, interactive campaigning etc), whereas PR doesn’t.

    Two sides of a communications dodechedron, or something like that!

  • “Environments” is a pretty broad term. This would imply PR would be in charge of site selection, union negotiations, and maintaing the thermostat : ) Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

  • I lived in both worlds and agree that PR should be part of marketing. Most PR folks seem to disagree. : ) Thanks!

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  • BxBrah

    Public Relations as Bernays envisioned it and practiced it is not a function of marketing, and Bernays’ work was not marketing, quite the opposite indeed. Marketing and advertising are tools of thoroughgoing PR. However, PR today unfortunately has conveniently forgotten much of what Bernays taught us. I personally look down condescendingly at marketing and advertising as the least sophisticated and most self-satisfied of persuasive technologies.

    However, I totally agree that PR has been in a century long identity crisis, though I think marketing and advertising are not exempt from it either by any means, and I think that the source of said crisis goes back to the first definition of public relations by Bernays. The obsession with attitudes and measuring attitudes and changing attitudes has relegated PR and marketing and advertising as pseudo-science at best. Attitudes are hypothetical constructs that cannot be measured simply by asking people about them in surveys and focus groups. Furthermore, attitudes are NOT reliable predictors of behavior. And let’s not kid ourselves gaiz, attitudes don’t keep the lights on and meet the payroll.

    [sidenote: I hate marketers and marketing. A 10% conversion rate is somehow an astonishing result in marketing. In my work, 10% effectiveness would be a disaster.]

  • Thanks for the dissent, however bizarre. Why pigeon hole people? Why hate a category of business professionals? You agreed with my premise. Would have been nice to leave it at that rather than ruin your comment with this ugliness. Of course I am (proudly) a marketer so it natuarally rankles me when a stranger comes on to my blog and says they hate me.

  • BxBrah

    Let me clarify. I don’t hate you personally. I’m assuming for whatever reason that you’re probably a decent person and a smart guy.

    But I loathe the general state of marketing and advertising, with few exceptions. I also loathe the state of public relations–my own discipline. None of these disciplines have much to be proud of, aside from a legacy of selling people shit of marginal value that they don’t really need and saturating the information economy with meaningless noise that’s turning human attention–the thing these efforts are arguably most dependent on–into an endangered species.

    Happy marketing.

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