Public relations: Call it what you want, but it is what it is

My Kent State PR prof pal Bill Sledzik could bring rationality and a sense of consructiveness to a gang bang.

Which is exactly what he did last week when he led a discussion on his blog about the Public Relations Society of America’s cockamamie attempt to use crowsourcing to redefine the term “public relations.”

The whole thing reminded me of one of the very first assignments I had when I was a cub reporter at Ragan Communications. Quiveringly, I had to call all the giants of the PR business—Denny Griswold, Harold Burson, Jack O’Dwyer, Chester Burger and even Ed Bernays himself, who was only about 143 at the time—to ask them their definitions of public relations, for a story for The Ragan Report.

They were all amazingly gracious about getting back to me—at the time I didn’t realize that PR people, if nothing else, do habitually get back to reporters—and their answers were so dull that even my tape recorder fell asleep. Relationships with publics, blahblahblah, mutually satisfactory, blahblahblah, two-way symetrical, yadayadayada.

Twenty years later, I can tell you my definition of PR: PR is good, PR is bad, PR is ineffective, PR is cunning, PR is fatuous, PR is wise, PR is publicity, PR is action, PR is sinister, PR is craven, PR is a dirty window, PR is useful, PR is a noble instinct and PR is a stinking excuse. With it you’re damned, without it you’re doomed.

PR is what it is—whatever it is—and it is all these things every day, all day and everywhere, in agencies and in communication departments and in practitioners’ hearts.

To “define” PR is to write a hopeful epitaph for your career.

Which is fine for a Sunday afternoon, but Monday morning, it’s back to selling brassieres, the best way you know how. —DM

Postscript: This is a cross-post from my personal blog, Writing Boots. When it appeared there earlier this week, Chicago speechwriter Dan Conley Tweeted, “PR is propaganda. Everybody knows it, why don’t we just own up to it? Now let me return to making newspeak.”

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