“What is…” Wednesday – What is Public Relations? Roger Friedensen’s Take

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This time next week, Abbie and I will be chock-full of all sorts of new PR ideas! We will also be experts on all things fabulous about Denver.

Why, you ask?

Because we’re both signed up for the 2012 Public Relations Society of America’s Western District Conference, a multi-day event focused on bettering our business and championing creativity.

In the weeks leading up to the event, several of the event’s presenters have been kind enough to provide guest blogs here on HMA Time, focused on answering one seemingly simple question: what is public relations?

Today, we are pleased to have Abbie’s Counselors Academy pal Roger M. Friedensen, APR, president and CEO of Forge Communications in North Carolina, who will teach us how to be better counselors to our clients and staff at the conference, on the hot seat.

So, Roger, what is public relations?


“So, what is it exactly that you do?”

How many times has each of us heard that after we’ve said “I work in public relations?” Far too many to count, I am sure. In fact, I actually gave up trying to answer that question from my parents. To their last days on this earth, I don’t think they ever quite understood my chosen career.

I know, I know. I should have followed my mother’s advice and become a doctor or a lawyer. I actually started college in pre-med before flaming out in a human anatomy course as a sophomore. Grade-wise, I did okay, but it was in that class I learned I would have to do an autopsy in medical school. An autopsy?? Uhhh, no. I just couldn’t stomach the thought of that. So when communication studies came along in my second year, I thought “Whoo-hoo! I’ve got it made!” Little did I know taking a scalpel to flesh quite possibly may have been the easier road. At the very least, my folks could have bragged about their son, the doctor, at dinner parties (“My son, the public relations consultant” never quite had the same ring…).

So what exactly is public relations?

After PRSA’s recent attempt to update the definition of PR for a world filled with the likes of Twitter, Vimeo and Pinterest (not to mention the Zuckernaut we call Facebook), the answer has become painfully obvious.

We don’t know.

Yep. That’s right. We haven’t a friggin’ clue. Thanks to a most excellent public relations program by PRSA that landed this initiative on the pages of The New York Times, most of Western civilization now knows our dirty little secret. We earn our living helping others tell their stories more effectively, but we suck at doing it for ourselves. And even if we could agree on a definition for PR, it’s likely we’d disagree on how to punctuate it. Our profession has so many components and such a wide diversity of practice areas, trying to define it is like “nailing Jell-O to a wall,” to quote my good friend, Mike Herman, APR, Fellow PRSA.

Was PRSA’s valiant effort a failure – a waste of time, energy and increasingly hard-to-get media coverage? My vote is no. While none of the three definitions the blue-ribbon committee offered up for a vote tripped my trigger (I have my own favorite – see below), I believe it was worth a shot. It was worth a shot because it got us thinking critically about what we do, where we fit and, most important, why we are here. Quite simply, we had to justify our existence.This exercise proved something to me. The more I tried to find a “new-and-improved” definition of PR (“Now with extra stain-fighting power!”), the more I heard a voice that said, “KISS, Roger, KISS.” Some people define KISS as “Keep it short and sweet.” I learned it as “Keep it simple, stupid.”

So what’s a KISS definition of PR? Try this on for size: “We use communications to help people solve problems and do better at what they want to do.”

Admittedly, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of a good old jargonized definition. And it doesn’t mention “engagement,” “conversation,” “community” or other such social media terms. But it does tell a story, and it does convey value. It shows we define our contribution in terms of whether we helped an individual or groups of individuals (organizations are people, too, right?). Moreover, it demonstrates we’re focused on an outcome that is both important and measurable. Did we help overcome a challenge so things turned out better? It’s also a great conversation starter. “You solve problems? Really? What kinds of problems? How do you do it? Can you give me some examples?” (Note to self: If you know how to solve problems, you will always have a job.)

Most important of all, though, it’s a definition that just about everyone – including clients, colleagues and even moms and dads – can understand.

Author’s note: As promised, here’s my favorite “official” definition of public relations courtesy of Drs. Larry Long and Vince Hazelton: “Public relations is a communication function of management through which organizations adapt to, alter or maintain their environment for the purpose of achieving organizational goals.”


Alison Bailin
Alison Bailin
Senior Account Executive Alison has a lot to say…about pretty much everything...all the time. From the current state of public relations to the social media impact on Shark Week to crisis communications in the sports world, Alison’s blogs are focused on “amusing through her PR musings,” and then some. Check out Alison's full bio

1 Comment

  1. Sometimes the unofficial definitions of things are more accurate than official terminology.

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