Public Reflections II: Definitions of the Past & Present

(Source: Max Borges Agency)

(Source: Max Borges Agency)

Looking back on my first blog post, I realize now that I may not have been entirely correct in my perception of PR.

As the overall definition of public relations has evolved, so has my own personal understanding of the field.

But first, a little history.

Public relations as a profession was born out of the need to manipulate public opinion. In the early days of public relations, various institutions that relied on public support- such as political forums and for-profit businesses- needed an advantage to compete for the limited favor of the general public.

The earliest PR practitioners may have been the Rhetoricians of Ancient Greece, whose job it was to “foster persuasive skills more than it was to determine if arguments and claims were true or false” (Lattimore et al, 2012).

Some time after the Greeks, the Roman Catholic Church created the Congregatio de Propaganda, or the Congregation for Propagating [the Faith], in the 17th century (Lattimore et al, 2012).

An important period in the development of the field of PR came about with the birth of America, founded on the cornerstone of the American Revolution. This makes sense… I mean, a new nation has a lot to prove. According to the fourth edition textbook of Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice, “the ratification of the U.S. Constitution… has been called ‘history’s finest public relations job.'” President Andrew Jackson, not particularly known for his public speaking skills or ability to sway the public to see his side of things, effectively hired the first ever presidential press secretary.

A century later, circus magnate P.T. Barnum solidified the importance of the infant PR industry with the success of his “cold calling” campaigns to local newspapers prior to his attractions arrival to various towns; this could be considered the grandfather of modern-day press releases (Lattimore et al, 2012).

With the foundation of the professional organization of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in 1947, the world became thirsty for a de facto definition: what, exactly, is public relations?

In 1982, the association adopted an “official” definition, that left much to be desired:

Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other (“PRSA’s Old Definition”).

In response to the call for a more updated definition, the PRSA opened the floor for debate in 2011; society executives asked the professionals and publics with vested interest to come up with and decide on a definition, to hopefully define public relations one and for all.

Over the course of a week, 927 potential definitions were submitted for consideration. This was narrowed down to 3 semi-finalists, which were discussed, commented, and expanded upon before voting finally commenced. The winner, with nearly 50 percent of the votes, was implemented as the current, official definition. According to the PRSA:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics (“What Is Public Relations?”).

Naturally, there were fans and critics on both sides of the fence concerning the new definition. PRSA defended the winning statement, claiming that defining public relations “is an ongoing process,” and that the new definition reflects that (Elliott, 2012).

I personally believe the definition is functional and sums up the field quite well; everything I’ve learned until his point substantiates it. We may never get even close to a universal definition for the elusive, mysterious, ever-changing enigma that is PR, but for now, it works if the majority agrees.



Lattimore, D., Baskin, O., Heiman, S., Toth, E., and Van Leuven, J. “The History of Public Relations.” Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice. 4th ed. N.p.: McGraw-Hill Education, 2012. 25-28. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. McGraw-Hill Education. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. Retrieved from

Elliott, Stuart. “Public Relations Defined, After an Energetic Public Discussion.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. Retrieved from

“PRSA’s Old Definition of Public Relations.” PRSA. Public Relations Society of America, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. Retrieved from

“What Is Public Relations? PRSA’s Widely Accepted Definition.” PRSA. Public Relations Society of America, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. Retrieved from